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Grade: AHigh Noon (1952)

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Stars: Cooper, Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges, Lon Cheney

Release Company: Republic Pictures

MPAA Rating: NR

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Gary Cooper: High Noon


High Noon
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"This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important."
Cynical Judge Percy Mettrick's quip about Hadleyville could have applied to the film High Noon itself, which on the surface seems to host the essential Western prototypes: unshaven bad guys, a pure hearted heroine, and a heroic good guy standing alone to defend the town's honor in a climactic shootout. Yet, Austrian born director Fred Zinnemann uniquely combines these archetypes to make a quintessential Western that transcends the genre and continues to stand tall fifty years later.

Certainly an aberration for its time, High Noon refrains from action sequences until an hour into the film and sticks with a washed out black and white "Mathew Brady" look when cloudy skies and Technicolor were in vogue. Atypically, the filmmakers emphasize character study over Western eye candy, achieving this more through close-ups and visuals than dialogue. Sometimes a man just has to do what he has to do, and to think that Zinnemann used "only" $750,000 during a 28 day shoot boggles the mind. That kind of pressure, combined with the proper inspiration and a great screenplay resulted in a true landmark—the best western ever filmed, a true work of art!

Literally the biggest element that makes the film work is Gary Cooper, who plays Hadleyville Sheriff Will Kane. Today regarded as an iconic western hero, Cooper's casting was considered risky in 1951. After two flops, Cooper potentially was box office poison and was too old for the part, being thirty years senior to leading actress cast as his wife, Grace Kelly. Hindsight makes those fears appear completely unfounded, since Cooper uses his maturity to great effect throughout—as the voice of experience contrasting with the self-centered immaturity of the various town folks. High Noon now stands as icon, and Cooper remains the symbol of the independent American man that stands alone against a formidable enemy -— a man of few words, but holding fast to a righteous moral code like an American samurai warrior.

In case you've hidden under a rock the past fifty years, the well known plot involves Kane and his new wife Amy, who learn immediately that three baddies (Sheb Wooley, Robert J. Wilke, Lee Van Cleef) are waiting just outside town for the noon train. And on that train rides the “Darth Vader” of the old gang, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), who has sworn to kill Kane upon his prison release. Trouble brews and bloody gunslinging is assured with Kane in town, so everyone urges the couple to escape into the open range.

Of course, heroes never run away from danger, even when afraid or newly married. So the inevitable is set up under Carl Foreman's tightly wound script and Zinnemann's insightful direction with three main elements: the static foreboding tracks destined to bring trouble to town, the clock that relentlessly counts down to noon in real time, and Kane's desperate struggle to roust a town posse to ward off the danger.

Ironically, the person that understands Kane the best is not his wife Amy, but Mexican businesswoman Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), who cuts to the core when explaining why she decides to leave town: "Kane will be a dead man in half an hour and nobody's gonna do anything about it. And when he dies, this town dies too." Helen herself is a unique character in Western film, and she forms a fascinating central position in the drama. Not only is she a rare Mexican woman cast as a town business leader (even though she must remain a silent partner in the respectable store), but she connects all the major characters together—once Frank Miller's woman, she moved on to Kane, and then on to Kane's deputy (Lloyd Bridges as Harvey Pell). Helen also forms an unlikely alliance with Kane's wife, who stubbornly stands by her pacifist Quaker convictions instead of by her man.

Of course, Amy's initial rebuff is the unkindest cut of all to Kane, amplifying Tex Ritter's lyrical theme: "Do not forsake me, Oh, my darling. . ." Various other townsfolk reject Kane for very human reasons that vary from fear to hostility, but Kane is also shaken when his longtime mentor instructs him about his cynical views of human nature and also urges him to get out of town: "The public doesn't give a damn about integrity. A town that won't defend itself deserves no help."

So Kane is destined to stand alone, and a legend is born. Foreman may have based his concept on the hysteria of his times and how he and many others would also stand alone during the McCarthy hearings (he and a number of others on the project would face black listing), but the story is universal and applies to any case where a person must stand on principle. Unless you are a jellyfish, you are likely to come to face your own Will Kane scenario—and will understand his own confused mix of fear, resentment, and resolve.

Despite its overall predictability, the pleasure rests with how the details are molded and how Gary Cooper holds the film together in his best role. Deceptively simple, High Noon stands up under multiple viewings. Since it was one of the films I often used for instruction, I've seen the film at least fifty times and took five years off from seeing it, but when I recently checked out the special edition DVD presentation, I found myself becoming engrossed once again into Kane's character and plight. There are always new pleasures to observe each time—from the beauty of the stark cinematography, to the rhythm and pace and juxtapositions of the editing, to the depth of the characters. The next time you watch, look very closely at Cooper during the classic final scene when he does his number in the dust and gazes at the townspeople in disgust—he briefly smiles privately at one person.

It's details like this that have me hooked and returning for more looks.

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