High Noon (1952)

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.

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35 thoughts on “High Noon (1952)

  1. So this is what you meant when yo said you knew what to write after reading my Love in the Afternoon post! The Gary Coopwr connection. I’ve seen very few Westerns myself but the fact that this has a more psychological touch to it makes it more tempting. And Gary Copper is definitely a fine actor. My to-watch list is like growing fatter and fatter!! But I’m loving it!

    • Yes, Sharmi. This was what I meant. :-) Even though I’ve not seen Love in the Afternoon, I have seen a few other Gary Cooper films – of which my favourite so far is High Noon. I decided it was high time I reviewed it. It’s an amazing film – you must put it on your to-watch list.

    • I just wish there were more films like this one. I’ve seen a lot of Westerns over the years. A lot of films, Western or not. But there are very few films that can arouse so much emotion in me. It’s sheer brilliance.

  2. Great movie review, thanks, it was great to read. Truly a classic, you’re 100% right! There’s something profoundly American about this movie, but this time it’s the better part of what American means.
    cheers

    • Thank you, Yves! And I agree with you completely about this being a profoundly American film, but in a good way – not that jingoistic, chest-thumping propaganda so many ‘macho’ Hollywood films – the Westerns, the war films, even so many sci-fi and superhero films – end up being. High Noon is a prime example of a film anybody could relate to. And learn from.

  3. Madhu, this was the first ‘Western’ I ever saw – on a re-run at Lido Theatre in Bangalore. With my father (of course!). I was a teenager then, and remember wondering ‘This is what a Western’s like?’ Having devoured books by Lousi L’amour and JT Edson, this didn’t seem to be ‘authentic’. But I still loved the film because, finally, it was human. I agree with you that it just happened to be a Western – place it in any setting and you still had the play of emotions – the tug of duty vs practicality. And Gary Cooper was brilliant in this film. It’s one of his seminal roles. This goes into my ‘re-watch list’ if I can ever find enough time!

    • Anu, lucky you, to have had this as the first Western you ever saw! I’d watched God knows how many early John Wayne films (including his pretty boring 30s’ films) plus all the usual ones – MacKenna’s Gold, El Dorado, Rio Bravo, Escape from Fort Bravo, The Magnificent Seven, nearly all of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns… before I saw High Noon. Post High Noon, I find it hard to appreciate, as much as I did before, all those films.

  4. Madhu, actually, it was a bit of a probelm because it set the bar too high! I needed to lighten up and apply my Hindi film rules before I could really enjoy the others.

    But you can’t put Rio Bravo in the same category as the boring John Wayne ones, Madhu. Rio… was good! And I must say I thoroughly enjoyed MacKenna’s Gold, The Magnificent Seven and all of the spaghetti westerns – though they are definitely not in the same league.

    If you haven’t seen it yet, I would highly recommend another Western, with yet another favourite of mine – Duel in the Sun – with Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten.

    • I don’t put Rio Bravo in the same league as the boring Wayne films, Anu – read my review of that (I’ve linked to it in this review). That’s a really good film too, made so much better by the fact that it had Dean Martin – one of my favourites – in a good role. Rio Bravo is definitely one of my favourite mainstream Westerns, along with Stagecoach and Westward the Women.

      I do remember watching Duel in the Sun years ago, on Doordarshan. Haven’t seen it ever since, and my memories of it are hazy enough to not count for anything. Oh, dear… another film to rewatch!

  5. I saw this film, I think, some 15 years back and was damn impressed by it. But now, I realised how much I had forgotten, Thanks to your well-written (I am getting tired by saying this every time) review, it came back again. Somehow I couldn’t recall the Ramirez part at all.

    What I also liked about it was that when the climax, comes it is so brief and thus making a real impact!
    It also shows how the power machinations work in the politics and what the modern word networking really means. Although i wonder if that was what the director intended.

    Zinneman in his time in Europe also worked with Billy Wilder, who was also an Austrian. I liked Zinneman’s From Here to Eternity, which was shown on ARTE in it’s uncensored version, which gives a more critical voice to the whole film and also comments on the homosexual relationship between the men.

