High Noon: Lonely are the brave

Last Updated: Sun, Jun 16, 2019 15:59 hrs

A classic 1952 psychological Western film, which pits a dutiful hero against a wave of civic apathy.

A heightening tenseness and a sense of fatefulness loom over Fred Zinnemann's bleak Western classic High Noon, a film about an aging lawman facing down his final challenge.

Gary Cooper plays Marshal Will Kane, who at the outset of the movie is being married to Amy Fowler (played by the ethereal Grace Kelly), a Quaker girl for whom Kane has promised to give up his badge. Will and Amy plan to leave town soon, off into the grasslands to live a life of quiet and peace, away from the violence that she loathes.

But trouble arrives in Kane's sleepy Western town in the form of three outlaws, the henchmen of convicted murderer Frank Miller. The goons wait at the railway station, where Miller, recently freed from prison, is expected on the noon train. He is consumed by a single goal: revenge, and the target of his hatred is Kane, the man who sent him to prison.

Immediately after the wedding, Kane is greeted with a telegram warning of Miller's impending return.

The marshal, like any sensible man, puts his wife in the buggy but then the sting of honour changes his mind and he heads the horses back to town. 

Amy's Quaker beliefs (which are committed to non-violence) can't quite see it this way on her wedding day so she hands him her own ultimatum; if he won't go away with her she'll go alone by the train that leaves at twelve.

Some townspeople, worried that the impending violence might damage the town's reputation, urge Kane to leave.

Kane's allies, including the town's mayor (Thomas Mitchell), judge (Otto Kruger), and former Marshal (Lon Chaney), advise him to flee, but he can't. One of the movie's characters agrees to fight alongside Will Kane, but backs out when he realises he is the only volunteer. The only sure offter of aid comes from a 14-year-old boy; Kane admires his courage but rejects it as well.

Against the wishes of his Quaker wife and with no one in the town willing to stand beside him, Kane prepares to face Miller and his gang alone.

High Noon takes place almost entirely in real time. This means that its runtime coincides with the exact time of the film's story. Zinnemann places a huge emphasis on clocks and their incessant ticking; a motif the director reverts to throughout the movie to highlight the inevitability of the looming ending.

Like the film's haunting background score, its 85 minutes runtime is our brief insight into the potential demise of a man's legacy and his relationship with a town that took him many decades to construct.

The movie is rife with visual symbols, which often add to its visual acuteness. The film's tension is derived fundamentally from the ticking clocks auguring of the looming midday combat and through the group cowardice and treachery of so-called 'good' townspeople.?

The rising strain on the lawman as he prepares to meet the four thugs and makes fruitless attempts to recruit help from the cowardly citizens has never been handled better, and it is sustained right up to and through the climactic gunfight.

In a beautiful, intense scene several adults congregated in a church argue betwixt themselves over whether or not to assist Marshal Kane, while their children, sent out to play while the grown-ups talk, amuse themselves with a tug of war. An interesting choice of game that reflects the tug of war going on inside.

In some respects, High Noon could be deemed an anti-Western, a forerunner of the films of Clint Eastwood. Cooper performs the part with grim-jawed and resolutely stoic face that belies an emotionality. His Kane is a man not to be deterred in fighting an enemy but would rather stay in peace; an indelible performance that showcased his ability to play everymen of depth without diluting the character's inherent heroism.

Cooper's Oscar for Best Actor is a well deserved one as he embodies both strength and fear, represents a rooted sense of dignity without coming off as arrogant.

His are the frailties each of us finds in ourselves; seeing them in Kane allows us to identify with him. In 1952, the movie was unsettling for some because they were unprepared to see a reflection of themselves on the screen; they expected a figure of legends; they got a man.

High Noon was penned by screenwriter Carl Foreman, who having been suspected of harbouring Communist sympathies was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Foreman, although disillusioned by the Communist Party, refused to answer any questions from the committee as a matter of principle and was subsequently blacklisted.

It's easy to watch High Noon and see Foreman's point of view. A decent, upright law-abiding man played by Gary Cooper could flee but chooses instead to stay and fight, to stand up for what he believes is right. Even when the townsfolk are too sacred or selfish to back him up. The parallels are simple: Cooper is Foreman, the bad guys are HUAC, the townspeople are the American bigwigs.

John Wayne, a close friend of Cooper and someone who had hated the Communists had called High Noon "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life." Meanwhile, the Soviet Union's Pravda attacked the film for what the newspaper saw as "a glorification of the individual."

The film has alternatively been interpreted as an allegory of the Cold War and US foreign policy during the Korean War.

Ironically, over the years, people from varying sides of the political spectrum have come to find their personal values in this film.

Although, anti-Communists saw the film as propaganda and anti-American, President Ronald Reagan loved the film for Gary Cooper's “strong sense of and dedication to duty and law.”

Surprisingly, Bill Clinton, on the opposing political spectrum loved the movie tremendously. Clinton apparently ran the film no less than 17 times while in office.

This is what aids High Noon: symbols, emotion, mounting tension, some action in a dusty frontier town. Although its conflict happens to take place in the old West its implication are somehow universal.

This review is part of a series titled 'Cinematheque' centered around canvassing lesser-known films.

Also read: Waking Life: A review

Also read: The Sacrifice review: A cinematic offering

Also read: The Passion of Joan of Arc review: An impassioned film

Also read: Agantuk: Strange notions!

Also read: Maborosi: A cinematic phantom