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Thursday, May 24, 2018

High Noon (1952)

Three men gather on horseback in the open country. The soundtrack is a soft percussion, followed by a creamy voice singing, "Do not forsake me, oh my darlin', on this our wedding day." This is the opening of the iconic 1952 film, High Noon.

I've seen High Noon many times, but I decided to watch it again because I'm reading a book about the making of the film and its historical context, which I'll write about tomorrow. For now I'll just discuss the movie itself.

Gary Cooper is Will Kane, the marshal in a typical Old West town. He has just married Amy (Grace Kelly), and they are leaving town to open a store, as this is his last day as a lawman. But right after the ceremony he hears that Frank Miller, a vicious killer than he put in jail, has been pardoned and is on the noon train. Cooper, wrestling with his conscience, decides he must stay to defend the town. Kelly, a Quaker, doesn't understand why he just doesn't leave. He has a hard time describing it, but mostly it's his duty.

He expects to have a lot of deputies to help him, but he can't find any. His appointed deputy, Lloyd Bridges, is mad that he was passed over for the new marshal and quits. The judge who sent Miller up (a wonderful Otto Krueger) blithely packs his law books and says he will live to be a judge someplace else. The saloon is no help, as it has some of Miller's friends.

Next he tries the church (it's a Sunday morning), where the men debate whether they should help him. Overcome with cowardice, they say no. The mayor (Thomas Mitchell), who addressed the congregation by telling them that Will Kane made their town a decent place to live, betrays him saying gunfights in the street will turn away investment. He urges Cooper to leave town. Thus Cooper has been rebuffed by the law, the church, and commerce.

Miller is met by the three men from the opening at the depot, where Kelly is getting on the train to leave. Cooper is left all alone, best shown in a dazzling crane shot that pulls out from him to high in the sky, showing the empty street. He will take on four men, alone.

As I will discuss tomorrow, High Noon was not a typical Western. Those who don't like it could complain that it's simply Cooper running from one place to another to find deputies. The director, Fred Zinneman, said it wasn't really a Western--there are no spectacular vistas, no shootouts (until the end), no Indians, no cattle stampedes. He said it was a drama that just happened to take place in the Old West.

In fact, the writer Carl Foreman intended it as a parable for what was going on at the time in Hollywood--the blacklist. He saw parallels between the cowardice of the town and those who turned on their friends and named names at the HUAC committee. Some saw this immediately--John Wayne hated it and called it un-American.

But besides all that it's just a great picture. It is set in close to real time--the action of the film is the time it takes the story to play out. Zinneman ups the ante by frequent shots of clocks--they seem to be everywhere, and as the hands creep toward noon it amps up the suspense. He also includes one other recurring shot--the train tracks, stretching out toward the horizon, the tracks that will bring Frank Miller in to town.

The editor is Elmo Williams, and his work is exemplary (he won an Oscar for it). The best example of his work is when the clock strikes twelve. The train pulls in, its whistle blowing, and Williams quick cuts close-ups of all the principals. It's chilling.

Also wonderful is the music, by Dimitri Tiomkin. His score was revolutionary, as it wasn't the faux classical of most films of the type. The song "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'," is the motif running throughout the film (it's even played on the harmonica by one of Miller's thugs). It's still running through my head. He won two Oscars, for the score and the song (with lyrics by Ned Washington).

Also winning an Oscar was Cooper (his second). Producer Stanley Kramer thought he was too old for the part (he was 50, Kelly was 21) but his age actually enhanced the role, as the lines in his face were obvious and his gait was slowed (Cooper had a back injury). Kane is the embodiment of the Western hero--stoic and committed to the law. Cooper, who was not a trained actor, was parodied as a man who mostly said "yup," and "nope," and he doesn't say much in this film (he says seven words in the last ten minutes of the movie) but it fit Will Kane.

It was Kelly's first role, and if there's a flaw in the film it's her somewhat wooden performance. She was unhappy with her work, but it's not that bad--it just seems flat and uninspired. Far better is Katy Jurado as Miller and Kane's ex-lover, who runs the brothel and has triumphed over prejudice and sexism.

Tomorrow I'll write about the book, and the behind the scenes stuff.

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