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The Gary Cooper western classic gets a high-def bump, but without its Deluxe Edition DVD bonuses, is it still worth the double-dip....?
Olive Films / 85 Minutes / 1952 / Unrated / Street Date: July 17, 2012
The story of High Noon is simple enough that there’s about one hundred ways to turn it into your allegory of choice. In fact, here’s a new one (wish me luck, I’m making this up as I go along).
Will Kane, the older, greyer, almost-retired sheriff played by Gary Cooper in an Oscar winning performance, is George W. Bush. Frank Miller, the outlaw coming into town on the noon train to murder Kane for past grievances, is Osama bin Laden (or broaden to taste). As you know, while Kane has spent years acting in what he considers the town’s best interest, in his hour of need with Miller on the way, everyone deserts him. Just like what Bush is experiencing now at the end of his second term. Judge Mettrick, who presided over Will’s marriage to Quaker Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) not sixty minutes earlier, packs up his things (including his American flag and scales of justice) and leaves Hadleyville. Mettrick, of course, is the United States judicial system, who’ve consistently ruled against George W. Bush’s pro-torture policies and hung him out to dry. At the local church, congregants are debating whether to get deputized to help Will fight Miller and his three accomplices who are waiting for the cold-blooded killer at Hadleyville station. While everyone acknowledges his contribution to making the town safe, the God fearing argue the flip side: a) the fight is between Frank and Will; b) Northern business interests will ignore the town if they think it’s violent; and, c) Will has a lot of nerve asking for civilian help when he’s paid to deal with this sort of problem. In my shaky little scenario, the churchgoers represent the Religious Right, who’ve started retreating into the background, unwilling to bolster Will’s fading influence.
So what have we learned from my little analogy? We’ve learned that my little analogy doesn’t work. In fact, I take back the first line of this review. Let’s go back to what film historians feel is the real story of High Noon. The movie was written by Carl Foreman, a Chicago-born World War II veteran who was once a member of the American Communist party. In the early ‘50s, while High Noon was in production, Foreman was being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, the heinous group of Congressional Commie hunters who sought to purge the country of the scourge of Communism. Foreman had abandoned the American Communist party ten years earlier after they stopped speaking to his interests and he had fought bravely in World War II. But no matter. Hauled in front of HUAC, Foreman refused to name names and he was blacklisted. Foreman moved to England where, like many other blacklisted screenwriters, he made a living writing under pseudonyms. Foreman earned an Oscar nomination for High Noon, and it’s now basically agreed upon that Will Kane represents Foreman, standing up for what he believes, when government (the judge), religion (the church) and the culture (the townsfolk), abandoned him.
Like so many so films from bygone eras, divorced from its original thematic purpose, the movie doesn’t hold up as well, so modern audiences must either dismiss it as a product of its time or appreciate it on a different level. The latter seems the more appropriate course. Still, it’s notable that instead of being the work of a former Communist, High Noon, with law and order disrespected and ignored and forced to fight the bad guys alone, becomes a more right wing statement. That’s why it’s ironic that John Wayne, who supported the blacklist, hated High Noon to the point where he starred in Rio Bravo as an answer to Foreman. Either way, the film, directed by Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity), is a pretty tight little number. It’s very well edited and the music is tense. The story unfolds almost in real time. It’s also very moralistic and doesn’t contain many of the elements that genre fans at that time expected. And that’s a good thing. I would imagine that Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven best mirrors High Noon’s effect in terms of what the audience expected from a Western and what they got. Now, it plays more like a dusty fairy tale: simple on the outside, more complicated on the inside. Even if those complications are lost without knowing something about Foreman’s life and career.
While my level of entertainment wasn’t commensurate with what’s expected of a classic, Dan liked it a lot. And since I feel moderately guilty not gushing over the film, I thought I’d throw in his take, which is reprinted from his 2002 review of a previous edition of the High Noon DVD.
Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is the chief lawman in Hadleyville, New Mexico, where he feels appreciated and respected. He's about to be disappointed by his neighbors and friends when a crisis puts him at risk. Kane had arrested a murderer, a nasty gunman by the name of Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald). Miller was sentenced to death by hanging, but inexplicably, Northern officials first commuted his sentence to life, then unexpectedly pardoned him. Three of Miller's henchmen - Jack Colby (Lee Van Cleef), James Pierce (Robert Wilke), and brother Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley) - have ridden into town and are waiting at the station for Miller to arrive on the noon train. Miller had sworn revenge from the witness stand; now he's on his way for the inevitable showdown. Kane is told he's in danger moments after he's wed Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). He was scheduled to retire on his wedding day and some responsible townspeople encourage him to flee, but his sense of responsibility and the knowledge that Miller would simply track him down compel him to stay. Amy is not pleased.
Kane is outgunned four to one; he needs help. He can't count on his Deputy Marshal, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges); he resents his boss. Kane hadn't recommended him for the position of Marshal, and the insecure Pell feels that he's standing in Kane's shadow as he romances Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), Kane's ex-lover. Kane is forced to appeal to the citizens, but they're fearful and won't back their marshal. Amy is a Quaker, dedicated to peace and nonviolence; she implores him to go, but no amount of persuasion will keep Kane from facing his foes.
So simple is this premise that you might not expect it to sustain a film that runs almost an hour and a half. Yet, thanks to a fine screenplay and Fred Zinnemann's compelling direction, structuring the film to run very close to real-time, this western stands out as one of the best of the genre. Gary Cooper is superb as the laconic but steadfast marshal. Grace Kelly projects a screen presence in this first featured role that will make her a star. Lloyd Bridges is very fine in a dramatic role; we see a depth that extends beyond what we've come to expect of him based on the roles he took late in his career. And a fine supporting cast never pulls us from our willing suspension of disbelief.