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High Noon (1952)

Fred Zinnemann

USA

85 min, B&W, English

Review © 2004 Branislav L. Slantchev

It would be great to start off this review with the fake quote usually attributed to Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." I am usually put off by sloganeering, but that pithy saying does summarize the film's content admirably, even if the grand old British statesman never echoed the sentiment. Quite unlike most other Westerns I have seen, the good guy is mostly by himself, abandoned by those he risked his life to protect, and repudiated by the very community he helped to build. And for what?

The wedding... ...and the threat

High Noon unfolds in "real time" and tells a simple, yet compelling, story. (Incidentally, it is the perfect proof that Hollywood could deliver masterpieces when it set about to do it right.) Gary Cooper is Will Kane, the Hadleyville marshall who has just married the beautiful Amy (Grace Kelly). He is at the end of his term, and his replacement is expected to arrive the next day. The happy couple is about to leave for their honeymoon when three ominous troublemakers ride through town, and off to the railroad station.

Mrs Ramirez goads Deputy Pell Gratuitous shot of Grace Kelly

These guys will wait for the noon train, on which their boss, one Frank Miller, will arrive. Trouble is, Kane helped put Frank behind bars where he was supposed to hang until his sentence was commuted. So Frank is not back to wish the couple good luck. Kane has about one hour to assemble a posse to defend the town yet again from these banditos.

Amy threatens to leave Kane Kane warns Mrs Ramirez of the threat

Or so it would seem. After fleeing on impulse upon the urging of his friends, Kane decides to turn around and face Frank and his men. This despite the earnest insistence of his wife, who happens to be a Quaker and is therefore the ultimate pacifist. But nothing can deter him, not even her threat to leave on the noon train if he stays to fight. And why does he want to stay? The film's tagline is misleading: Kane does not stay because he is too proud to run. There is nothing about pride here, he stays because he feels it his duty to.

No help at the saloon No help at the church

As a marshall, he has sworn an oath to protect the town and its people. We are told that before he came, Frank used to lord it over Hadleyville, harassing women, cowing men into submission, and so on. But Kane put an end to that... until now. The town's problem is his problem, and even though there is an easy way out for him, he knows very well what Frank's return would mean to the townsfolk he's supposed to protect. Never mind that officially he is no longer in charge of their safety: the law does not reside in a badge.

Marshal Will Kane asks for help Troublemakers waiting for noon train

But where does law reside? Very quickly Kane finds out just why Frank was able to terrorize an entire town in the past. Nobody is willing to stand beside him and fight. Everyone has good reasons not to. This one has children, that one's career ambition has been thwarted; this one is a neglected ex-lover, that one does not want to die; this one is worried about the town's future, that one has arthritis and cannot shoot. The town is full of cowards, all with persuasive excuses to do nothing. There is no help at the saloon (where some are Frank's buddies), at the Church (where the Preacher blasts Kane for not attending regularly), at his friend's house (where the guy has his wife tell a bald-faced lie), or at his mentor's, the old marshall (where the cynic advises Kane that people have to think carefully before they act and that deep in their hearts they don't respect the law).

Misguided jealous confrontation Amy explains her Quaker faith

As the minutes trickle by, Kane realizes that he has been abandoned. No match for Frank and his men, out-gunned, but with resolve bordering on acceptance of his inevitable fate, he sits down to pen his last will and testament. The ink is not yet dry when the horn announces the arrival of the noon train. One of the most poignant scenes has Kane walk out in the deserted street, clearly afraid of the impending encounter, not knowing what to do with his hands, then slowly marching toward the coming bandits as the wind sweeps the barren landscape.

Deputy Pell tries to force Kane to leave Alone, with the clocks ticking

The film has an enviable reputation but not without attendant controversy. It is Bill Clinton's favorite (he reportedly saw it 17 times while at the White House, a record for the place even though each President has seen, and liked, it, with Ike even shouting advice to Kane), and it ranks high on National Review's list of great conservative films. It seems to embody the quintessential American virtue: standing tall and alone for right when everyone else runs for cover. (Parallels with current political situation on the international scene are easy to make.) In my book, this sort of hero transcends culture and time, but I will concede that there's something uniquely American in the resolution, the acknowledgement that sometimes one has to fight for what one believes in. Ironically, the morality of use of force under these circumstances seems lost on many young (modern? post-modern?) Americans as much as it was self-evident to their grand-parents.

Ready to take back the town The two women abandon Kane

It is perhaps astounding then that some would brand the film as Communist propaganda. The controversy probably began with screenwriter Carol Foreman's investigation for unAmerican activities. The fact that the director was an Austrian Jew probably did not help matters, and neither did the team's ill-concealed political allegory of the times: after all, the film can easily be read as a description of what was happening to good people hunted into ruin by Senator McCarthy and his ilk. being an anti-McCarthyist does not make one a Communist any more than being anti-Lenin would make one a democrat (Hitler hated Communism more than Churchill). Arguably, opposing McCarthy was in the long tradition of perservering individual liberty and dignity against government-mandated oppressive tests for "true patriotism" (Ashcrofts of the world, beware!), and as such eminently would qualify for yet another virtue traditionally associated with English liberalism and, by extension, American civic ideals.

Marching to face his doom Amy finds first result of shooting encounter

So, let's put the Communist nonsense to rest once and for all. If the filmmakers wanted to create a propagandistic film, they would have made Frank a railroad magnate who would have succeeded in stamping out any individual opposition to him (killing Kane) and then proceeded to oppress the town until its people spontaneously rose in revolt and overthrew him. Anyone who claims that High Noon is Communist propaganda obviously has no knowledge of what Communist ideals were like. The film celebrates the very rugged individualism that is so contrary to the communal spirit of the other orthodoxy.

The battle Amy has to make a decision

Not much has been said about Amy's role in all this. She apparently became a Quaker after her father and brother were killed trying to uphold the law. She does not care who's right and who's wrong: violence never solves anything, there must be a better way of resolving conflicts. She is thus not only a true pacifist, but also seems to echo modern sentiments about use of force. Many can probably relate to her stand, which is difficult to sustain and requires great conviction and moral courage. Contrast this with Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), who happens to be Kane's ex-lover. She is a fiery, independent Mexican woman who runs her own business and is not afraid of anything. She claims she would have stood by Kane if he were still her man, and she probably would have. But her devotion to him comes in no conflict with her own moral values. She does not face the struggle that Amy does. In the end, Amy's decision is guided by love (as the title ballad tells it, love shall overcome). It is not a repudiation of her pacifist ways---because one cannot honestly claim that she accepts that sometimes using violence can be moral---and it makes her a very traditional woman indeed: one who is prepared to sacrifice it all for her man.

Frank as the coward that he is The famous last scene

The final scene in the film has Kane drop his badge in disgust as the townspeople flock around him in disbelief about their miraculous rescue. Having discharged his duty toward people who are not worthy of his life, Kane leaves and no one picks up the star from the dust. One has to wonder whether he has made a difference. After all, there will be other Franks and there may be no other Kane in their future.

An excellent film, nicely crafted, marvelously shot, and superbly acted, High Noon is a true classic.

November 18, 2004