Saturday, November 10, 2012

High Noon (1952) -- Fred Zinnemann

Will Kane's wedding day is about to be interrupted. Outlaw Frank Miller is out of prison and looking for revenge against the marshal who put him away for five years. Miller's brother and two followers wait at the depot for the noon train; and despite desperate efforts, Kane can't convince anyone to help. Even his new wife appears ready to abandon him. Compelled by conscience, Kane rejects the advice of everyone to get out of town before it's too late. He'll stay and face Miller, even if it's alone.

There's good reason this seminal Western maintains its status as one of the best of its genre after sixty years. Director Zinnemann's superb direction, its tight story line, and wonderful acting by Gary Cooper as Kane demonstrate the best of film. It opens with a scene that immediately creates suspense, making the audience wonder what's in store: as a lone cowboy waits on a hill we watch another come over a rise. They are soon joined by a third. A rough looking lot we know they are up to no good. Lee Van Cleef and Robert Wilke play two of the outlaws. Both would soon become familiar heavies to movie audiences.

Miller's gang waits for the noon train.
Zinnemann does a terrific job cutting between characters throughout the film. Here his camera darts back and forth from the riders and the wedding party in town. Later, he uses it even more effectively, showing closeups of all major characters as the train whistle announces Miller is about to arrive. Zinnemann knew how to use a camera. To emphasize Kane's predicament he includes a famous high-crane shot of the marshal looking vulnerable and alone on the empty street.

Zinnemann makes a smart choice to not show the outlaws as particularly menacing, leaving the threat to our imagination. There is one subtle moment when one breaks a store window to steal a woman's hat, which he stuffs under his belt. You know he intends on harassing some girl after the gunfight. In any case, it's enough that it's four against one.

Wonderfully paced, the action is in near real time, with frequent shots of clocks to let you know how soon the train will arrive. And Kane's face progressively shows more strain and desperation. The film editing won a deserved Academy Award.

The town is populated with familiar faces and the script gives many their moment to shine. Thomas Mitchell, a dependable character actor, is the mayor. A long-time friend of Kane's, he gives a nice speech in the church, but wants the marshal to leave rather than fight, foolishly believing Miller is no danger without Kane's presence. This is perhaps the film's best scene; most clearly demonstrating how people talk big, but when it comes to required action, urge others to take the risk. Real courage is a scarce commodity. These are the most upstanding members of the community, seemingly most invested in keeping the town safe. But they shirk any responsibility. One man says that's what they pay the marshal for.

It happens throughout the film, but Cooper's understated and subtle style of acting is on great display here as his disappointment shows on his face and in his voice.

Lon Chaney Jr., the former marshal and Kane's mentor is beaten down, gripped with arthritis and full of cynicism. Kane tries to elicit his help, but is told that it's not worth it:

Martin:You risk your skin catching killers and the juries turn them loose so they can come back and shoot at you again. If you're honest you're poor your whole life and in the end you wind up dying all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothing. For a tin star.

Kane is the ultimate hero, a man alone who acts on principle. That he decides to stay and face Miller and his gang in the face of long odds is admirable, if not welcomed by the cowardly townspeople. The judge echoes the former marshal, telling Kane "This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important." 
Look for long-time Western TV character actor Jack Elam as the town drunk, sleeping it off in jail. He gets one line of dialog, which is more than bad guy Van Cleef gets. Harry Morgan plays a cowardly friend who commands his wife to lie when Kane comes looking for assistance. 

It's easy to see why Grace Kelly became a star. More than a pretty face, though she is certainly that, she does a fine job as the Quaker girl that Kane marries. Her character is conflicted, but spirited. Opposed to violence of any kind, she is finally the only one to come to her husband's aid.

Grace Kelly as Amy Kane. 
Properly seen as allegory for the Hollywood blacklist, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther understood the underlying significance: "High Noon is a stinging comprehension of courage and cowardice, done with directness and momentum in a familiar Western frame. It bears a close relation to things that are happening in the world today, where people are being terrorized by bullies and surrendering their freedoms out of senselessness and fear." Among those attacked by Washington D.C. right-wing fanatics led by Eugene McCarthy was the film's writer, Carl Foreman.

This film should have won Best Picture, but lost to The Greatest Show on Earth, in a vote that today is commonly thought one of the worst injustices in Oscar history. Cooper won his second Best Actor award (the first being for Sergeant York 11 years earlier). He was fifty but looked older. Some critics rejected the age difference between husband and wife (Kelly was just 23), but it does not seem that outlandish given the period.

Gary Cooper as Will Kane.
In his career Zinnemann would garner 7 nominations for Best Director, winning twice, including the next year for From Here to Eternity. As much as I love John Ford, the winner in 1952 for The Quiet Man, Zinnemann's High Noon seems more deserving from a technical standpoint.

Dimitri Tiomkin won an Oscar for the music. Along with lyricist Ned Washington they wrote the theme, Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'. Tex Ritter provides the vocal.


  1. Will Kane is one of my all-time favorite film characters. Though High Noon is far from my favorite Gary Cooper film, it is my favorite of his roles (though Thomas Thorne of They Came to Cordura and Longfellow Deeds of Mr. Deeds Came to Town are close seconds). I loved Kane's willingness to do the right thing even if he was the only one doing it.

  2. Hi, Patti. I'm with you. This isn't my favorite Cooper film, though I like it a lot. I'm more partial to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, in part because of Jean Arthur, and Meet John Doe because of Stanwyck. But Cooper sure made a bunch of great films.

  3. I still can't believe this movie lost out to "The Greatest Show on Earth"! But thanks for a terrific review. I agree that the editing could not have been better.