Film review: High Noon (1952)


A couple of days ago I watched once again this classic western. It is one of the few films that I have watched more than once and it still grips me. It is a western but has little action, its fascination lying in the human drama. For those few who have not seen the film, the entire action takes place in almost real time. It stars Gary Cooper as marshal Will Kane who has cleaned up a western town. At 10:30 am one morning he gets married to Amy Fowler (played by Grace Kelly), a Quaker, and following he ceremony he gives up his badge in order to accommodate his pacifist wife and leave town and start a new life elsewhere as a shopkeeper.

But just as he is about to leave comes word that Frank Miller, a killer whom he had caught and had been sentenced to death, has been pardoned and is coming back on the noon train to join with his gang of three others to seek revenge on Kane. Kane is urged to leave quickly by his wife and the town folk who refuse to join him in defying the Miller gang. But Kane decides he must stay and face his nemesis.

For a western, the film has little violence and its tension comes from Kane trying and failing to get support from the cowardly citizens, despite all he had done for their town and who had been praising him just moments before. Many of the scenes are distant shots of Kane walking through the deserted streets, emphasizing his aloneness. I have written before about how this film was partly allegorical, with the Miller gang representing the House Un-American Activities Committee and senator Joseph McCarthy in the US Senate with its witch hunts and blacklisting of people while the general public was largely apathetic. This point was made when Kane complains to his mentor the retired marshal that not a single person has come forward to help him. The old man (played by Lon Chaney) replies, “People got to talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep, they don’t care. They just don’t care.”

The film itself was later used by anti-communists as a sign of how Hollywood was pro-communist and right-wingers like John Wayne and Howard Hawks made the film Rio Bravo as a counterpoint.

One thing about seeing a film multiple times is that one sees new things that one misses the first time around. What stuck me was the paucity of background information about the Grace Kelly character. The film spends some time giving the backstory of Kane and Miller but none at all as to how Kane met his much younger bride. She has no family, knows no one but Kane, and no one seems to know her. It is as if she had been dropped into the town by aliens. It is clear that she has knows nothing about even Kane’s recent past nor about the town and its people, and she is unaware that just a year earlier Kane had been having a relationship with a store owner played by Katy Jurado who gives a stellar performance, even overshadowing Kelly.

But this lack of background does not matter and filling it in would likely have taken away from the tightness of the pacing and the need to compress all the action into the 85 minutes run time of the film. The ending, especially the silent final moments, make a wonderful statement. Through much of the film, we see close-ups of Cooper’s face and eyes and with those he conveys all that he needs to, without many words. It is no wonder that he got an Oscar for it.

If you have never seen this film, you should. As has been said, this is a western for people who don’t like westerns.

Here’s the trailer.

Oddly enough, the trailer has barely a trace of the famous theme song. This may be because there is a legend that the film’s music was re-scored by Dimitri Tiomkin and the song added after filming (and the trailer) was completed. Here is a series of stills from the film accompanied by Tex Ritter singing the theme song.

I found it hard to believe that they actually remade the film for TV in 2000. I do not understand remaking films where the original was so good and so loved. You can only look worse by comparison. Surely you should only remake bad films because you think it could be done much better?

After watching it, I recalled that Mad Magazine had a wonderful parody Hah! Noon! that I had read as a boy and was delighted to find it on the web. It takes the strengths of the film (Kane’s quiet bravery and the ballad by Ritter that runs through the film) and flips them around, making Kane into a coward and the song and singer intrusive and obnoxious.

Comments

  1. says

    People who refuse to watch a movie because of its genre (or if it’s black and white or if it’s not in English) are doing themselves no favours. There should only be one criterion – is it good?

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    A few of the Westerns I love; Stagecoach (1939), Shane, The Big Country (love that music!), Fort Apache, The Ox-Bow Incident.

    If you have never seen this film, you should. As has been said, this is a western for people who don’t like westerns.

    I’d definitely say the same about The Ox-Bow Incident.

  3. DonDueed says

    I’d add The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to the list of great Westerns.

    Oddly, the song of the same title is not in the film – maybe it was inspired by the movie rather than written for the movie.

  4. mnb0 says

    Take a close look at the bandit at the left. About 15 years later he would star in two other westerns that are counterpoints not only to High Noon, but also to Rio Bravo.
    High Noon is pretty good, but also predictable. That Kelly got overshadowed is not surprising; her character was uninteresting.
    But maybe it’s because I like several westerns very much (one of the two I referred to above belongs to my all time favourites) that High Noon didn’t impress me as much as it is supposed to do.
    To honour that bandit I offer this commercial:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOeXpehHnFI

    The beer doesn’t taste very good though.

  5. mrmorse says

    A comment about the score: All of the music is derived from the songs linked above, and it is also nearly continuous during the movie. Some movies use music intermittently, and others have a soundtrack all the way through, and this is in the second category.

    Until two or three minutes before noon, when the music stops. I find the lack of music at that point provokes a deep anxiety, well beyond the tension of the events on screen. Silence in this case is an example of extremely effective musical scoring.

  6. Trickster Goddess says

    It has been a while since I’ve seen the film, but I recall being very disappointed by the plot. Miller had been pardoned and so far had not broken any laws, so there was no reason for Kane to confront him. Miller’s only goal was to take revenge on Kane, so if he was no longer in the town there would be no impending crime or violence.

