More than perhaps any other genre, classic Western movies feel like they are historical artifacts – products of their time in just about every way. That’s certainly true of Fred Zinnemann’s iconic High Noon, which is an ode to the lone cowboy as protector. It’s the epitome of an underdog hero fighting back against the odds, soundtracked to the foreboding, mournful tune of Tex Ritter crooning the titular ballad.
That lone hero is Will Kane (Gary Cooper, in an Oscar-winning performance), who finds his last day as town Marshal, and indeed the day of his wedding to Amy (Grace Kelly), ruined by the news that a notorious criminal he once sent to hang has been pardoned and is on his way to the town. The villain’s acolytes have gathered at the station and are awaiting the train arriving at noon, triggering a race against time as Will aims to “raise a posse” of volunteers willing to stand with him when the bullets start to fly.
Western films often luxuriate in the passage of time – particularly the more epic ones – but economy is very much the order of the day when it comes to High Noon. The film unfolds in real-time over the course of the hour or so before the arrival of Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) and his murderous intentions. Cooper becomes increasingly haggard, frazzled and resigned to his fate as ally after ally refuses to help him in this particular endeavour. By the time a famous crane shot depicts him alone in the centre of a dusty street, loneliness has been established as the key theme.
Of course, that loneliness came with a side order of politics when it first arrived in 1952. Screenwriter Carl Foreman and producer Stanley Kramer both had left-wing political leanings and so High Noon has been discussed as an allegory for McCarthyism and, specifically, the process of blacklisting of alleged Communists in Hollywood during the time of the film’s production. Indeed, Foreman was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In that reading of the story, Cooper’s character is the alleged Communist and the townspeople are Hollywood, refusing to step up and protect him against a powerful, formidable foe.
At its heart, though, High Noon is a very simple story of a man forced to confront the demons of his past without any support. Notably, it’s his wife – played with wide-eyed energy by Kelly who, disappointingly, was almost 30 years younger than her on-screen husband – who does come to his aid in a final scene that, famously, made John Wayne – the original choice for Cooper’s role – rather angry, as well as the political subtext. Between Kelly’s character and Will’s determined former lover, Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), this is a surprisingly strong film for female characters, given its release date.
Unfortunately, when High Noon does wind its way towards its climax, it’s all a little disappointing. The shootout itself is a little leaden given the amount of build-up, particularly given the delightfully melodramatic hysteria of the way people talk about Miller, who ultimately proves to be something of a damp squib. High Noon certainly looks excellent in its new Blu-ray transfer and its status as a classic is already assured, but it’s more interesting today for its political context than for its straightforward entertainment value.
Dir: Fred Zinnemann
Scr: Carl Foreman
Cast: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges, Thomas Mitchell, Katy Jurado, Ian MacDonald, Lon Chaney Jr., Sheb Wooley, Harry Morgan, Otto Kruger
Prd: Stanley Kramer
DOP: Floyd Crosby
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Run time: 85 mins
High Noon is arriving on UK Blu-ray and DVD via Eureka Video on 16th September.