High Noon was a film that stood high on my shame list for having not seen, particularly considering that it was perhaps the most often recommended western, when I did my initial search and planning for viewings, not to mention being one of the highest ranking westerns on the greatest films of all time lists, usually breaking into top fifty in many cases. In fact, at #27 it is the highest ranking western on the AFI Top 100 movies list, which is a respectable feat, considering the other worthy films it is beating out for the honor. I knew that I would enjoy this film some combination of Grace Kelly, Gary Cooper and Fred Zimmerman assured that this would be a great film and when I received my bluray from Netflix in the mail I was admittedly baffled by its relatively short runtime of eighty odd minutes a initial hesitation that was contradicted when I realized that this particular western is filmed in near real time, each even building within the course of a few hours and edited in such a way as to allow for the paranoia and nervousness of an impending shootout to tick away like the pendulums of the clocks that occupy the film continually. In fact, if I am to concede to The Furies being the best shot film in the entire month, then it goes without saying that High Noon will prove to be the most well-edited, between repeated shots to empty train tracks awaiting the arrival of the film's antagonist and the continual use of close-ups that quickly jump to empty chairs and desolate town streets drive the feeling of this film to another level, only aided by a maddening soundtrack. If all of the magnificent elements of the film's composition were not enough, High Noon proves to be one of the greater realizations of Cold War cinema, with perfect metaphors to the McCarthy Hearings, as well as a set of characters who possess a deep rooted fear of an impending crisis, one that causes them to be incredibly self-invovled and indifferent to law and justice in the face of their own survival. High Noon, again, does all of these things perfectly and in such a concise manner that it is hard not to completely adore this work, each shot being a vision of filmmaking whether casting an aura of over the ethereal Grace Kelley or feverishly capturing the piercing eyes of a very young Lee Van Cleef.
High Noon begins with a marriage between the aging Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and his younger Quaker wife Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). Their marriage is a point of happiness and joy for the town, who are proud to see their martial who has served them with great zeal and dedication discovering his own happiness, even if it is with a woman of a somewhat unusual religion. Yet, given the minutia of law rulings, Will's next marshall appointment will occur the following day, technically, leaving a gap of a day in which no law figure will be present within their New Mexican town. Normally, the event would be irrelevant since the town is stable and well-behaved, but the announcement that a man Will convicted named Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) has been pardoned and is returning to the town to exact his revenge changes his outlook and his initial promise to Amy to put down his badge immediately after their marriage. Will initially leaves hoping that the town will be fine when Frank arrives and cannot find his nemesis, although, Will's paranoia and concern for reprimanding those who have done wrong leads to his belief that returning to the town is inevitable, despite Amy's many requests that he just put his past forever behind him and begin their life together. When they return, it is discovered that Frank will arrive just before noon and with that news Amy tells Will that she will be leaving on the noon train herself, his decision to join is entirely his own. Frank, who attempts to recruit the help of his former townsfolk to no success, knows that his standing up to Frank is of a higher purpose than anything else and will set in course, in Will's grand vision, the entire state of law in the nation for decades to come. At first, Amy accepts his decision and leaves knowing that she can never pull the lawman from his past, yet when it is revealed that the entire town has bailed on Will, fearing for their lives, she returns as a form of emotional support, and eventually goes against her staunch religious beliefs to save her husband by firing a gun at one of Frank's posse. Will wins out in the end, but not without some physical injuries, ultimately, throwing down his badge in disgust, understanding that he has sacrificed himself far too long for an ungrateful town.
I know that the closing moments of this film would suggest something against the sort of out and out idealism of jingoistic nationhood that would influence cold war era cinema, particularly in the fifties and sixties, where a constant fear of nuclear fallout or a "red" invasion factored into every action, leading to government breeches of privacy and culture as they deemed fit to correct any message that might remotely suggest a support for communism. Of course, the unusual nature of High Noon is that it digs down to ask who is really sacrificing their lives and images in a war that is ostensibly non-combative. While most American's during the era spouted their disdain for Russia and a support for democracy, and, subsequently, capitalism, few were willing to standup and take action, only yelling and judging those around them, hoping to catch them in any at that could be deemed un-American. Extend this to what is perhaps America's most notorious case of censorship and othering in the McCarthy hearings and one can consider the value of law and justice, when it is used in a divisive and problematic way. The overly zealous and profusely misguided Joseph McCarthy took it upon himself to clean house on Hollywood and the arts in general, picking off any individual who even remotely envisioned something that was not wholly democratic. This did not fair well for Jewish-American's working in motion pictures, nor anyone who was from Europe. Fred Zimmerman, who was born in Vienna clearly had a frustrating experience with this ordeal and felt the willingness of his colleagues to betray others in the name of their own safety to be a complete destruction of all notions of justice and honesty, and High Noon, particularly, the character of Will exist to celebrate those who were willing to sacrifice their careers and personal advancement to call attention to the stupidity and absurdity involved in the entire set of McCarthy hearings. Beyond this, the film deals with the manner in which a paranoia of "invasion" led many to betray ideals of justice. The threat of Frank and his gang is somewhat inconceivable, much like the Russian invasion, therefore, the visions of destruction were blown out of proportion causing each family to wall itself off from its neighbors and entrench themselves in the belief that anybody going against the status quo to be trouble. The townsfolk see Will as trouble and, ultimately, betray him for their foolish attempts at safety. High Noon paints a picture of the Cold War ideology, arguably without realizing it, and uses the western to do so, much like Casablanca it is a film whose traditional execution manages to transcend its cinematic space and speak to a zeitgeist, even if one that is not fond to reflect upon, which perhaps helps to explain its seminal place in the history of American cinema.
Key Scene: Each cut to the empty train tracks is so heightened that when the train finally emerges in the shot it has a power almost equal to that of the Lumiere Brothers first use of a locomotive to challenge moviegoers assumptions about the possibilities of film.
Buy this now...on bluray of course.