A mounting sense of dread and inevitability hangs over Fred Zinnemann’s grim, downbeat Western classic High Noon, a black-and-white anti-spectacle about an aging lawman who receives a series of nasty shocks on the day he tries to hang up his gunbelt and begin a new life.
At the film’s center is Gary Cooper’s iconic performance as Will Kane, a popular small-town sheriff whose wedding to a beautiful young Quaker gal (Grace Kelly) on the day of his retirement represents his attempt to leave his old life behind. But then Kane learns that an old enemy, Frank Miller, who has sworn revenge has been released from prison, and that his old gang members are awaiting him on the noon train.
Eschewing panoramic Western landscapes and colorful action sequences, High Noon generates claustrophobic suspense by focusing on three images: Kanes’s increasingly tense, pained expression (reflecting Cooper’s actual physical and emotional state at the time); implacably ticking clocks counting down the minutes toward noon in (almost) real time; and the ominous, empty train tracks that will eventually bring Kane’s archenemy into town.
Like Zinnemann’s later superb A Man for All Seasons, High Noon is a portrait of resolute moral courage in a man who is opposed by his community, his friends, even his wife, and is ultimately willing to die for his principles. What those principles are, though, is not as clear as in the case of Thomas More.
Kane offers more than one rationale for his stubborn insistence on confronting Miller, some pragmatic (if Kane doesn’t confront Miller here and now, Miller may surprise him at some unknown future time and place), but others merely proud (Kane has never run from a fight before).
Lurking somewhere behind Kane’s dogged determination is another question of principle: The film was made during the McCarthy era, when Hollywood filmmakers who refused to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities were blacklisted or informed on by colleagues more interested in self-preservation than in protecting their fellows or standing up to the HUAC. In fact, High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman was blacklisted shortly after writing this script. (Another classic film of this era, On the Waterfront, was made in part as a principled defense of its director’s cooperation with the HUAC.)
Although not as nerve-wracking as High Noon, 3:10 to Yuma is even more claustrophobic — the heart of the film is the verbal sparring between Evans and Wade in a second-story hotel room — and the two-character drama is more intriguing than High Noon’s protagonist standing alone.
There’s no spiritual duel, no earned respect and debt of honor. There is just a broken man and a capricious one: one harboring hopeless dreams of being a man again in the eyes of his wife and son but no hope of achieving it; the other larger than life, an implacable force of nature able to kill men and seduce women essentially at will, and who never has any reason to honor or respect the other man, but could conceivably take pity on him and go along with him, if it strikes his fancy.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.