Directed Fred Zinnemann
Written by Carl Foreman (based on a John W. Cunningham story)
Starring: Gary Cooper, Lloyd Bridges, Thomas Mitchell, Katy Jurado, Grace Kelly, Harry Morgan, Lee Van Cleef, Harry Morgan, Ian MacDonald Lon Chaney Jr.
Tagline: Simple. Powerful. Unforgettable
Last Wednesday evening The Neon in Dayton, Ohio hosted a screening of High Noon that was presented by the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton. A Q & A from author Glenn Frankel followed the film. Mr. Frankel’s 2017 book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic is a comprehensive account of every aspect in the making and legacy of the 1952 classic.
High Noon was a low budget Western that on the surface appeared to be a conventional genre film about an aging Marshall deciding whether to delay his retirement to protect his town from incoming outlaws or to start a new life with his young bride. In addition to being a well crafted film with strong characterizations and striking cinematography, High Noon is also an allegory of Cold War America’s failure to live up to its democratic principles.
Famously fimed in real time, with clocks often strategically placed into the frame, High Noon begins with the wedding of Marshall Will Kane (Cooper) and Amy Fowler (Kelly) on a Sunday morning. Just as the couple are about to leave town a telegram arrives announcing the outlaw Frank Miller (MacDonald) received a pardon and is heading their way with his gang and they are set on getting a comeuppance from the Marshall who sent him away years before. Amy pleads with Will to leave his past behind and start a new life, but he cannot because “I’ve never run from anything.”
Will’s deputy Harvey Pell, played by a moody Lloyd Bridges, is resentful for being passed over so he’s of little help. When Will appeals to the patrons at the tavern and the church he gets no help from those places either. The townspeople are selfish and complacent. They are reluctant to help Will because they are afraid violence will hurt the good name of their town, a town Will helped them to build.
High Noon packs in quite a bit of story in 84 minutes with such a large cast, yet each actor makes their screen time count. An aging Gary Cooper brings a poignancy to his role, director Fred Zinnemann’s frequent use of close ups we see his wrinkled face sweat and bleed. Cooper’s loner-hero persona brought just the right cinematic tone. As he strolls through the town the song “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin” plays throughout to great emotional effect. Grace Kelly made a memorable big screen debut as his bride Amy, who must confront her husband’s former lover Katy played by Helen Ramirez.
Besides being a classic Western, High Noon is heavy with political subtext. Carl Foreman wrote the film in the summer of 1951 as he waited to be called before HUAC (House of Un-American Activity Committee). The conflicts and anxieties of the blacklist found their way into the script: the silence and cowardice of the townspeople when their democracy was threatened, Will’s courage to stand up and fight against great odds, and the unbearable tension of waiting to meet your fate.
As Mr. Frankel related in his remarks after the screening, Foreman did get blacklisted for refusing to name names. In 1957 his screenplay for Bridge on the River Kwai won the Oscar (it was uncredited), an award he was not officially given until 1997, 13 years after his death. The HUAC experience ruined Foreman’s friendship with Stanley Kramer who was forced to drop him from his production company.
The political message of High Noon is even more important today. With free speech under attack all over the world and the frightening willingness of people to abandon democratic principles in the name of security, fear, and money – the lessons of High Noon are relevant. Many great heroes have graced the silver screen, but few with more dignity than Gary Cooper in High Noon. He rightfully earned the Best Actor Oscar.