There are two moments in High Noon (1952) that effectively highlight the film’s artful distillation of the modernist Western. The first is an overhead shot of Will Kane (Gary Cooper) on the streets of Hadleyville as he prepares to face the Miller gang alone; it is a perfect expression of the genre’s valorization of righteous individualism. The second is the film’s final scene, wherein Kane and new-wife, Amy (Grace Kelly), are rushed out of town barely a minute after finishing the movie’s climactic gun fight.
Men like Will Kane are treated as heroes for their willingness to do right, including with violence, regardless of what others may think or say, but those same qualities make them uneasy both for and in more civilized company. The manner in which the residents of Hadleyville “thank” Kane by ushering him away as soon as possible brings this contradiction forth in a particularly sharp and poignant way, all the more so because the act is persistently foreshadowed in the narrative.
The overhead shot begins as a medium close-up of Kane’s head and torso as he looks away from the camera and down the dusty street in front of him. He turns and the camera begins moving up and away. As Kane becomes smaller, we see him on the empty street, fidgeting and wiping his brow, his isolation from the rest of the town punctuated by the broadening view. He turns and walks down the road, a small, lonely figure. From here, the film is cut to an oblique shot of Frank Miller (Ian McDonald) and his gang of three striding into town to kill Kane and reclaim Hadleyville for the wild.
The crane shot is the end point of Kane’s failed attempts to gather a posse to confront the returning villains. Even though we are told that Frank Miller was originally caught and sent “north” as a result of people banding together, too much has changed in the interim. The other men of the town now hide behind Hadleyville’s veneer of civilization, claiming business interests or pleading family responsibilities as reasons not to put themselves on the line against the violent and “crazy” Miller.
This reticence is hardly surprising in a narrative that is rooted in a failure of organized society. Miller was originally sentenced to death, a sentence subsequently reduced to life in prison, and ultimately, he is paroled. Significantly, the first person to actively ‘cut-and-run’ from Kane is the town judge (Otto Kruger). Kane’s efforts to recruit assistance reaches its zenith at the Hadleyville community church, a scene that also draws attention to the fragile and fractured nature of the town’s ‘civilization’.
Before disrupting services at the church in his search for deputies, Kane tries Hadleyville’s non-churchgoing male population (it should go without saying that he does not even contemplate deputizing women). Those that don’t demur for reasons of personal safety, express a preference for Miller, who was, apparently, good for business if you own a hotel or saloon. The only volunteers Kane attracts are either from the margins, a town drunk, a 14-year-old kid, or fail to stick when they think too hard on the odds. Whereas the latter take themselves out of the action, the former aren’t practically or ethically viable. His one active deputy, Harv Pell (Lloyd Bridges), bails when Kane refuses to be leveraged into recommending him for Marshal following Kane’s anticipated retirement.
The crowd at the church has no truck with Miller and his kind, but are divided on the question of what to do about their return to town. After an initial rebuke from the minister (Morgan Farley) and uproar from the parishioners, Mayor Jonas Henderson (Thomas Mitchell) organizes an orderly discussion that goes back-and-forth between those who think the other men should join Kane and those who have doubts about doing so. Mayor Henderson closes the debate with a speech expressing respect and admiration for Kane, but assuring everyone that all will be well if he would just exit the town. If Kane isn’t around when Miller shows up the Mayor theorizes, the situation will be defused, the bad guys will move on, and the town will be saved from the spectacle of another shoot out. Predictably, this argument carries the day, and Kane is left to fight alone, a position beautifully articulated in the overhead shot outlined above.
