Classic Movie Review: High Noon (1952)

Title: High Noon
Release Date: July 24, 1952
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Production Company: Stanley Kramer Productions

High Noon features a spectacular opening with Tex Ritter’s haunting rendition of the title song playing over the credits followed by scenes of a trio of bad lads riding into town to the shock of the townspeople.  It’s a collection of iconic Western tropes, and yet, as we shall see, this movie is unconventional for the genre. At the same time the outlaws arrive, Hadleyville’s Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is marrying Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly, in her first major role) and then turning in his badge as they plan to move to another town and run a store.

Before they can begin their honeymoon, Will is informed that a notoriously violent criminal he’d captured, Frank Miller (Ian Macdonald), has been released from prison and will be arriving on the noon train, intent on revenge. Will returns for his badge and prepares to protect the town from Miller and his cohort. His efforts to raise up a posse are filmed in real time, with frequent glimpses of clocks to remind the audience of the time left.

Will finds it difficult to get any support.  Amy, a Quaker pacifist, wants no part of the gun battle and prepares to leave him on the same train that Miller is arriving on.  The Deputy Marshall, Harvey Pell (a very young Lloyd Bridges), still sore about not being promoted to replace Will, turns in his badge.  The shopkeeper Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado) – Will’s former lover and Harvey’s current lover – also makes plans to leave town.  The men at the saloon liked it better when Miller was running things and refuse to help, while the men at the church think they’ll be safe if Will just leaves town. Ultimately, Will is left to defend the town alone and this is depicted with a legendary overhead shot of the empty streets as Miller and his men arrive.

As noted earlier, this is not your typical Western.  The gunfight at the conclusion of the film feels obligatory. The rest of the movie has exposed the dark side of human nature in the townspeople that makes one question whether they’re even worth defending.  Then there is a fantastic twist of who does come to Will’s aid in his moment of need.

The movie was created in part as a metaphor for the blacklist in Hollywood of actors and filmmakers accused of Communist sympathies. I don’t think that’s readily apparent 70 years later just from watching the film, but it made the movie controversial at the time.  It’s a powerful character study and feature terrific acting across the board.  Gary Cooper in particular stands out.  Cooper was only 50 years old when the movie was made but he looks much older due to the deeply-etched lines in his face and general weariness. (An aside: it’s been a long time since I’ve watched Pride of the Yankees but I learned he was 41 when it filmed, which is 4 years older than Lou Gehrig at the time of his death).

High Noon is a gripping drama and a genre-redefining Western that I’m glad I had the time to watch it.

Rating: ****