17 August 2008

High Noon (1952)

d. Fred Zinnemann / USA / 85 mins.

Numerous sources report High Noon is the most requested film to be shown in the private movie theater of the White House. Dwight Eisenhower, who won the presidency the same year the film premiered, saw it three times, and Bill Clinton claims it to be his all-time favorite, screening it at least twenty times and recommending it, for better or worse, to George W. Bush.

It's an interesting fact, yet not at all surprising. What president hasn't presumably fantasized about having a Will Kane moment – the heroic point when everyone you'd known to be loyal fades away, leaving you to hold your ground alone, wearing your honor and your duty on your sleeve, and standing up for what you think is the righteous way of life? In any event, I'm sure part of the frequent screening of High Noon is that it's a man's-man movie, one I'm sure press secretaries love to associate with their bosses.

Fred Zinnemann's High Noon frequently ranks alongside John Ford's The Searchers as one of the best American westerns. The two are always interesting choices because they are such atypical contributions to the genre. Ford's film sprawls like a mesa across moral lines, imbuing in its hero an unbecoming and complicated racism that takes an entire film (if that) to resolve psychologically. Zinnemann's film contains relatively little action and unfolds slowly, appealing to the viewer's mental and emotional elements rather than feeding us intense action sequences. Coincidentally enough, my feelings about both films are similar – they're each good in their own right and are undoubtedly valuable to the culture (with the phrase "high noon" now commonly used to describe an historic showdown) and both films, while good, fail to raise my pulse significantly beyond the standard level of enjoyment.

The aforementioned Kane (Gary Cooper) is the town marshal, freshly married to a lovely Quaker woman (the first big role for Grace Kelly). Kane has to put his retirement on hold when a convict he put away is said to be coming back to town. The townspeople quivers while they wait for the ex-con to arrive, and one by one they rebuff Kane's attempt to form a posse and face the criminal. The film unfolds in virtual real time, which is at certain moments quite boring but also not as boring as you might imagine. Although High Noon has a gunfight in its final moments, the real action is the person-to-person kind, as Kane tries to recruit others to help him only to find his former support dissipating. If the ostensible bad guy is the ex-con come back for vengeance, then the real antagonist is Kane's callow ex-deputy, played by Lloyd Bridges.

High Noon is often cited as a liberal western in an age of the genre's strapping right-of-center conservatism. Screenwriter Carl Foreman admitted it was written in response to McCarthyism. John Wayne loathed it, telling Playboy it was "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life." (But he stared in The Conqueror!) In one of the staunchest screw-you's in Hollywood history, Wayne aided in getting Foreman on the blacklist and never regretted it.

Today it seems like a bold move to tackle McCarthyism in the masculine genre of the Hollywood western; science fiction had always been a more appropriate venue, as Sen. Joseph McCarthy himself was something of alien to the human race. Yet isn't it surprising how the film is still liked by audiences on both sides of the political spectrum? The reason is, I think, that High Noon can be about something as blatant as the blacklist while still appealing to the character traits we admire in anyone, regardless of philosophy: duty, honor, courage, and yes, even loyalty. Foreman and Wayne can argue in the afterlife over the film's politics, but here on Earth let me say, despite some awkward pacing problems, High Noon is a good and intelligent western and must-see for anyone.


MovieMan0283 18 August, 2008  

I think Gary Cooper was a friendly witness, so the the film's anti-McCarthy credentials might be more ambiguous than Foreman intended. As with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it could even be read as an anti-communist screed, with liberal America sticking its head in the sand while the true hero faces up to the commies who are threatening the community which would rather ignore them. Certainly On the Waterfront, a film with a similar plot device to High Noon, was intended this way.

Interesting that you respond similarly to High Noon and The Searchers - I think for a while the latter film was celebrated at almost an underground level (though Buddy Holly did adopt John Wayne's catch phrase for his song "That'll Be the Day"). Only in the 70s did it become a standard classic, while all that while High Noon was an above-ground certified "masterpiece," resented by some film buffs as middlebrow and tepid compared to The Searchers. I like both, but definitely prefer Ford's film.


T.S. 18 August, 2008  

MovieMan - So true what you've written about how the anti-communist/pro-free-association tension works in High Noon. We only have Foreman's official declaration regarding his script, but the hallmark of any good film (and good audience member) is the ability to see the inherent complexities of it has portraying, sometimes inadvertently, both sides of an issue. And of course the ironic aspect of the Red Scare was that both sides saw themselves as crusaders, standing up against evil (either the far-left communists in Europe or the far-right zealots in America trying to "weed out" communists).

I agree ultimately with you, too, that The Searchers is a superior film, although you'll see later this week that the star rating on both The Searchers and High Noon is the same. I've long struggled to reconcile my feelings of The Searchers with mainstream westerns. It is interesting that, despite their different ways of reaching the status of "preeminent western" in the United States, they both stand outside the circled wagons of the western genre. There are cowboys in the west, but fundamentally they are different. It's a greater compliment to Ford, who was able to perform that task with so many of his films.

MovieMan0283 19 August, 2008  

Do you generally prefer other westerns to The Searchers, or is it a genre as a whole that sort of leaves you cold - or lukewarm?

T.S. 20 August, 2008  

I do admire the genre (I grew up in a house where westerns were always on television), and particularly Ford's work in it. My appreciation of The Searchers grows each time I see it. The same can be said for My Darling Clementine, which also seems to get better the more I watch it. But ultimately neither were films that were instantly likable for me, like Ford's Stagecoach or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Howard Hawks's Red River, William Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident, or George Stevens' Shane.

MovieMan0283 20 August, 2008  

Oddly enough, Stagecoach and Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were Ford films that didn't really click with me on initial viewings though the former has grown in my imagination since. At the time I saw Stagecoach I far preferred the darker, more ambiguous style of 40s and 50s films to the spry, lean studio pictures of the 30s. Since then I've really come to appreciate that clean, economical style and it deserves a revisit.

Have you seen Young Mr. Lincoln? Not a Western (a Midwestern I guess) but it may be my favorite Ford - that or The Searchers.

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