    • Thank you, harvey! Glad you liked the review. :-)

      Yes, the climax is perfect, and I agree that it’s made even more so by the briefness of it all. No long-drawn out speeches and stuff. Just a simple action, and that’s it. A great commentary on humanity (or inhumanity, whatever). I do think, by the way, that the director and script writer did mean it to be a statement on power machinations in politics – while High Noon got a lot of critical acclaim (and 4 Oscars), it was also lambasted by many organisations that thought it showed a warped, cynical, critical view of America. Many thought it was a communist and/or fascist view of things.

      I’d not known Billy Wilder was Austrian too! Another of my favourite directors/writers. Stalag 17, Some Like it Hot, so many other fabulous films…

  6. This is great Western movie, and a great befitting review, there is nothing I would change.
    This movie should rank among the all-time best movies of any type.
    I have probably said before, but “Unforgiven” is another Western that should make the same cut, especially after watching several spaghetti westerns.
    Re: Fred Zinneman, another of my absolute favorite is “The Day of the Jackal”

    • Ah, yes. The Day of the Jackal is another stunner, isn’t it? I first watched it when I was quite young – maybe in my early teens – and I remember being absolutely riveted. So much so that as soon as the film was over, I went off and dug out my mum’s copy of the novel (which I’d never read before) and launched into it. That was one of the best book-to-film adaptations I’ve ever seen.

    • Yes, I discovered that just a little while back.

      I wish this year were over. Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand, Nalini Jaywant, Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Curtis… it’s hard to be a lover of classic cinema, because the people we love so much from that era are either all gone, or are leaving us. :-(

  7. This is a film for grownups, that’s one thing for sure.

    Watching it as a young pup, I was bored to tears. Where’s the action (*), I kept asking, not realising the point of the plot until I became grown up myself to understand it, experience something like this, and then go on to doubly appreciate it. :-)
    (*) I was spoiled by ‘other Westerns’ with wall to wall action scenes by comparison ;-)

    Another point is the timing of the film to coincide with the infamous HUAC hearings (McCarthyism) in the 50s. This film was a call to people not to hitch to a cause because circumstances were favourable then, and then ditch the cause (Socialism) simply because the circumstances are not so favourable now. And I think Elia Kazan made On the Waterfront as a counterpoint. Not sure of my facts, too lazy to look up right now.

    You said:
    > their arguments, too, seen from their perspective, are valid:

    Not true. The film openly takes a stance against this kind of individualising of own viewpoint justification…. You did not spend time on that scene — it take place in the church (but you did give a screencap, thanks). For me one of the best scene is the church where the wife taken the men to task for pointless moral soliloquising when it is clear that if the brothers are allowed in, the town becomes non-liveable, and their quality of life (which is taken for granted now) is going to turn to dust. You know which one I am talking about, right?

    They don’t make them like this any more. Sad but true. Good review. Summed up a lot of my own feelings about the film.

    And yes, RIP Dev Anand. :-(

    • “Not true. The film openly takes a stance against this kind of individualising of own viewpoint justification…. You did not spend time on that scene — it take place in the church (but you did give a screencap, thanks).

      I did spend time on that scene, thank you for accusing me of NOT doing that – but my point of view (as was, I think, Zinnemann’s, in an interview he gave) was that he tried to show that individuals had what seemed to them valid reasons for not standing by Kane. When that woman stands up and shrieks at her neighbours about whether they remember the time when a decent woman couldn’t step out into the street – or that man says, “I cannot believe the things I’m hearing today” – they exemplify the voice of reason. But that man doesn’t join Kane; that woman doesn’t outright tell her menfolk (if she has any) that they should join Kane.

      I am not saying that Harleyville’s decision to leave Kane to his own devices was based on valid reasons. I’m saying they thought those reasons were valid.

  8. The fine acting -controlled and very natural- by Gary Cooper and equally good support of cinematography makes the film unforgettable. You have brought out the strong points of the movie for those who have watched it to enjoy recollecting , and for those who have not seen it, to urge them not to miss it.

  9. Great review of a beautiful film. Great westerns are also beautiful to watch. High Noon does not have Monument Valley, yet it is incredibly beautiful. It has the three outlaws filing in symmetry, the approaching train from the horizon, the congregation in the city hall, the shoot-out in the main street. Everything is iconic about the movie. The station and the shootout is favourite of many commercials, including one featuring Prabhu Deva. The scene of three outlaws waiting for their leader at the station has also been immortalised by Sergio Leone in his referential film Once Upon A Time In The West, which opens with this scene which he has elongated to about 13 minutes with great deliberation like a long <alaap by a great singer such as Pandit Kumar Gandharv.

