Director Fred Zinnemann’s film High Noon was made during the McCarthy era. Consequently, it has been invested with political significance way beyond the striking simplicity of its plot.
The allegorical claims that are made for it originated with its screenwriter Carl Foreman, a victim of the McCarthy witch hunt in Hollywood, who professed to see his script as an allegory of his own situation.
Fred Zinnemann denied this interpretation, considering it the story of a man driven to act in accordance with his own conscience, while conceding that the town in which the action takes place is “a symbol of democracy gone soft.”
The nature of the film’s message continues to challenge the film scholars, historians and critics who examine and analyse it, but in the annals of popular culture it remains a classic Western, one of the best of all time.
To legions of ordinary moviegoers, High Noon conjures the lasting image of Gary Cooper’s weary and reluctant hero, the young Grace Kelly’s ice-maiden beauty, Dimitri Tiomkin’s haunting theme song, Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling, and Floyd Crosby’s atmospheric black and white photography.
Carl Foreman based his screenplay on The Tin Star, a two-page magazine story. Played out in real time – the 90 minutes in which the incidents take place correspond to the 90-minute running-time of the film – denoted by Zinnemann’s artful use of a clock as a marker that contributes to the tension, the story begins 10:40 AM on a Sunday morning in the fictional frontier town of Hadleyville.
Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper), is at his own wedding reception, prior to retiring and leaving town to start life afresh with his young Quaker bride, Amy (Grace Kelly).
During the festivities, however, Kane is warned that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a murderer whom he had helped to convict, has been released from the penitentiary.
Miller is heading for Hadleyville to exact revenge by killing Kane and will arrive on the 12:00 noon train. Three of Miller’s old cohorts are already waiting at the otherwise deserted train depot to escort him into town for the fatal shoot-out.
Amy implores her new husband to leave town immediately but, determined to face out Miller and rid the town of the killer’s malign influence, he ignores her pleadings, and those of others, including Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), his former lover, who urges him to take his new bride and escape to safety.
For an hour, between 10:45 and 11:45, Kane attempts to drum up support from among the townspeople, but nobody is willing to stand by him.
A number of people begin to throw their belongings into wagons, preparing to leave town temporarily before the trouble starts at noon; even Kane’s deputy, resentful at having been passed over for the job in favour of a stranger, deserts him.
Amy, too, prepares to leave – on the same train that is bringing Miller to town – and, while waiting at the hotel, learns from the clerk that many inhabitants of Hadleyville would like to see Miller kill her husband because they want a return to the kind of town where saloons and gambling are allowed to flourish.
The noon train arrives on time. Frightened and alone, but wedded irrevocably to his own moral code, Kane makes out his will and prepares to face the gunmen, who ride into town. He ambushes one, and kills a second in a shoot-out.
Hearing the gunfire, Amy rushes to her husband’s aid, shoots another of Miller’s henchmen in the back, but is seized by Miller himself as a hostage.
During the struggle that ensues in her trying to free herself, Kane is able to shoot Miller dead. He throws his badge in the dust and rides out of the deserted town with his wife.
When High Noon was released it was not an immediate hit. In the strained climate of the times, that gesture of Kane’s – throwing away his badge – was interpreted by some as an insult to Federal authority and led to accusations of subversion.
As Zinnemann interpreted it, Kane’s action was simply intended as “a gesture of contempt for a craven community.”
The film captured the public imagination only gradually, but its excellence was recognized in the winning of four Academy Awards (music score, title song, editing, and best actor) and three nominations (picture, screenplay, and director), and over the years it came to gross several million dollars of profit.
While widely viewed as a “classic” Western, several commentators consider High Noon a realist Western, providing a documentary depiction of a place and its people that was undoubtedly representative of a hundred towns across the frontier during the 1870s.
It can also be read as a commentary on the genre itself, one that observes the classical unities of time and action. Some have even credited the film with inaugurating a new sub genre, the “adult western,” in its mature treatment of its otherwise familiar “good vs. evil” theme.
What cannot be denied, however, is that High Noon changed the Western genre by both streamlining and rethinking it as both an extension and a commentary upon the classic tradition.
As opposed to the ultimate redemption of townspeople in such later films as The Magnificent Seven, the citizens of Hadleyville are craven to the end.
This is, of course, in direct opposition to the mythology of the West, in which the venality of the common man is redeemed by a folk hero whose bravery in the face of overwhelming odds inspires them to rise above themselves for the common good.
On the other hand, the contradictory currents running through the town (development vs. frontier lawlessness) and the ambivalence of the citizens who, each for their own reasons, refuse to side with Kane can be taken to represent the currents of the American political climate in the 1950s.
This interpretation is underpinned by the deliberate vagueness of the town’s location and the film’s exact historical time period. Thus, on an allegorical level, Hadleyville could be any town at any point in history, where the common man falls prey to cowardice and fear, and the high moral courage of the few is severely tested.
The chronological symmetry of the film and the relentless progress of the ever-present clock not only helps create and maintain tension, but counterpoints Kane’s agonizingly slow progress in trying to recruit help and decide his course of action.
In its characterizations, the film offers an anti-mythological touch that sets it apart from most examples of the Western genre. Will Kane does not conform to the usual heroic figure that audiences of the 1950s had come to expect.
Both the character and the man who portrayed him are somewhat past their prime. Cooper, who was not in the best of health, appeared haggard and drawn, and conveyed an air of world weariness – precisely the quality that director Zinneman had in mind.
The female characters also depart from the female stereotype found in most Westerns.
Though both Helen and Amy are emotionally involved with Will and are diametrically opposed (Helen is a fiery Hispanic businesswoman, Amy a Nordically cool and devout Quaker pacifist), both are highly principled and intelligent and cannot be pigeonholed.
They are allowed to move the action forward by their principled stands, and are able to bond across racial lines while respecting their differences. Both survive the action and give strong evidence of strength and independence.
This was not only rare in traditional bound Westerns, but flew in the face of 1950s American social convention when women had not yet assumed positions of power.
In the opinion of many, High Noon has continued to stand head and shoulders above most frontier Westerns in its depiction of ethical conflicts and ideas that cannot be confined to one particular genre, place, or time, but which always seem to manifest themselves in their most elemental form in the Western.
The film has been credited as a significant influence on later Westerns, inspiring such thoughtful and revisionist films as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Wild Bunch (1969), High Plains Drifter (1973), The Shootist (1976), and Unforgiven (1992), all of which dealt with the ending of the Western way of life and the death of the six-gun mentality.
Sheriff Will Kane