I’ve opined in the past on here about films that have been deemed “classics” over the years that I feel are undeserving of that title. Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey are arguably the two most high-profile films I’ve dubbed as being over-rated throughout this last year, but there are plenty of other films from the pre-1980’s era whose legend I have never been able to fully appreciate. As a matter of fact, when it comes to pre-1970’s dramas, only foreign films from masters like Kurosawa, Fellini, and Bergman have really been able to impress me as our American body of work seems too “safe” and conventional by modern standards. Isn’t it exciting then when you finally watch movies that are deserving of the legend that surrounds them? 1952’s High Noon is always brought up in conversations for “the greatest Western of all time” and while I may still feel as if that award should go to Unforgiven (and if books/TV are permitted in the discussion, then Lonesome Dove), High Noon remains a refreshing and (remarkably still) radical take on the most American of film genres.
On the day that he has married his young bride Amy (Grace Kelly in her film debut) and is set to retire and move away, Marshall Will Kane (Oscar winning Gary Cooper) faces the unexpected return of notorious criminal Frank Miller (Ian McDonald) on the noon train. As Frank’s friends and fellow outlaws (including a young Lee Van Cleef) wait at the train depot for Frank’s arrival, Kane tries to find a group of deputies to help him keep his town safe one last time. Taking place almost entirely in real time (with constant shots of clocks to remind how close it is til noon), we spend Kane’s last hour or so in town as slowly but surely, the cowardly residents he had spent his life protecting begin to turn their back on him. Whether it’s his top deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), a smooth-tongued politician, a gung-ho glory hound who chickens when he realizes it would be just him and Kane, or any of the other men in town who are too afraid to put up a fight, it quickly becomes apparent that it will just be Kane versus Frank Miller and his men. As the clock rushes down to high noon, will Kane turn tell and run like everyone in town (including his wife) begs him or will he stay and fight (and most likely die) to be the hero this town doesn’t even deserve.
It’s really hard to even begin discussing the technical brilliance of this movie. At a time when black and white was just starting to lose its hold over mainstream cinema, High Noon remains one of the most gorgeously shot films in history. Every shadow and play of light was intentionally staged for ultimate dramatic effect. Whether we’re speaking about gritty close-ups of the bad guys at the train station or the long aerial shots of Gary Cooper striding alone through town, each shot was set up to perfection. The film’s editing was a marvel and at a mere hour and a half running time, High Noon remains one of the best Hollywood examples of delivering an intellectually and emotionally satisfying story in an efficient length. With plenty of great dramatic cuts back and forth between people and locations in this small town, the camera never stayed stationary for too long, and while this is certainly not the most fast-paced Western ever made (it’s arguably one of the slowest), people who appreciate the ins and outs of movie making can get lost in the craftsmanship on display here while still appreciating one of the most impressively psychological and suspenseful Westerns ever made.
Gary Cooper won the second Oscar of his illustrious career for this movie (the other was Sergeant York), and it’s very easy to see why. Will Kane may not necessarily be the most complex part for an actor. He’s an almost archetypical heroic Western lawman. As far as one can surmise from the movie (having not read the short story the film is based on), he was virtually without flaws. So, it says something about Cooper’s performance that such a flat character as Will Kane can be so emotionally engaging. Like a hero out of an ancient Greek morality play, Will is this force for good in a town where no one else is willing to do what’s right. Gary Cooper seems to embody the classic leading man virtues and heroic strengths while at the same time letting us see into those moments when Will is starting to doubt if this road is the right one. And as it begins to dawn on Will that no one else in this town is going to support him, Kane’s heartbreak and frustration is etched on every single line of Gary Cooper’s face. Gary Cooper’s performance in this film is perhaps the prime example of great acting transforming an otherwise average character.
Unlike most Westerns out there, High Noon avoids the normal conventions of cowboys versus indians, man against nature, or even the genre staple of regular action sequences. The film does end with one of the most satisfying shoot-outs in the genre, but the ending works because you spent the rest of the movie waiting for all hell to break loose. When the criminals finally come striding into town, you care more about what happens to Will Kane (and the inevitable fates of his foes) because you saw every desperate second of the build-up to this fight. There is only one action sequence in the movie (unless you count a fist fight between Will and Harvey), and that is okay because the film has made it such a sweet payoff. After watching this whole town turn its back on Will and yet he manages to bear this burden even when he could have easily skipped town and no one would have blamed him, there is a catharsis that one bland gunfight after another would never have been able to provide. The film has a very deliberate ethical and moral message that it wants to make, and while I usually find such moralizing in “classic” films stale and boring, the film wisely lets you understand why the men of the town wouldn’t want to go on the same suicide mission that Will has chosen to undertake and therefore it manages to not come off as too preachy.
For fans of Westerns, this is one of the seminal entries in the genre (along with others such as The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven, andThe Searchers), and if you’ve managed not to see this classic deserving of the name, you need to make it a top priority. Even for non-fans of the Western genre, this film does away with so much of the bloated action, excess that bogs so many of those films down (and that results in them being guilty pleasures of mine rather than films I can celebrate enjoying) that you, too may find something to appreciate in this brilliant work of popular fiction. The fact that this film lost to The Greatest Show on Earth (the worst film to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars) for Best Picture remains one of the greatest crimes of the Academy Awards. As a Western fan, this is one of the movies that reminds me why I fell in love with the genre in the first place and there aren’t many movies in this realm of cinema that can come close to topping its delights.
Final Score: A