    If Kane had taken his wife’s advice and left right away, there would have been no reason for Miller to bother with the town. Instead, Kane obstinately sticks around to defend his manhood (wouldn’t want to be perceived as a coward) and puts the whole town at risk by trying to drag the townsfolk into risking their lives just to defend his honour.

    As a non-USAmerican watching it a couple of generations after it was made, I thought it was a rather stupid movie (acting and filmmaking quality notwithstanding.)

  7. lorn says

    +1 for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

    The spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood are good, if a bit formulaic. Outlaw Josey Wales is one which stands up to repeat viewing. The Good, the bad, and the Ugly is complex enough to see again. Funny how I think of Eastwood when I think of westerns. I know there are a lot of good westerns that didn’t have Eastwood but, for some reason, none leap to mind.

    Eastwood’s later westerns Pale Rider and Unforgiven are pretty good, in part because he lets some of the not so heroic historic reality peek through.

    Westerns, stories about a culture which largely never existed. It was largely a creation of dime novels and wild west shows which created the myth to bring in an audience. Face-to-face gun fights, a staple of the genre, were so rare as to be almost entirely fictional. Most gun fighters were practical and tended to shot opponents in the back as they stumbled out of the saloon, or whore house, drunk. One famous gun fighter preferred to kill rivals from several hundred yards away, with a buffalo rifle. It was considered honorable to have simply outlived your rival. Not taking chances meant you lived longer. What there was of the storied wild west culture happened in the short time between the Civil war and 1900. It was all over in 35 or 40 years. After1900 there was no open range left, railroads and the telegraph had eliminated anonymity and brought civilization.

  8. Bob Becker says

    Among my top westerns is the rarely “The Unforgiven.” (Not “Unforgiven,” but “The Unforgiven.”) And the rarely recalled “The Stalking Moon.”

    “High Noon” too. Found it interesting that, in the final scene, as Kane drops his star in the dirt, he accepts help, however slight, from the young boy who was the only male willing to stand by him in the fight (the kid brings the buggy round that Coooer & Kelly, the only other to help him, ride off in). A nice small touch I thought.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Trickster,

    The film addresses your point when Kane says that Miller would follow him wherever he goes and that running away would only delay the inevitable. Of course, the fact that he would be seen as a coward also weighed heavily on him, something that seemed to be more important in those days, at least according to the westerns.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    I do not understand remaking films where the original was so good and so loved

    It’s usually either massive egotistical hubris (see the Stallone remake of “Get Carter” or Gus van Sant’s “Psycho”, or preferably don’t see them. DEFINITELY don’t see what Tim Burton did to “Planet of the Apes”) or simply about money (see Sony remaking Spiderman’s origin story a scant ten years after the perfectly serviceable original).

    I suspect the High Noon remake was the latter.

  11. Mano Singham says

    Gus van Sant’s Psycho is particularly mystifying. As far as I am aware, he simply remade the film shot-for-shot. What exactly was the point? I can at least understand a re-imaging of the original. But creating a clone with different actors?

  12. Friendly says

    Many of the scenes are distant shots of Kane walking through the deserted streets, empathizing his aloneness.

    I think you mean “emphasizing his aloneness,” Mano.

  13. Friendly says

    Westerns, stories about a culture which largely never existed. It was largely a creation of dime novels and wild west shows which created the myth to bring in an audience. Face-to-face gun fights, a staple of the genre, were so rare as to be almost entirely fictional. Most gun fighters were practical and tended to shot opponents in the back as they stumbled out of the saloon, or whore house, drunk. One famous gun fighter preferred to kill rivals from several hundred yards away, with a buffalo rifle. It was considered honorable to have simply outlived your rival. Not taking chances meant you lived longer.

    While all this is true, there were quite a few violent and confrontational gunfights during the era. The Gunfight at Hide Park (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunfight_at_Hide_Park), for one, was both tragic and bizarre and I’m amazed that nobody’s made so much as a TV-movie about it that I know of (although the Lincoln County War has a lot more story to make a movie out of).

  14. flex says

    I sometimes wonder if the reason for re-makes isn’t because the director thinks they will do a better job, but because they want to experience the same process of their craft, and hopefully grow/learn/become better directors by re-creating a classic.

    What brought this idea to mind was an excellent short-story by Borges called “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. The short story is a review of a work by the fictional author Pierre Menard who re-wrote Cervantes’ Don Quixote line-for-line in the original 17th century Spanish. There is no difference in the text between Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Menard’s. But because Menard wrote the work three centuries later, the meaning of the text is different and needs to be read in light of the events which occurred within those three centuries.

    Similarly, a Psycho created in 1998, even if scene-for-scene identical to the one in 1960, has to be viewed in the context of the changes to the world in those 30 years.

    Which gives two possible reasons for re-creating a film. The director felt that the same story would have important additional meanings in today’s society, or that the director felt that re-producing a work would allow the director to become a better director.

    Mind you, in order to attract backing for such a movie, the producer has to be convinced that it will be released and will make them a profit. So a director simply wanting to make a movie strictly to learn something is unlikely to get a producer to back them. So even if that was the director’s motivation, we still will see released to the public.

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