Reluctant Gunslingers and Incorrigible She-Devils

Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952)

Can classic Hollywood films help us navigate today’s environment of political apathy and cynical media saturation?

The lore of a film like High Noon feels inchoate and meaningful, especially in today’s climate of social distrust, political conundrums, and ongoing cultural collision over issues ranging from birth control to Wall Street. Yet, by dissecting the shrewd style of director Fred Zinnemann, we can better understand the travesty of indifference to these issues, for the film exemplifies a singular, potent notion: Talk – Action = Zero.

Technical virtuosity aside, one of the more staggering concepts embodied in High Noon (1952), with its taut black and white cinematography, is the overt vulnerability of the protagonist Will Kane (Gary Cooper), a lawman prepping to be a store operator who returns to his post to deal with former prisoner Frank Miller, who seeks revenge on Kane’s wedding day. Cooper seems to balance a sense of self-loathing, distaste for irresponsibility, and a pent-up vitriol towards common people acting like sheep.

This surfaces in three ways. Will is unable to cajole anyone into fighting marauders, despite his own untainted loyalty to the town. He’s reluctant to fight except when seemingly cursed by a need to defend the town. Finally, his breakdown and near weeping in front of a 14-year-old offers up his inner conflict naked to the eye.

I remain stunned by such subversive angst stuck in the middle of a ‘50s western. Westerns are typically stoic, painterly, and manufactured, especially in sweeping Technicolor spectacles. But here, in a bout of impotence, Kane is unable to muster the town’s sense of courage, to prod them into drawing weapons on a destructive element, just as many Americans remained inert as the McCarthy proceedings chillingly bore down on Hollywood and the Left.

The classic dichotomy of good and evil in the film is blurred, diffused as the town’s lassitude spreads. In fact, in a kind of sweeping indictment, Martin Howe (Lon Chaney Jr.) delivers the ominous line, “It’s all for nothing, Will.” Earlier, in fact, he reports to Will, “…in the end you wind up dying all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothing. For a tin star.”

These sentiments echo the sensibilities of Ernest Hemingway characters as well. The cat lover’s short, yet seminal story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1926) features an old waiter dealing with his own isolation by subverting the Lord’s Prayer. As if being engulfed by a black hole of meaninglessness triggered by interactions with an uncouth younger waiter, he injects the word “nothing” into the holy litany: “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada.” The existentialism in both the film and story are prescient and palpable.

As Jeremy Byman argues, the town’s weakness in High Noon itself is “inseparable from villainy.” (Showdown at High Noon: Witch-Hunts, Critics, and the end of the Western Scarecrow Press, 2004) This twist helped evolve the plots of the Western genre into more sophisticated modes, all while being a slight intertextual nod to “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (1948), in which the town steps into the role of villainy as primitive sacrificial rite, later explored in the film, The Wicker Man by Robin Hardy (1973), as well.

These townspeople in High Noon, a favorite of President Bill Clinton, by the way, display no intrinsic, actionable call for justice: they don’t have the will to face an element they can’t define, or justify, as inherently evil. They actually desire for Will to leave, so their retributions for his earlier actions won’t be severely visited upon them. Even the symbol of so-called justice and order, the Judge Percy Mettrick (Otto Kruger), careens to the lonely boondocks. The town, teeming with cowardice, licentiousness, and personal vendettas, seems to serve as an analogue or index of social malaise and malady.

Byman terms it a genre-shifting, maximum paradigm impacting film, but I like to see it as a warning sign. That post-Civil War town in New Mexico, itself a place of endless contested space and cultural convergence, where the film unfurls, is America writ small.

The people in our own era should not simply witness but intercede in the issues that are challenging this country. When Kane tosses his sheriff’s badge in the Southwest dust, he also tosses out his last ounce of patience for small-mindedness, as should we less, as Jonas Henderson utters in the film, less “Everything we worked for will be wiped out.”

Another film speaks to the current blitzkrieg of a 24-hour news cycle, in which star power erupts and deflates within months in an endless loop. Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is a self-reflexive gem that pushes readers to examine the Hollywood past, and present, as a machination maker, often producing a field of dreams that becomes detritus. Once fawned over actresses, here today and gone tomorrow, end up like dusty mannequins, teetering shamelessly into obsolescence.

