Old Ass Movies: High Noon

By  · Published on January 16th, 2011

Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it.

This week, Old Ass Movies presents the story of a sheriff who was too proud to run, but also the story of one man who refused to give his home up to murderers and thieves.

It’s a western with a clock ticking constantly in the background, promising the carnage to come when the sun hits its highest point in the sky and one man has to take on four.

High Noon (1952)

Directed by: Fred Zinnemann

Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Ian MacDonald, Lloyd Bridges, Lon Chaney, and Henry Morgan

It’s not all that culturally important to watch High Noon. If it is, the argument would go something like this:

That’s fair, but the real reason to watch High Noon has nothing to do with the greater context of film appreciation or movie knowledge. The real reason to watch High Noon is that it’s a great damned movie.

Cooper plays Marshal Will Kane, a lawman who is hanging up his spurs and star to settle down (elsewhere) with new bride Amy (Grace Kelly). The plans are foiled when the town learns of the return of Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) – a vicious killer sent to the gallows by Kane who got off on a technicality and will be getting off the noon train to seek his revenge on the man who sent him up the river.

Kane is urged to leave town, and he does, but he turns back because 1) he doesn’t want to run and 2) he feels like it may put the town in danger. That second sentiment is returned with spit in his eye when he searches for compatriots to help him face down Miller and his gang. In a heartbreaking scene inside the church (where the symbolism is all too apparent), he pleads for someone to be deputized and fight alongside of him. The result is a mass of high praise for the man, but no one – not a single soul – willing to go out into the streets with him at noon.

So, being a man of true conviction (and true grit), he faces four murdering marauders alone. Somewhere in the distance, his wife is boarding a train to leave for safety and the security of her non-violent religious beliefs. All hope is lost. The hero is outgunned.

By looking at the cast list, there’s no need to go into detail about how great the acting is. These are all veterans and names that have lasted throughout history as icons. Although, Cooper’s veteran status upset some of the producers that felt he, at 50, was too old to play the lead with his co-star, Grace Kelly, being 22. Nowadays, it seems strange that producers (especially) would think it unrealistic for a 50-year-old to date someone fresh out of college.

On the surface, High Noon is a phenomenal western because it didn’t really need to be a western. It’s set in New Mexico Territory and there’s a sheriff, sure, but the setting could have been just about anywhere and Cooper could have played just about any style of lawman. There are no rousing horse chases, no sweeping vistas, and there’s very little in the way of fist-fighting or gun play. However, it’s a drama that promises violence to come and places the audience on the same inevitable track of fighting time that Kane feels (the movie takes place in real-time). The danger is shaped with expert writing so much so that you forget that there was never a bar fight and a posse was never rounded up.

In fact, the entire point of the film is that sometimes a posse refuses to form.

On a deeper level (if you’re looking for that sort of thing), it’s the story of a man who feels isolated for doing what’s right. He stands up to the deadly gang on behalf of the town, and the thanks he gets is dirt flown into his face as they high tail it to safety. It’s about a man wrestling with the love of his wife, and the ultimate disagreement between them. It’s also the story of a man fighting a life he wants to leave behind and trade for the love of that beautiful woman.

On an even deeper level (if you’re into that sort of thing), the film is an allegory about good people doing nothing in the face of evil. Screenwriter and producer Carl Foreman, though, meant it specifically to mirror the situation with the rising Red Scare and the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was called before the committee during production but refused to testify or name names, and was ultimately blacklisted by the studio system. The writer was forced to move to Europe to find work, but his movie lived on and eventually became one of the favorite films of Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton.

Oddly enough, while (that other cowboy) John Wayne called High Noon “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” the commie bastards of the Soviet Union blasted the film for being “a glorification of the individual.” Wayne made Rio Bravo as a response to High Noon’s perceived politics, but it’s unclear if the Soviet Union ever made its own movie-form rebuttal.

So maybe there is a cultural reason for seeing the movie. Maybe it can be seen as both completely American and completely un-American at the same time. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s a killer western featuring a tight story and a brave man who faces down evil because it’s his job and his duty.

Maybe it’s just a great movie.

Shun the modern and read more Old Ass Movies

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