    In a movie replete with beautiful scenes the one that is etched in my memory is when Grace Kelly goes up to the Latino woman and confronts her thinking her to be the reason for Gary Cooper’s return. She simply says you would not understand.

    I believe the movie when released was considered very un-American as it depicted the civil society as cowardly. It was only much later that it overcame this unnecessary political controversy, and acquired its acclaim as one of the greatest movies ever.

    • Thank you, AK. Yes, that ‘shootout in a dusty street’ scene is so iconic. And the tracks stretching into the flat plain… but, as you mention, at the time it was made, High Noon got a very mixed reception. In the extras for this DVD, I was watching an interview in which they spoke about how organisations (including the Ku Klux Klan) were baying for the filmmakers’ blood, saying that High Noon was anti-American.

      Incidentally, the ‘waiting-for-a-train’ as a major element in a Western was also used in the Glenn Ford-starrer, 3:10 to Yuma, though that isn’t a patch on High Noon. This film stands head and shoulders above the others.

  10. I finally made myself watch this film on the strength of your glowing recommendation, and disliked everything about it, except the stunning cinematography. Starting with the worse-than-bollywood age gap between Cooper and and Kelly (creepy and distracting), and moving on to its crude, simplistic and one-dimensional trumpeting of violence as the only realistic and manly solution to any problem, and its open contempt and derision for anyone who thinks otherwise. I’m not a Quaker but have long admired the fact that German Quakers were one of VERY few religious groups that, as a group, chose not to serve in the German military during WWII. But in this film, of course, the soppy Quaker has to see the error of her ways and pick up a gun to do what’s right by her man, after all the snivelling cowards in the town refused to. This was one of those films that one SHOULD see, and I’m pleased that I can now say I’ve seen it, but EVERYTHING about it rubbed me completely the wrong way.

  11. Sorry, that was not my intent at all. I don’t normally bother expressing myself when I dislike a film, but this one just made me so angry I had to vent. It’s one that had been on my “I should watch this” list for a while, and after reading how much you loved it I decided to give it a go. It’s not your fault I hated it, and I’m deeply sorry if I gave that impression. One thing’s for sure, I’ll be slower to criticise the age gap in BW films now, I’ve never seen one with a 28-year gap, so they’ve got some catching up to do with this one. :)

    • No problem, Stuart, and I’m sorry to have introduced you to this film. I really am.

      I must admit that the “violence is manly” thing had not struck me as the overwhelming message of the film – I was more impressed by the way they showed growing desperation, cynicism, and the other emotions that run through the town as the film progresses.

      I must also confess that I could sympathise with Grace Kelly’s character in the film, as far as picking up a gun and going to her husband’s rescue was concerned. Two reasons for this. First of all, from his point of view: I couldn’t logically see any way out. As he tells her, there was no running away for him. They would follow him wherever he went, and would hunt him down. If I were in her place, that may not have convinced me at first, but I can understand her realising that he perhaps had no other option than to fight back.

      Secondly, if I put myself into her shoes. (And I think I can – I’m non-violent and non-confrontational enough to have been called a wimp to my face! I don’t even shout online at people). If someone I really loved – my parents, my husband, my sister – were in a situation like that, I would probably kill too. I would like to think I would be nonviolent enough not to kill, but let’s face facts: I am emotional enough to forget religion in that sort of a situation.

    • P.S. Don’t watch Rear Window, Vertigo, To Catch a Thief, Father Goose, Love in the Afternoon, Charade or, for that matter, almost any of Cary Grant’s, James Stewart’s, and Gary Cooper’s later films. They invariably starred opposite actresses who were usually about 25 years younger than them.

    • P.P.S. I couldn’t resist adding this, Stuart. ;-)

      Do check out one of the recent comments on my review of Saathi. I read that comment and was immediately reminded of your “Sirf Ek Hai – There can be only one?” post. More proof of your point, as if that was needed.

  12. That was also what I felt when I saw the movie. It is not like other movies in the genre and does not fit in the set definition of a western. Still, as you have rightly said, High Noon is in a class all by itself. Fortunately, it is still available in good visual quality on DVD format that makes the cinematography more enjoyable.

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