Another release of the Kramer-Foreman-Zinnemann classic gives Savant another chance to make his argument that this supposedly ‘liberal’ movie is too confused to be anything but political quicksand — if anything, its statement is bitterly hawkish.
1952 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 85 min. / Street Date September 20, 2016 / available through the Olive Films website / 39.95
Starring Gary Cooper, Thomas Mitchell, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado,
Lloyd Bridges, Lon Chaney Jr, Harry Morgan, Otto Kruger, Lee Van Cleef.
Cinematography Floyd Crosby
Production Designer Rudolph Sternad
Film Editor Elmo Williams
Original Music Dimitri Tiomkin
Written by Carl Foreman
Produced by Stanley Kramer
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
This is my fourth time out with a review of High Noon, starting fourteen years ago with a pretty miserable Artisan DVD, then a Lionsgate ‘ultimate edition,’ followed by Olive Film’s first, quite good Blu-ray. Olive now revisits the 1952 classic as the opening title for its ‘Olive Signature’ series, featuring a solid HD transfer plus a selection of newly produced video extras.
Independent producer Stanley Kramer took his ‘controversial’ ways to the western genre, and had his first blockbuster hit with High Noon. The relatively inexpensive western became one of the most popular pictures of 1952, took home four Academy Awards and still stands near the top of its genre. Viewers were riveted by Gary Cooper’s anguished performance as a Marshall caught between his duty to his badge and to his new bride, played by the new star Grace Kelly. Fred Zinnemann’s embellishes his precise direction with powerful wordless scenes and montages that made audiences feel that they were watching an artistic triumph.
Stacked with moral and political arguments, Carl Foreman’s script immediately frames High Noon as yet another Kramer message picture. Newly retired Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) marries Quaker Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) just as news arrives in Hadleyville that criminal Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) is coming in on the Noon train, hot for revenge. Knowing that the deadly Miller won’t go away, Kane resolves to face him head on, and goes to the community for support. Kane instead finds himself isolated and under attack from his friends and neighbors. The judge (Otto Kruger) flees without a moment’s thought. Amy demands that someone else deal with Miller, now that Kane is no longer Marshall. She threatens to leave if he insists on staying. Bitter that he hasn’t been given Kane’s job, Deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) refuses to help his former boss. The old Marshall (Lon Chaney Jr.) can’t help because he’s crippled with arthritis. The boys at the bar are Miller’s friends, and cynically welcome a showdown. When Kane appeals for deputies at the local church, a public debate dissolves into a chorus of recriminations and blame passing. Kane must face Miller alone. Foolishly concluding that her husband still yearns for the wealthy Mexican businesswoman Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), Amy plans to leave town on the same train bringing Frank Miller.
High Noon is a high-toned ‘grand statement’ about civic responsibility, made just loose enough to encourage a wide range of interpretations. The producer had been courting a name as a liberal producer with bold movies about the race issue (Home of the Brave) and disabled veterans (The Men). But Kramer clashed with his equally outspoken screenwriter Carl Foreman. A public flap ensued when Kramer allegedly refused Foreman a co-producing credit. Audiences were more interested in the new star Grace Kelly, and Tex Ritter’s hit song “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin'”, which is cleverly heard over recurring sequences of Marshall Kane walking through town, looking in vain for help.
Most contemporary Hollywood westerns with stars as big as Gary Cooper were being filmed in color, yet this plain-wrap picture plays out on a B-western back lot set with almost no special production. High Noon compensates with expert filmic craftsmanship. Editor Elmo Williams’ work is dynamic, almost ostentatiously so. Foreman’s shrewd screenplay lends suspense to a series of dialogue scenes through the use of the same ‘deadline’ device that dominates many new action films. We’re told that something dreadful will occur in X minutes — the Titanic will sink, the bomb will detonate. Time becomes an automatic suspense machine as the seconds slip away. By the time the noon train carrying Miller arrives, everyone in the story is checking their clocks. A metronome-paced montage kicks in as the hour approaches, recapitulating the forces arrayed against Will Kane. A crane shot finally reveals him standing alone in the dusty street. Much of the power of this sequence derives from Dimitri Tiomkin’s insistent music score. Stylistically, High Noon is a triumph of talented filmmaking.
Film theory students at UCLA in the early ’70s were impressed by the movie’s frequent cutaways to clocks: director Zinnemann and editor Williams experimented with the notion of making the film play in real time. In one screening we clocked the clocks, so to speak, and they did indeed stay within a couple of minutes of our “control” clock. So many clock faces are built into dialogue scenes that they must have been part of the original structure during shooting. This observation cancels out the once-frequent claim that the clocks were an editorial trick imposed later in post-production.
