Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay: Carl Foreman
Based on a Magazine Story by: John W. Cunningham
Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Lon Chaney Jr. Lee Van Cleef, Ian MacDonald, Sheb Wooley, Robert J. Wilke
Running Time: 85 min
BBFC Certificate: U
High Noon was a film with a troubled production history and initial reception. Its writer, Carl Foreman, was called upon by HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) to admit to being a former member of the Communist Party and to ‘name names’ whilst he was working on the screenplay. He saw the story as a reflection of his treatment at the time and likely tweaked the script to work more closely as an allegory for what have often been dubbed the ‘McCarthy witch-hunts’ (named after Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was key in starting the anti-Communist trials). Foreman’s refusal to name names at his hearing lead to him being blacklisted by Hollywood. The studio making the film came under pressure to remove Foreman’s name from the credits and he was taken off as associated producer but managed to retain his writing credit. Surprisingly, the conservative anti-Communist Gary Cooper was one of the people that stood up for Foreman and helped keep his name on the film, not the writer’s old friend and business associate Stanley Kramer, who produced High Noon.
The film also reportedly had a poor test screening. One belief was that there was originally wall-to-wall music that didn’t go down well and the use of ‘Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’ throughout the film wasn’t popular. That changed after the song was released as a single and became a hit though. Some changes were made to the film after the screening too, but it’s unclear exactly what was changed. Lots of people have claimed responsibility for ‘saving it’.
Not all agree it was ‘saved’ though. Although High Noon is now considered a classic and was largely well-received, winning 4 Oscars, not everyone loved it back when it was released. The spectre of Foreman’s inclusion in the HUAC hearings are probably largely to do with this, with John Wayne, a key figure in Hollywood’s inclusion in the anti-Communist movement (and who was originally offered the lead role in High Noon), publicly denouncing the film. He called it “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life”. Howard Hawks went as far as to make another film, Rio Bravo, which starred John Wayne, in response to High Noon. Hawks said “I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help… That isn’t my idea of a good Western.” Quite a lot of western purists reportedly felt the same but, over the years, High Noon has become widely regarded as one of the greatest westerns ever made.
I loved it when I saw it back as a young teenager but I haven’t seen it since, so it didn’t take much to convince me to take up an offer to review this long-awaited Blu-ray release of High Noon in the UK, courtesy of Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series.
The film sees Gary Cooper play Will Kane, the marshal of the small town of Hadleyville, who has just handed in his badge after marrying the anti-violence Quaker Amy (Grace Kelly). Soon after this happy ceremony, Kane receives news that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a dangerous man that he had sent to prison years ago, has been released early and is due to arrive in town on the 12 o’clock train. Three of the villain’s goons (including a young Lee Van Cleef in his on-screen debut) are waiting at the station, so it’s clear they’re all heading into town to get revenge. Kane is first talked into fleeing with his new wife in tow but for several reasons, including the fact Miller would likely catch up to him and there would be no marshal in town until tomorrow to protect the town, Kane turns his carriage back to face his adversary.
Knowing he’d be outgunned by a group of much younger, fitter men, Kane goes around town trying to enlist a posse to help him drive out or possibly kill or arrest Miller. However, practically everybody seems either reluctant to help or unable to do so for whatever reason. As the titular time looms ever closer, Kane’s situation becomes ever more desperate. Also troubling his conscious is the fact that Amy has denounced his actions and has announced she will be leaving on the train Miller is coming in on unless he chooses not to stand and fight.
Reading that synopsis might make you baffled that anyone would claim Kane’s actions were “un-heroic”, with a lone man wanting to stand up against evil, despite little support from his friends and neighbours. However, audiences back then weren’t used to seeing a western hero that was so vulnerable. Foreman, director Fred Zinnemann and Cooper crafted a character that was human, not some invulnerable lump of granite that could sharp-shoot a dozen men at once. In one scene, Kane writes his last will and testament before possibly crying (though this is subtly implied as his face is hidden), showing that he presumes he will die and is scared about it. This was obviously too much for traditionalists who wanted the bland stereotype of what a male hero should be. The subsequent popularity of the film suggests most people were ready for a new era of hero though.
Cooper is superb in the role, despite being quite far down the list of original prospective leads, including Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Charlton Heston, as well as the aforementioned John Wayne. Like Clint Eastwood would become famous for in later years, Cooper does a lot with a little. Gestures are kept minimal, with subtle expressions and body language telling the story. Reportedly, Lloyd Bridges (who plays a key role in this film as Kane’s power-hungry deputy) first felt Cooper was delivering a weak performance when he started shooting, but when he saw what the star looked like on-screen when viewing the rushes, Bridges changed his mind. Cooper was aware of the camera and what it picked up, giving just the right amount rather than acting in a more theatrical, over-the-top style. He picked up his second Oscar here for his troubles.
High Noon is a wonderfully intelligent and thought-provoking film too. The reading of the film as an allegory for the anti-Communist witch-hunts can be clearly gleaned, with Kane standing in for Foreman and other accused people working in Hollywood. Miller and his crew are HUAC and their supporters. The townsfolk who won’t help Kane are the rest of Hollywood who turned their backs on their friends and colleagues either out of fear of being tarred with the same brush or other selfish reasons.
