I was – at least as far as emotional maturity is concerned – a baby when I first saw High Noon, and I didn’t care for it much then. Not that I wasn’t fond of Westerns; I adored Westerns. In book form, in cinema, in song. For me, the genre was all that was gloriously outdoorsy and never-say-die: cowboys and Comanche, Monument Valley, smoking barrels and rearing horses, the good versus the bad in that final gunfight. High Noon turned all of that on its head, and left me feeling uncomfortable and disappointed.
I didn’t realise till much later that that disappointment was not the disappointment of watching a film that was bad. Rather, it was the disappointment of discovering that what I’d been rejoicing in till then was not the ultimate in a genre. Some growing up had happened.
I have rewatched High Noon since then, and I’ve come to appreciate this film deeply. I still do like hard-core Westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Stagecoach and The Magnificent Seven a lot – but High Noon is in a class all by itself.
The story begins about 10.30 one morning in a small town named Hadleyville. To the strains of the award-winning title song, three men – all equally stubble-chinned and hard-eyed – ride in from the countryside and to the train station. They check with the lone man on duty whether the noon train is on time. On being told that it is, they sit down nearby to wait for the train.
The man on duty has recognised the three newcomers. He’s very nervous, and it’s obvious that their presence (even though they don’t threaten him) makes him even more jittery.
Just a little while earlier, he’s received a telegram addressed to the Marshal of Hadleyville. The combination of the telegram and the new arrivals makes the man so scared that he abandons his post at the train stop and hurries into Hadleyville…
…where the town’s Marshal, Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is getting married. His bride is the lovely Amy (Grace Kelly), a Quaker to whom Will Kane has promised that he will give up his Marshal’s badge as soon as they’re married. He and Amy plan to leave town as soon as they’re married, heading off sweetly into the prairie to live a life of peace and quiet, away from the violence that Amy abhors.
Judge Mettrick (Otto Kruger) pronounces Kane and Amy man and wife, and the gathering – the mayor Jonas Henderson (Thomas Mitchell), Kane’s friend, mentor and inspiration Martin Howe (Lon Chaney Jr) and Kane’s good friend Sam Fuller (Harry Morgan) among them – congratulate the happy couple. Just one little ceremony left now, Henderson reminds Kane with a grin: Kane has to hand in that Marshal’s badge.
Kane points out that Hadleyville won’t have a Marshal till the next day; the man appointed for the task will only arrive in town then. We’ll manage somehow, says Henderson, and there’s a good laugh all around. Kane unpins his badge and hands it in, laughing too.
… just as the man from the train stop comes in, panting and perspiring and bringing with him that telegram.
Over the next few minutes, the past of Hadleyville is revealed, both to us and to the till-now oblivious Amy. Five years ago, this town had been terrorised by a man named Frank Miller. Miller and his men killed, plundered and ravaged Hadleyville for all they were worth.
Kane was the man who finally caught Frank Miller; Judge Henderson sentenced him to a hanging and Miller was sent away, to be executed.
But a jury commuted Frank Miller’s sentence. Another jury changed it to five years. And now, Frank Miller’s out of jail – and he’s headed for Hadleyville. That is what is in the telegram.
The railroad man adds that three of Frank Miller’s men, including his brother Ben Miller, are already at the train stop, waiting for the noon train to come in.
It’s obvious what’s going to happen: Miller and his men are going to ride into Hadleyville and settle scores. And their main target is going to be Kane. Kane’s initial reaction is to put his badge right back on; he can’t leave Hadleyville defenceless in the face of such danger. But the townspeople insist (and Amy is distraught at the thought that her husband may go back to his guns). Hadleyville will survive without Kane.
Eventually, Kane is bullied by all into getting out of town.
But they’ve only just headed out into the countryside, when Kane’s conscience gets the better of him. He turns right around and comes back to town. Amy, feeling betrayed and hurt that Kane’s gone back on his promise, tries to reason with him. If they leave Hadleyville and go away, Miller wouldn’t come after them. He’d forget about them. He wouldn’t know where to find them.