The feminists in the critical studies program also lauded the formulation of the film’s two female roles. Grace Kelly’s Waspish Amy is the ‘Clementine Carter’ character, an unyielding Easterner who does not intend to surrender her refined moral values to the violence of the West. Katy Jurado’s Helen Ramirez is the alternative ‘dark woman’ or Mexican girlfriend, usually conceived as ‘the native’ who sacrifices herself to protect a hero who would never stoop to actually marry her. By breaking that unwritten rule, Ramirez is the most independent and sensible character in the show. She tolerates no guff from punk Lloyd Bridges (always excellent as a jerk) and even tells off La Princess Grace in no uncertain terms. Amy Fowler may be the socially correct choice for a bride, but the smart and worldly-wise Helen Ramirez possesses a real capacity to love. Marriage with Ramirez could be a great adventure, were Will Kane not so conventional in his thinking. For further instruction on the fierce spirit of the Latin feminine ideal, see Katy Jurado in Budd Boetticher’s Bullfighter and the Lady. Were Helen Kane’s woman, she’d have found a way to have Frank Miller quietly assassinated during his train trip. No muss, no fuss.
High Noon still carries a strong reputation as a courageous liberal statement. Howard Hawks and John Wayne called it ‘un-American,’ and claimed to have made 1959’s Rio Bravo as a riposte to High Noon’s then-radical image of a Marshall throwing his badge away, in contempt of the town that wouldn’t back him up. Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo is a professional who would never ask the community for help to do his job. As much as the Wayne-Hawks position is conservative baloney, defending High Noon’s political stance isn’t easy. Its inconsistent messages are ladled on with the subtlety of a shovel.
To develop its social argument, High Noon envisions Hadleyville as a rotten place filled with rotten citizens. This supposedly left-wing film actually shows that Democracy won’t work because people are basically selfish and cowardly. The judge skedaddles, pointedly taking his American flag and scales of justice with him (symbol! symbol!). Frank Miller’s return will obviously bring more lawless chaos to Hadleyville, yet many of its able-bodied men are firmly on his side. Save for Kane, the only decent citizens in town are either crippled or under-aged. Businessman Harry Morgan is a craven coward, Kane’s deputy Lloyd Bridges is concerned only for his hurt feelings, and the church congregation is a worst-case scenario of Bad Civics in Action. Instead of coming to Kane’s defense, the preacher condemns him from the pulpit. Kane’s best friend Jonas (Thomas Mitchell) is a well-intentioned bozo who thinks he’s performing an intervention, to save Kane from his ‘impractical’ desire to take a stand against his ‘personal’ problem. Jonas uses the lack of consensus to squelch any effort to support Kane in his hour of need.
All of these rejections are a ploy to isolate Kane as the sole individual in Hadleyville possessed of morals and ethics, the only man who cares enough to stand up for What’s Right. But Will meekly accepts little crucifixions in every scene. He gives feeble three-word speeches to the church congregation, like “I need help.” How this tough lawman stood up to trigger-happy drunks and dangerous thugs is a big question, when he won’t use a simple promise or a bit of intimidation to secure the desperately needed help of his own deputy. When people don’t rally to his aid, Kane remains silent, a queer combination of pride and humility. Carl Foreman even turns Helen Ramirez into a martyr-enabler when, for her own reasons, she decides not to come to Will’s defense: “He is not my man.” No, Carl Foreman wishes to fashion an iconic western legend. For Kane to undergo his ordeal of character and will power, he must face his fate alone. Yet, after all the posturing, Kramer and Foreman make no particular statement beyond a murky, ‘A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’.
Grand liberal message? No way. High Noon is actually a better fit as a conservative fantasy about America fighting Communism in foreign wars. Good ol’ Kane (General MacArthur and Co.) defeated Evil foes five years ago (at the end of WW2), but now Evil is back and it’s personal. Nobody gives a damn, or worse, they’re second-guessers on the side of the Commies. Kane must go it alone. Poor General MacArthur, stabbed in the back by the politicians. The pacifist argument in High Noon takes a conservative turn as well. Amy Fowler is a Quaker, yet has married a man whose profession involves gunplay and killing. When Amy blasts bad guy Robert J. Wilke in the back, the movie crudely suggests that Christian pacifism is a craven fraud promoted by people who have never had to fight to protect their loved ones. Amy earns the right to keep her man the American Way, by killing for it.
