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.