It’s no use, she realises soon enough. Kane says they’d never be able to hide from Miller. And he, Will Kane, is the reason Frank Miller is coming to Hadleyville. It is up to Kane to put Miller back in jail – or kill him. There is no escaping that fact.
So Amy does the only thing that makes sense to her: she leaves him. She walks out, gets into the buggy, and drives down to the train stop to buy herself a ticket to St Louis.
But it’s only 11 now, a full hour to go, so Amy comes back into Hadleyville and sits down in the hotel lobby to wait out that hour.
One of the first repercussions of the imminent arrival of Miller is that Judge Mettrick hurries back into his office and begins to pack up his saddlebags. A bewildered Kane asks why, and the judge answers that he, Mettrick, was the one who sentenced Frank Miller to death; he will, along with Kane, be Miller’s target. He has to get out of town before Miller comes back.
In the same hotel where Amy is sitting, in an upstairs room is Mrs Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), a wealthy businesswoman who owns the general store in Hadleyville. She has a past too – she was once Frank Miller’s love interest, and then, till a year back, Will Kane’s. Now, with Miller about to come back, Mrs Ramírez has realised that Hadleyville is doomed. So she quickly makes arrangements to sell off all her assets in Hadleyville and buys a ticket to take her away on the noon train.
And there it is: the ship is fast sinking, and it’s not just the rats like Judge Mettrick who’re deserting it, but also those who are too savvy, or too peace-loving, or perhaps just too scared, who’re leaving it too. But Kane has a job to do, and a conscience that won’t allow him to desert this ship, no matter if he sinks with it.
Unfortunately, there are those who would be happy to have Frank Miller and his gang back in town. At the saloon and the hotel, for example, it’s obvious that business has fallen away since Miller was locked up: all those outlaws, with all that money to spend, had vanished. Now they’ll be back, and good riddance to Kane.
On the other hand, Kane is encouraged by the thought that there are those who will stand by him. The last time Kane faced Miller, he had a posse on his side: six deputies of his own, and a bunch of townsmen who volunteered to be special deputies. Today, too, though time is short, Kane is certain that he will be able to muster some forces to stand by him.
The first is his deputy, Harvey ‘Harv’ (Lloyd Bridges).
But Harv has his own axe to grind. Why had Kane asked for a Marshal to come in from outside town to succeed Kane? If Kane had wanted it, Harv, as Deputy Marshal, would have been the logical choice for Marshal. Harv now offers Kane what he thinks is a fair exchange: Harv’s help against Miller, in return for Kane’s nominating Harv as Marshal of Hadleyville. Kane refuses, and Harv, unpinning his own badge and slamming it down on Kane’s desk, goes off to get drunk.
And Kane is alone, again. With less than one hour to go before Frank Miller is back in town, Kane sets out on his own, trying to gather support, trying to find help wherever he can. He goes to the men who’ve supported him in the past. To Sam Fuller, to Martin Howe, to all those others who’ve been at his wedding just half an hour earlier. Sam Fuller, seeing Kane coming, quickly hides in his house and tells his wife to make an excuse, to tell Kane that Sam isn’t home.
Martin Howe, the retired lawman who inspired and mentored Kane, now tells him bluntly that there’s no point in risking one’s life like this. You catch outlaws, and juries free them. If you’re honest, you never have any savings. It’s a thankless job, and he’s had enough of it.
So the minutes tick by. The train chugs along somewhere, unseen beyond the horizon, bringing with it Frank Miller. Miller’s men wait, eager for their boss to come back so that they can join in his revenge. Hadleyville waits with bated breath. But what will the outcome be? And, eventually, less important than those final climactic few minutes, what will happen in the next half hour, as Kane goes desperately searching for help?
What I liked about this film:
High Noon is, for me, simply unforgettable. The script (by Carl Foreman), the cinematography, the direction, the acting (Gary Cooper won a Best Actor Oscar for this role), the music: everything comes together seamlessly. And what does it create? Not just one of the best Westerns ever made, but also one of the best Hollywood films, irrespective of genre. A film that just happens to be set in the Wild West. Transplant this story to another setting and another time, and it can have as much impact, because it’s basically a story of human emotion. Of the instinct for self-preservation, of conscience and love, of hate and all that comes naturally to each of us.
