High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann)


It’s actually easy to see why High Noon is so highly regarded: there is something to admire in its incredibly streamlined story, the simplicity of its vision, the appearance of conviction. As incompetent as it seems at first (from the dreadful title sequence through the introduction of a shamefully thin, awkward premise), the fakery and posturing that comes afterward is arresting in a smug, faintly amusing kind of way. It amounts, in the end, to nothing, except maybe a catchy-as-hell theme song that underscores seemingly half the important sequences with its rumbling clip-clop rhythm and laconic vocals.

The story (a marshal whose town was formerly corrupted by a guy who slept with the same woman as he did feels an inexplicable need to take revenge when former villain shows up in town suddenly despite the fact that the sheriff is leaving town anyway) is so threadbare that the script could easily have been sold as a parody of the most cliché-ridden Westerns. Some have gone so far as to label it “the western for people who don’t like westerns,” which somewhat makes sense given the violent reaction to it by the likes of John Wayne and Howard Hawks (who crafted an entire film, Rio Bravo, as a direct rebuttal). Wayne’s own complaint about the film was its politics; it’s designed as an allegorical critique of McCarthyism, whereby only the Real Man will stand up to the Blue Meanies — what’s intriguing is that this makes it the exact same film as On the Waterfront, except far less well-written and with the politics reversed. Clearly my heart is with the anti-McCarthyites, but their pet film is no better than Elia Kazan’s excuse-making pastiche.

High Noon does have its few innovations: its social comment might be a failure but it’s something, and hey, its story is told in real time. But that ends up meaning very little: the film is so conventional and unrealistic that the timing only functions as a gimmick. The structure is the same as it would ever be; real time is simply a illusion, a tool to mask the boredom and inconsistency here. It oddly recalls the feeling of playing a video game, one of many ways its innovations are in fact negative ones that sadly predict the future of American cinema; Gary Cooper’s meandering around the town waiting for something to happen and his quests to various landmarks to complete specific task are akin to the spatially oriented adventure games of the PC gaming world in the mid-’90s. At the moment when Cooper posts a sign on the door of his office saying he’ll be back in a few minutes, you almost expect to see a dialogue indicating number of points scored by his action. This is perhaps unfair to the film, of course; what isn’t unfair is casting a downward glance on the horrendous manner in which the action sequences are directed and edited: confusingly, fake-viscerally and allergic to master shots. This must be where Christopher Nolan got his ideas.

Director Fred Zinnemann is good at suspense; see The Day of the Jackal, or even the wondrous closing half-hour of From Here to Eternity, the film he was likely able to make due to the success of this low-budget item. The problem here is that there is no suspense to actually care about. Whiny new husband Gary Cooper’s initial action of turning his horse around to “stop” his enemy never actually begins to make sense. It’s some bullshit masculinity comment, and all his explanations and justifications only make it more obtuse — these are the very sort of pro-violence theories of manliness you’d expect an ostensibly liberal film to brush up against. The big ideological problem with the movie is, it’s a plot summary — it’s full of absolutes and awkward cartoon hollowness, which is dangerous stuff for a movie that toys with big ideas like pacifism.

Poor Grace Kelly, stuck in a painfully insipid (but career-making) role as the doting Quaker wife, is dead-set against any sort of violence. She’s depicted as an early-marital nag, which is ludicrously unfair, and I can’t stand by the notion that, when she suddenly changes her entire philosophy at the end, such an action is absolutely Good. Straw Dogs would later deal with this using a degree of ambiguity and gradual changes in its characters; some call Straw Dogs sexist, but I think High Noon is the real anti-woman tripe. Why should she have changed, putting herself in danger, to answer for her husband’s stupid mistakes? Because she’s his wife, of course, the movie argues. Stand by your man or else. Amusingly, the film’s populated with more reasonable, and principled, characters: Thomas Mitchell’s Mayor Henderson and Katy Jurado’s fiery ex-girlfriend Helen (fitting in some welcome feminist dialogue), who are so much more interesting than the leads you wish for a real-time suspenser that followed them more somehow: not least because they seem to agree with us that Cooper’s being a goddamned moron.

The sheer immaturity (and blatant non-heroism, more like frowny-faced pussyfooting) of the lead character, played by Cooper seemingly in a daze, single-handedly prevents the movie from working properly at all, but the writers help a great deal by bringing in pointless plot details (especially an overheated, useless subplot about a deputy) and engaging in annoying lazy hole-fillers like the townspeople who turn against their leader. Everyone who loves this movie says it champions real values, When Men Were Men and all that. For the life of me, I can’t find the values they’re talking about. Don’t mind your own business? Put yourself in harm’s way for no reason? To prove yourself? Proving yourself might have meaning if you were proving it to someone who mattered at all. And, more centrally, men: to run away from danger and death is absolutely wrong; preserving your own life and family is meaningless; you must Prove Yourself. Carry out your own vigilante missions when there’s no real reason to do so, there’s no legal jurisdiction for you to do so, no one wants you to do so, and you actually aren’t capable of doing it anyway. Be a real man, kids. Kill yourself. Because you’re Gary Cooper, and you can do that.

[Originally posted in slightly shorter form in 2007.]

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