Considered an “elegiac grotesque”, the film turned noir about face by pointing it away from the mean, gritty, urban streets and aiming at Hollywood’s rotted heart – its ontology of fame, focused on 50-year old has-been actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who once attracted 17,000 fan letters in a week.

The film remains visceral, poignant, and fascinating because it critiques not only iconography and illusion but also dissects the dystopic, destructive underbelly of fame -- the way Hollywood cannibalizes its own denizens. Or, as Desmond admonishes, “They took the idols and smashed them.”

Like so many noirs, Sunset Boulevard is a meta-film that moves beyond veritable life-like characters, deeply fallible and frail, and deconstructs the larger system from which they emanate. Gangster tropes may stem from depictions of inner-city blight and desperation, but Billy Wilder’s out-of-whack film star is borne of glass menagerie studio system shards.

Her character seems to meld Miss Emily Grierson in William Faulker's "Rose for Emily", (1930) renown for keeping keeping a dead lover in her bed, with eerie, unsettled Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations (1860-61), who keeps her decaying mansion, and own self, locked in frozen cobwebbed time after she is abandoned by her lover at the altar.

In the film, writer Gillis Joe (William Holden) and Desmond are both products of the dream-machine; they are both signifiers of celluloid and pen, trapped in the living history of film, or what Anne Murray terms as Hollywood’s “unburied, unburiable past” -- alive in the cadence of film reels, but embalmed as well. (In the Limelight and Under the Microsope: Forms and Functions of Female Celebrity, Su Holmes and Diane Negra, Continuum 2011)

In fact, Carol Burnett lampooned the movie on her live variety show in 1973, joined by the cougar herself, Gloria Swanson, who prods her male companion, Lyle Waggoner, for a copy of Playgirl featuring his layout and asks if he “fools around.” In fact, she’s disappointed he’s demure, not a “weirdo”, alluding to her own persona in the film.

Even today, Sunset Boulevard is a magnetic tour-de-force, a meticulous examination of a bleary-eyed, jaundiced side of Hollywood. The striking opening sequence, featuring Gillis’ limp bobbing corpse in a murky pool, presages every CSI and Law and Order template, probing the darkest corner of pop culture storytelling.

The story traces a grand illusion imploded. The writer’s distress and breakdown feel raw, while her trope of psychosis is the stuff of later Hollywood mimicry of Hollywood tragedy, such as in Gods and Monsters (1998), only with a homosexual, suicidal bent. The victims are at the mercy of an uncontrolled paradox of glamour: sometimes monsters are made in the light.

By focusing on the decrepitude and fatalism of homegrown, carefully manicured American celebrity and the corresponding angst-ridden milieu of writers hovering in the late ‘40s (hmm, a nod to William Faulkner), Wilder exposes the myth-making process itself and the collision of filmmaking modes. Desmond signifies démodé camp (inherent in the film’s references to ‘30s Noel Coward and seductive Salome) while Betty Schaeffer, the young budding producer, embodies youthful verve and smarts.

Never innocuous, and always concentrating on sundry details, Wilder’s camera captures the emaciated, pinched face of Buster Keaton, a gaudy handmade $28,0000 Isotta-Fraschini, a dilapidated 1908 Wilshire Avenue castle, a huge engulfing swan-shaped Gaby Deslys bed, a late 1920s Erich von Stroheim silent movie, Queen Kelly starring Swanson herself (who proclaims, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”), projected as drinks clank and smoke prevails, and the infamous Stroheim, who plays a buttoned-up, thick-accented butler that is stout and impermeable as a tank.

Not only does Swanson sport miles of make-up and curls of smoke about her, but she also uses a cigarette holder to illustrate her own bygone stateliness and dances in a seductive bathing suit, embodying a mock-innocent grotesquerie that speaks of inner-wounds and the tattered frays of normality. She also re-enacts a Chaplin routine, adroit and abrupt, which ends in a flare-up as she unfurls erratic bouts of speech, gnarled-up fingers, twitching mouth, and obnoxious demands for Cecil B. DeMille to call.

In an age of blitzkrieg media hype and attack, when stars are battered by both their own failings and 24-hour news cycles, this tale of withering woe and Hollywood-as-dusty-Babylon feels pertinent. Perhaps it should be required film viewing for anyone daring to stare into a high-def camera. As Swanson utters, “There’s nothing else… Just us… the cameras… and those wonderful people in the dark… I’m ready for my close-up.”

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