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With: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney Jr., Harry Morgan, Ian MacDonald, Eve McVeagh, Morgan Farley, Harry Shannon, Lee Van Cleef, Robert J. Wilke, Sheb Wooley, Jack Elam
Written by: Carl Foreman, based on a story by John W. Cunningham
Directed by: Fred Zinnemann
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 85
Date: 07/07/1952

High Noon (1952)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Clock Ticks

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

High Noon's reputation precedes it. It's one of the most famous movies in history. It was a top hit in its day, and won four Oscars out of seven total nominations. The American Film Institute has continually ranked it one of the greatest of all American films, and it has remained a favorite of many critics and filmmakers, and even U.S. presidents.

Yet, also in its day, actor John Wayne and director Howard Hawks were said to have seen it and loathed it. (They reportedly made Rio Bravo as their answer to it.) Indeed, High Noon was made by people who did not necessarily love Westerns or were familiar with the genre.

Director Fred Zinnemann was already an Oscar nominee for Best Director, and would go on to earn seven nominations in that category, plus one win (and an additional win for Best Documentary Short). Yet he was not a passionate director, nor was he interested in genre films (his only other visit to the Western was in the form of the musical Oklahoma!). Andrew Sarris wrote of him: "At best his direction was inoffensive; at its worst, it is downright dull."

Then there was producer Stanley Kramer, a much more notorious figure in film. Kramer received nine Oscar nominations, mostly for his "message" movies. He was more involved in adding artificial "prestige" to movies than he was in creating lasting works of art. Nevertheless, though High Noon clearly has something to say, it's told in such a way that its message is up for interpretation.

Gary Cooper stars as Marshal Will Kane, who marries the beautiful Quaker girl Amy (Grace Kelly) and prepares to leave town a day before the replacement marshal is scheduled to arrive. Unfortunately, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) is arriving on the noon train, looking for revenge against Kane. His men, including a young, sinister-looking Lee Van Cleef -- who would go on to be the star of many spaghetti Westerns -- lurk around the train station.

Kane decides that he must finish this battle and spends the bulk of the film trying to gather up some help. In one subplot, the deputy marshal (Lloyd Bridges) refuses to help because he is now dating the marshal's former flame, a Mexican beauty named Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), and believes that she still has feelings for him. (Part of the movie's legacy is this positive attention to a smart, active Mexican character without judging mixed-race relations.)

The movie is packed with great performances by great character actors, such as Thomas Mitchell, who won an Oscar for Stagecoach, Otto Kruger, Harry Morgan (playing a character called "Sam Fuller"), an uncredited Jack Elam, and even Sheb Wooley, who is perhaps best known for his 1958 hit song "The Purple People Eater." But perhaps most surprising is Lon Chaney Jr., who was best known for his roles in monster movies, playing Kane's wise old mentor with some of the movie's most profound dialogue. Chaney only appears in a couple of scenes, but his presence is indelible.

Floyd Crosby's black-and-white cinematography makes the little town seem foreboding, connecting this mood between interiors and exteriors. And editor Elmo Williams keeps the movie on a heartbeat's pace, turning in an 85-minute film that takes place in something close to real time; Kane keeps checking the clock, and the minutes move similarly to the minutes that pass for the audience. But though Dimitri Tiomkin's song "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'," which is used as the basis for the music cues, never seemed to fit very well for me.

Cooper had been known as a Western hero since The Virginian (1929), and though he had better Western roles -- Vera Cruz and Man of the West come to mind -- he won his second Oscar for this. The role could have been more deeply probed by a different actor, but it's perhaps because of Cooper's iconic, laconic performance that the movie remains open to so many different interpretations.

Many believe that it was a metaphor for the McCarthy era and the Communist witch hunts, but no one seems clear on which characters represent the McCarthyites and which represent the accused Communists. Indeed, though screenwriter Carl Foreman had been blacklisted himself, others read the movie as an allegory about getting involved in the Korean War.

In short, High Noon isn't really a masterpiece, and if you're a fan of more honest Westerns, it's hard not to notice Zinnemann's general lack of interest throughout. But it is a tense, effective little film. Certainly you've heard of it, and if you're thinking of checking it out, there's no reason not to.

Happily, Olive Films has landed several titles that had been owned by Republic Pictures and are giving them new, spruced-up DVD and Blu-ray releases. The High Noon Blu-ray is superb, and far superior to the Artisan DVD I reviewed in 2002. The extras on the new release have been passed down from other versions, including a making of documentary and a trailer.
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