Kane’s dilemma – a man choosing between conscience on the one hand, life and safety on the other – is a dilemma any protagonist in a film could face. And the reactions Kane elicits in those he goes to for help are equally universal. Amy, Judge Mettrick, Martin Howe, or the other townspeople of Hadleyville, are not evil. They are not (except for the few who appreciate the business Miller can bring) on the side of the outlaw. Their arguments, too, seen from their perspective, are valid: they are family men, with wives and children they have to support. They have no axe to grind with Frank Miller; he’s coming to kill Kane, not them. They are not gunmen; Kane is…
The story aside, there’s the direction. High Noon was directed by the Austrian-born Fred Zinnemann (the only Western he ever directed). It’s a fantastic example of fine, very intelligent direction that understands exactly what message the film has to deliver, and uses a series of subtle and interesting ways to deliver that message. In High Noon, Zinnemann uses a combination of symbols to portray two related themes: on the one hand, the approaching climax – the rails stretching under a bleak, cloudless sky, waiting for Kane’s nemesis to arrive…
… and, on the other hand, Kane’s increasing desperation as he hurries from door to door, almost pleading for help, trying to reason with people – and swiftly realising that nobody will stand by him. The title song, Do not forsake me, oh my darling (sung by Tex Ritter, written by Ned Washington and to music composed by Dmitri Tiomkin – it won Tiomkin and Washington an Oscar for Best Music and Song) is played often. Sometimes, it’s just a haunting, no-words, only-music rendition. Sometimes, it’s just Tex’s voice, singing only the first two lines. Sometimes, it’s more. But it’s there, every now and then, reminding us that Kane has been forsaken not just by his darling Amy, but by all those he thought his friends.
There is the clock ticking away the minutes towards noon (the film is almost in real time, incidentally).
There is Kane’s handwritten note ‘Back in 5 minutes’ pinned on his office door, in case anybody turns up volunteering to be a deputy – but a note that keeps fluttering forlornly as the minutes go by and nobody comes.
And there are the townspeople, congregated in church, arguing between themselves over whether or not to help Kane… while their children, sent out to play while the adults talk, amuse themselves with a tug of war. An interesting choice of game, that – unwittingly reflecting the tug of war going on inside the church.
This is what High Noon is made up of: symbols, emotion, mounting tension, some action played out in a dusty frontier town – but a town that could actually be anywhere on Earth, at any time. Brilliant. If you haven’t seen this film yet, do yourself a favour and watch it. Even if you don’t much care for Westerns.
What I didn’t like:
Nothing. That’s a hard thing for someone as nit-picking as I am to admit, but there it is.
A few bits of trivia:
Fred Zinnemann and the cameraman nearly died while filming High Noon. For the scene where the train arrives in Hadleyville, the director and the cameraman were lying on the tracks, filming the approaching train. They saw the engine emit a burst of white smoke – which looked awesome – and then huge puffs of black smoke, which looked even better, just what Zinnemann wanted.
What Zinnemann hadn’t known was that black smoke from the engine was a warning from the engine driver that the brakes had jammed. And, since the train was supposed to halt just before where they were lying, they didn’t realise until it was almost too late that the train wasn’t stopping. They managed to roll away just in time, but part of the tripod caught in the tracks and the train rolled over the camera, smashing it. Surprisingly, the magazine containing the film remained intact – so what you see onscreen is actually an interesting piece of cinema trivia too.
High Noon had a cinematic offshoot: it inspired, in a roundabout way, the John Wayne-Dean Martin starrer, Rio Bravo. Howard Hawks, the director of Rio Bravo, had been put off immensely by the cynicism High Noon portrayed; in response, he got together with Wayne to create a film that had a similar setting. Here too, a lawman is faced with a showdown with a gang of outlaws. But the way that story goes is very different – and very predictable if you’ve seen enough old-fashioned Westerns.
One last little titbit: High Noon was made on a very low budget, and filmed in a mere 28 days.