The film can be read in numerous ways though. In fact, it has conservative/right-wing supporters as well as left-leaning ones. A number of American presidents have even cited the film as a personal favourite, including Bill Clinton (who crops up in the special features) and Ronald Reagan. It’s a testament to the strength of Foreman’s script that it’s rich enough to be interpreted in so many different ways. John W. Cunningham, the author of the original short story on which the screenplay is based should not be forgotten either.
The female characters in the film are particularly strong too. Amy stands firm against her husband’s wishes quite early on, sticking to her religious beliefs. She also proves her worth later on in the film. It was only Kelly’s second feature film performance, but she does a fine job. Amy is not the only strong key female character in the film though. Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado) is a Mexican woman that owns a successful business in town and commands a lot of respect for the time, considering her race and sex. It’s suggested she had relationships with both Kane and Miller which may or may not be an important reason for the latter’s quest for revenge. She’s a no-nonsense character who is frank and strong against her male counterparts. Both Helen and Amy are a far cry from the feeble damsels in distress more common in westerns at the time.
High Noon doesn’t simply ride on the quality of its script and its performances though. Fred Zinnemann isn’t often cited as one of the great auteurs of cinema, but he directed a number of classics over his long career, including From Here to Eternity and The Day of the Jackal. People often think of High Noon as Foreman’s film due to the controversy surrounding his contribution, but Zinnemann does a fantastic job with the material.
Along with DOP Floyd Crosby and the production design team, Zinnemann gave the film a stripped-down, naturalistic look. He wanted it to have the feel of a newsreel, keeping the sky a washed-out grey and avoiding glorious landscape shots westerns were famous for. It doesn’t look dull though. Utilising a lot of deep-focus photography, there’s a great use of perspective and depth in-frame. This, alongside a dirtier, sweatier presentation of locations and characters, point towards the work of Sergio Leone. I’d be very surprised if the Italian director wasn’t a fan of High Noon and used it as a template for his style.
Zinnemann’s direction, Foreman’s writing and the editing of Elmo Williams all help contribute to possibly the film’s greatest strength though; its pacing and overall construction. Though not 100% accurate, everything plays out in near-enough real-time and the design of the film keeps it incredibly taut. Not a frame is wasted and the tension is drawn as tight as a drum despite a lack of action until the final reel. Regular shots of clocks (highlighted by Dimitri Tiomkin’s rhythmic music cues) and quick jumps over to Miller’s posse waiting for the train keep reminding us of what is to come. Many details of the characters’ backstories are kept unexplained too. This ambiguity aids the depth of the film whilst also trimming any unnecessary flab, streamlining the film to an incredible degree. Today’s blockbusters, obsessed with ‘origin stories’ should take note of this and see how thrilling a film can be when it maintains a sharp focus and short running time.
I should stop there though. I’m pretty sure this has grown to become my longest review of a single title. It’s a clear sign of how impressive High Noon truly is. It’s not simply one of the best westerns, it’s one of the greatest films ever made.
High Noon is out on 16th September on Blu-ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. It looks and sounds fantastic in HD. I couldn’t spot any issues.
You get a lot of special features added to the package too:
– 4K Digital Restoration
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
– Brand new and exclusive audio commentary by historian Glenn Frankel, author of High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic
– Brand new and exclusive audio commentary by western authority Stephen Prince
– New video interview with film historian Neil Sinyard, author of Fred Zinnemann: Films of Character and Conscience
– A 1969 audio interview with writer Carl Foreman from the National Film Theatre in London
– The Making of High Noon [22 mins] a documentary on the making of the film
– Inside High Noon [47 mins] and Behind High Noon [10 mins] two video pieces on the making and context of the film
– Theatrical Trailer
This list may not look long, but with 2 commentaries and the interview with Foreman, which runs along most of the film like a commentary, on top of an array of fairly lengthy featurettes, it’s an impressively substantial package.
Of the commentaries, I much preferred Prince’s track over Frankel’s. The latter spends too much time relating what’s happening on screen which is a pet peeve of mine. We’ve seen the film and don’t need to be reminded. That said, Frankel does make some interesting comparisons between what happens in the film and what happened to Foreman during the witch hunts. Prince, on the other hand, delivers a fast-paced and fascinating commentary crammed with interesting thoughts on and facts about the film.
The Foreman interview is very good too, allowing the writer to have his say about many aspects of his career. Sinyard, who’s always a reliable contributor, delivers yet another well-researched and thoughtful analysis of the film on top of this.
The three documentaries are decent too. ‘Behind High Noon’ and ‘Inside High Noon’ have a few too many family members contributing for my liking. I always find that practise odd as the children/spouses were rarely involved in the film in question other than perhaps visiting the set briefly, though some of them here are quite strong collaborators. Foreman’s son offers some interesting insights for instance. The longer ‘Inside High Noon’ is a decent featurette though that goes into reasonable depth about the film’s production and reception.
The Leonard Maltin hosted ‘Making of High Noon’ has more interviews with people actually involved in the production, including Kramer and Zimmerman, so is the stand-out featurette here. There are still a few children of cast/crew interviewed but only briefly and just the surprising famous ones, including David Crosby (son of DOP Floyd Crosby) and John Ritter (son of Tex Ritter, who sang the famous theme song).
The booklet is nice and hefty, featuring the usual handful of essays and reviews, but also ‘The Tin Star’ by John W. Cunningham – the original short story on which the film was based, a look at the ambiguities of time within the film, as well as a wonderfully acidic and satirical article by Carl Forman that takes aim at John Wayne.
So it’s a very fine package for a superb film.