Jonas Henderson’s plan of action presages the film’s closing scene, and, indeed, from the very moment the return of Miller is known, Jonas and just about everyone else in Hadleyville try to get Kane out of town, assuring him that he doesn’t have to stay and fight, that the town will be okay, maybe even better off, without him (what that says about Will and Amy’s safety is another issue; some in Hadleyville clearly don’t care, or, at least, prefer that whatever fight is going to happen, happen somewhere else). Kane, of course, let’s all of this roll off of him, though not without moments of doubt. The key scene in this regard is in the Hadleyville stables with Harv where the deputy tries to encourage Kane to just get on a horse and ride away. Initially, as well, Amy is a leading voice in the “get-out-of-town” chorus. However, her encounter with Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado) at the town hotel seems to spark a change in perspective.
Amy, a pacifist and Quaker, wants Will to settle down and open a shop in another city. Between herself and Mayor Henderson, they actually manage to get him, and her, part of the way out of Hadleyville before his sense of right and duty get the better of him and he returns to face Miller against Amy’s objections. She threatens to leave without him, but instead of waiting at the train station with Frank Miller’s gang, she retires to the hotel and learns of Will and Helen’s past.
Ramirez is, seemingly, the only person who intuitively gets Will Kane’s compulsion to remain in Hadleyville until the threat posed by Miller and his people is dealt with. She scolds Amy for not standing by him and fighting. Amy is clearly discomfited, both by Helen Ramirez’s very existence and her ability to understand Will in ways that she apparently can’t.
That Ramirez is better able to comprehend the Frontiersman’s sense of right and obligation is not surprising as she is as much in and of the Frontier as is Kane and Miller. A former lover of both men, and romantically linked to Harv Pell at movie’s start, she symbolically straddles the line between “savagery and civilization”. As a Mexican woman who not only, seemingly, freely chooses her partners in both love and business, and who owns her own store, her role in Hadleyville is necessarily temporary; she is no more able to settle down and join proper American civilization than is Miller or Kane. She sells her store to a local silent partner, a white man, of course, and gets on the train out of town with Amy.
Amy, however, jumps off of the train upon hearing the first gun shots exchanged between Will and the Millers. She rushes into town and ends up in the Marshal’s office, unsure of what to do until she sees both Miller and henchman, Jim Pierce (Robert Wilke), converging on Kane. She grabs a gun that had been left hanging on a rack by Herb (James Millican), the last person to bail on Will. She fires on Pierce at close range through a side window in the office, killing him. Frank Miller figures out where the shot came from and takes her as a hostage, luring Kane out of the saddlery. Amy fights back, pushing herself away and creating an opening for Will to shoot Miller dead.
While we don’t see what the personal and long-term repercussions of her actions are, her decision to stand by Kane, instead of forsaking him, is a stark and powerful articulation of the Western’s trope of violence, and its assumed necessity in the taming of the Frontier. What High Noon implies is that the primitiveness of the Frontier not only strips away the niceties of polite society and the social hierarchies of settled peoples, but also that professions of faith and personal conviction, particularly those that are intellectualized, are luxuries that one can ill afford in the wild. When a truly righteous person’s hand is forced by savagery, the righteous person will have no option but to turn to savagery themselves or risk both their own life and the advance of civilization.
Amy and Will’s shared moment of violence creates at least a temporary bond between the newlyweds, and after the ordeal, they embrace, first in long shot, set against the town and Miller’s corpse, and then more intimately in close-up. This moment is broken by a long shot of townsfolk streaming out onto the street like munchkins from The Wizard of Oz (1939), Will and Amy’s wagon in tow. After sharing a kind moment with Johnny (Ralph Reed), the fourteen-year old who volunteered to be a deputy, we see Kane in medium close-up with a stern and reproving look on his face. He pulls off his badge, and, his hand followed by the camera, tosses it to the ground before getting on the wagon and riding off into the distance with Amy by his side.
The classic ending for modern Westerns, as established in Stagecoach (1939), is to have the hero ride off into the sunset. The romance of this image smooths out the dissonance suggested by the hero’s removal from society. Other later films, for example, Shane (1953), The Searchers (1956), also have their heroes exit civilization in images that are mixed in thought and emotion, but High Noon almost uniquely foregrounds both the hero’s departure and settled society’s desire to have him leave. While grateful at the end, at no point in the narrative do the good citizens of Hadleyville actually want Will Kane to stick around, not even for expediency’s sake.