The end of High Noon presents the stickiest puzzle. It plays as emotionally correct yet satisfies neither read of the movie. Kane tosses his star in the dust to show his contempt for the town that comes out to congratulate him only after the fight is won. Perhaps John Wayne and Howard Hawks were correct in interpreting this ending as Kramer and Foreman saying, ‘Screw America.’ Hadleyville has its share of jerks but also good women and loyal kids like the boy who so badly want to help. Kane is turning his back on all of them. Now he and Amy can open their store somewhere else. Are people in this next town going to be any different? Or will they be more scum unworthy of the ethically superior Mr. and Mrs. Kane? Is Will going to sit behind his notions counter when troublemakers terrorize his neighbors? The message of High Noon is confused, to say the least. People report being moved by its message, yet often can’t come up with a coherent answer for what that message might be.
As a drama without symbolic significance, High Noon is very satisfying. I like to read nuances into the Kane-Ramirez relationship, and criticize Amy’s lack of real commitment to the husband she expects to turn from hawk to dove overnight. The Dimitri Tiomkin music is always a kick, as is the dry Tex Ritter song that opens the plain-wrap film so perfectly. It’s also fun to see eternal bad guys Lee Van Cleef and Robert J. Wilke near the beginning of a career that mostly consisted of being gunned down by the hero, in picture after picture.
Mad Magazine recognized High Noon as the key psychological Western of the ‘fifties. One of its cartoons lampooned ‘adult Westerns’ by showing a picture of a traumatized Will Kane shooting a hole through his pocket watch, as if he had a neurotic aversion to the existential tyranny of Time. In the early Mad spoof Hah! Noon!, Kane solved his little problem with ‘Killer Diller Miller’ simply by calling in a thousand National Guard troops, complete with tanks and artillery. In some other parody strip Mad had one of my favorite Western gag lines, ribbing the obvious doubles for Bridges and Cooper in their big barn fight: “Now my stuntman’s going to give your stuntman the beating of his life!”
High Noon has been a profound influence on the western genre. The old Gunsmoke TV series was basically a spinoff, and eclectic-minded directors have frequently revisited its situations. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch riffs on the kids whose play shows the influence of the violence in the streets: “Bang! You’re dead, Kane!” Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns does a wild and wooly number on the final ‘Drop yer gun or she’s dead’ situation. Sheriff Barry Sullivan resolves the standoff by purposely shooting hostage Barbara Stanwyck so he can get a clean shot at her captor. Sergio Leone turned the first ten minutes of his Once Upon a Time In the West into an extended parody of High Noon, as three gunmen wait at a train station, passing the time by intimidating the telegraph clerk.
Visually speaking, Olive Signature’s Blu-ray of High Noon would seem to be the same as their first Blu-ray from four years ago. The transfer and audio are far better than what had been seen on earlier DVD and VHS releases. We still have great respect for the Dimitri Tiomkin score, which is less strident and jarring than some of his scores from the early ’50s. It’s amusing that Russian Tiomkin pretty much cornered the market for ‘big’ western epics. How would Duel in the Sun, Red River, The Big Sky, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Alamo play without his music? Tiomkin even wrote the music for the Tex Ritter hit song… is it the first of the big pop songs associated with American westerns of the ’50s?
The extras are interview featurettes approaching High Noon from various angles. The most ambitious is Anton Yelchin’s production history piece, which puts all the events of the shooting and the background drama on a timeline between 1951 and 1952. I also like Yelchin’s reference to the photo of Gary Cooper that was used as big-time propaganda for the Polish Solidarity movement, complete with a Polish tagline about a ‘showdown.’
As with their piece on the Signature disc for Johnny Guitar, Larry Ceplair and Walter Bernstein weigh in on the blacklist in relation to the movie. Michael Schlesinger offers a spirited take on the colorful career of Stanley Kramer, pausing of course to praise his favorite of Kramer’s movies. The fine editor Mark Goldblatt talks about the editing in the show, debunking the clocks-added-in-post theory. He doesn’t investigate the famed ‘metronome montage’ that accompanies the noon arrival of Frank Miller. Is it sophisticated or merely schematic-effective? The individual shots are artlessly posed that the sequence plays like a pale imitation of classic Eisensteinian montage.
Nick James provides the insert essay and a trailer is included as well. Olive’s Signature Series can’t be called a simple double-dip, as considerable effort has been invested in its added value extras. Olive has a great many titles now that could benefit from this special edition upgrade, so it will be interesting to see if the effort pays off.
Supplements: A Ticking Clock, Academy Award-nominee Mark Goldblatt on the editing of the film; A Stanley Kramer Production, a bio sketch by Michael Schlesinger, Imitation of Life: The Blacklist History of High Noon, with historian Larry Ceplair and blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein; Ulcers and Oscars: The Production History of High Noon, a visual essay with rarely seen archival elements, narrated by Anton Yelchin; Uncitizened Kane – an original essay by Sight and Sound editor Nick James, Theatrical trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: 1 disc in keep case
Reviewed: September 28, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson