[13 June 2008]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
HIGH NOON (1952) 4 stars CAST: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges and Katy Jurado DIRECTOR: Fred Zinnemann WRITER: Carl Foreman DISTRIBUTOR: Lionsgate Not rated
“High Noon,” with its iconic story of one man’s courage in the face of death, has long been a favorite movie of many viewers. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, despite their different political perspectives, have each cited the 1952 Western in which Gary Cooper stars as a marshal who stands up alone against a gang of murderers as one of their best-loved movies. Clinton has even called the film “my favorite movie for 50 years.”
But “High Noon,” out on DVD this week in a two-disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Lionsgate, $19.98, not rated), has also stirred passions to a greater degree than almost any other Western.
Its left-wing screenwriter, Carl Foreman, said he wrote “High Noon” as “a parable about Hollywood and McCarthyism.”
For that and other reasons, John Wayne, a staunch Hollywood conservative, called “High Noon” “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”
But as is clear from watching the movie from the distance of 56 years and viewing “Inside High Noon,” a 50-minute DVD documentary on the movie, the film lends itself to many interpretations.
At its core, “High Noon” is about Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) of Hadleyville in the New Mexico territory, who on the day of both his wedding to his young Quaker bride, Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly, in her first major film role), and his retirement as a lawman, learns that a killer he had put behind bars has been pardoned and is seeking revenge against him. The killer, one Frank Miller, plans to meet three henchmen in Hadleyville in less than 90 minutes when he arrives on the noon train, and then go gunning for Kane. And the replacement marshal is not due to arrive in town until the following day.
After being urged by his friends and bride to ride away before Miller and his gang arrive, Kane decides he must stay and fight. But as he tries to recruit a posse to stand with him against the Miller gang, he gets rejected everywhere he turns - by his friends, by the men at the local saloon and by the parishioners at the local church. And his violence-hating wife says that she will leave on that same noontime train if he insists on remaining and fighting.
“High Noon” was made by the independent production team of producer Stanley Kramer, well-known for his liberal views, and associate producer-writer Foreman, a leftist who had been a member of the Communist Party but resigned in 1942. It was directed by another liberal, Austrian immigrant Fred Zinnemann.
From Foreman’s perspective, Kane was standing in for himself and other blacklisted screenwriters, actors and directors who felt abandoned by their colleagues and their movie studios when the forces of the House Un-American Activities Committee and its right-wing allies in Hollywood tried to purge Hollywood of leftists. Foreman was actually called to testify before HUAC while “High Noon” was being made, and he moved to European exile when he was blacklisted after the film came out.
Wayne and others of his perspective in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals clearly saw the anti-HUAC message of “High Noon,” but also objected to the movie’s depiction of the townspeople as cowardly. To Wayne, this type of “anti-Western” was tarnishing the small-town virtues of rugged individualism, patriotism and courage that were viewed as the core principles of the Hollywood Western.
Indeed, in 1959 Wayne collaborated with director Howard Hawks on “Rio Bravo,” a movie they both wanted to make as a rebuke of “High Noon.”
Ironically, the star of “High Noon,” Gary Cooper, who won an Oscar for his performance as Will Kane, was also a conservative, yet he stood by Foreman when Wayne and others were calling for his blacklisting. Cooper, according to both his daughter, Maria Cooper-Janis, and Foreman’s son, Jonathan Foreman, on the DVD, even defended Foreman after the screenwriter had a falling-out with his partner, Stanley Kramer, who evidently feared that Foreman’s notoriety would destroy their company.
(Also ironically, when Cooper was unable to attend the Academy Awards to pick up his Oscar for “High Noon,” his pal John Wayne accepted it for him.)
Despite the anti-McCarthyist intentions of Foreman, one can read into “High Noon” a variety of political implications - even some conservative ones. From one perspective, Will Kane is the only person in town who understands the necessity of standing up to the Soviet menace (as represented by the Miller gang) while the townspeople are all too timid or complacent to get involved. Or to bring this back a decade or so, Will Kane represents a Churchill-like figure, who fights against the Miller gang (standing in for Nazi Germany) while the townspeople (representing Western Europe) favor appeasement.
“High Noon” also provides much to talk about in terms of its depiction of racial and gender issues. Katy Jurado, as Helen Ramirez, Hadleyville’s most successful business person and Kane’s former lover, plays a character who is proud, smart, beautiful and openly critical of the townspeople’s prejudice toward Mexican Americans like herself. Frankly, as gorgeous as Grace Kelly’s Amy Fowler may be, it’s hard to understand how Kane could have chosen her over Helen Ramirez.
When you place all of these fascinating issues on top of a taut, suspenseful and strongly acted Western, it’s no wonder that “High Noon” has endured so well for more than half a century.