High Noon is also unique for allowing the Frontiersman to look back at the civilization that needs, but can’t accommodate, him, and his look is one of disdain. However, as he himself remarks earlier, he’s the same man with or without the badge. Despite the lack of support, despite the preferences for his departure, there is no doubt that Will Kane would make the same choices all over again if he had to. That sense of moral certainty, that trust in the righteous individual’s intuitive sense of justice, is a large part of the Western’s appeal, particularly in an American cultural framework where the U.S. is the world’s exceptional nation. This allure is underscored in the “Inside High Noon” feature included on the second disc of Lionsgate’s new “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” DVD, particularly by comments from Bill Clinton regarding his admiration for Gary Cooper’s Kane and the character’s sense of duty in the face of abandonment by those around him.
“Inside High Noon” is also notable for being the primary new extra in the new two-disc set under review here. Also included are the features “Behind High Noon”, which is on the “Collector’s Edition” from Artisan, and “The Making of High Noon”, which is not only on the “Collector’s Edition,” but is also the only notable extra on the original DVD release, also from Artisan.
The new short makes “Behind High Noon” largely superfluous. The older feature is constructed from interviews and prepared text read by Gary Cooper’s daughter, Maria Cooper-Janis, Tim Zinnemann, son of director Fred Zinnemann, and Jonathan Foreman, son of writer Carl Foreman.
The newer extra outclasses “Behind High Noon” in its creative and historical contextualization of the film, and benefits from the inclusion of scholars and figures like Clinton alongside the family members (not to mention having Frank Langella as a narrator rather than the sincere, but not entirely at ease, Cooper-Janis as host). The aforementioned daughter and sons also participate in the DVD commentary along with John Ritter, son of Tex Ritter, who sings the movie’s theme song, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh, My Darling.” The commentary is dominated by Cooper-Janis and Foreman, with Zinnemann and Ritter only occasionally getting a word in, and alternates between nostalgic recollection and creative insight. While Foreman, in particular, can be tiresome in his proclamations about the film’s meaning and significance, the commentary is a better companion to the new feature than is the earlier “Behind High Noon,” which is essentially a distillation of the main points from the audio track.
Whether the newest feature also renders the Leonard Maltin-hosted “The Making of High Noon” redundant is another question. Most of what’s included in the Maltin piece is also covered by “Inside”, but the original “Making of ...” feature has the advantage of interviews with the primary creators, notably Zinnemann and producer Stanley Kramer. It is also shorter, just over 22-minutes as opposed to just under 50-minutes, but does not have the longer feature’s breadth. Both have a rough cut-and-paste feel that suggests they were pieced together from found material or excerpts from other works. They both also feature clips that are much muddier and worn looking than the sharp, bright transfer on the current DVD. Indeed, this is the best-looking and best-sounding version of the film available.
Sound-quality is of particular importance to High Noon as the movie’s Oscar-winning theme song is woven into the score by composer Dimitri Tiomkin. In different tones and at different tempos, it is used for pathos, to signify danger, and for a sense of urgency. It is likely to invade your consciousness, and is a major reason why the film will stick with you for years after having seen even just once.
The importance of Tiomkin’s music to the film is perhaps one reason why this newest DVD adds two features related to the theme, a visit to the Tex Ritter Museum and a TV performance of the song. The set also includes a radio broadcast that is also found on the “Collector’s Edition.” Anyone who loves old cowboy music will probably get some enjoyment out of these extras, but none offer much beyond nostalgia. Indeed, the beginning of the commentary track has more to offer regarding the film’s music and score than do these extras.
The best reason to buy or rent Lionsgate’s “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” DVD is its high-quality presentation of High Noon itself, which remains as elegant and powerful a statement of the modernist Western as there ever was.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article