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High Noon

tn_highnoonI’m still lacking in my knowledge of westerns. I know some of the bigger spaghetti westerns and some of the modern ones, but not many of the original ones those are playing off of. And I know every once in a while I oughta school myself on the basics and the classics so here I am watching 1952’s HIGH NOON directed by Frederick Zinnemann.

This is the story of a pretty bad wedding day. Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is marrying Amy (Grace Kelly) who, let’s face it, is WAAAAAYYY out of his league (and less than half his age). But this is the movies so somehow he ties the knot and he’s gonna retire and be a househusband or something, but about one minute after he literally hangs up his star he gets handed a telegram saying that his murderous nemesis Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) has been pardoned (for what, THE SPIRIT?) and what’s more word is three of Miller’s thugs (including Lee Van Cleef, the first face you see in the movie, and not a welcoming one) are waiting at the train station for him to arrive in town at noon.

The judge and everybody know Kane shouldn’t have to deal with this shit on his wedding/retirement day, so they shuffle him out of town in a hurry. But of course he feels guilty, or feels like a sissy, and comes back, against the wishes of his new bride (who not only wants to go on her honeymoon, but is a Quaker, so she’s against shooting guys).

mp_highnoonEven with himself as an extra man on shift Kane only has two deputies, and one of them (Lloyd Bridges) quits like a fuckin baby when Kane won’t appoint him as his successor (he wants to leave it up to the people who will still live there to decide). So most of the movie is about the politics of trying to get people in town to man up and help him. At the jam-packed all male bar he’s told off for even asking, because “Frank’s got friends here, you know that.” We find out that Will is a controversial figure in town because he “cleaned up the streets” and made it safe for women and children. (It is not specified what these yahoos were doing to children.) Some people like that, but others resent the loss of business from the dirtbags that got scrubbed out. It’s like what Giulliani did to Times Square, I think. This movie is about gentrification!

Well, he goes to his friend, who lives in a nice big house with a fancier take on a white picket fence. And that fucker has the nerve to make his wife say he’s not home instead of coming out and saying no himself. “Uh, you know Will, I’d love to but I got to, uh… there’s a P.T.A. meeting?”

Then poor Kane has to resort to going to church, where sure enough the pastor passive-aggressively lays a guilt trip on him for having had his wedding at the courthouse. When Will (like Seagal in FIRE DOWN BELOW) makes his plea to the congregation a bunch of the men step forward without hesitation… and then step backwards after some loudmouths chime in and make a bunch of arguments for why they don’t get paid to do this or if Kane left town there wouldn’t be a problem or whatever.

There’s a great scene where Bridges’ character, having quit, is at the saloon having a drink. The bartender, a vocal Frank Miller fanboy, compliments him about it. And you can tell he knows that this bartender is a total shitbag and that his kind words are only evidence of what an asshole move he pulled by quitting. But instead of it inspiring him to man up and do the right thing he just tells him to let him drink in peace.

In the end the Marshall has exactly two volunteers. One is a kid who he turns down on the basis of age, the other is an old one-eyed drunk who he tells “I’ll call you if I need you.” I can’t believe he fell for that! He doesn’t have a phone to call him on!

I want to say it’s a story about a guy who will think of any  excuse to avoid married life, but that’s not really how it plays. It’s about manly duties and responsibilities. It’s not his job to do this, he could just leave. But he believes these assholes are gonna terrorize the town, and that no one else is gonna stop them. I notice traces of this western morality in DIE HARD but also in the justifications for some of our foreign policy mistakes started in the Reagan and Bush eras. We had to stop this bad guy, even though we have no jurisdiction and the people there told me not to. I’m doing it for them. That’s a funny read on it though because at the time many people saw it as a lefty movie, an allegory about blacklisting. Kane had to stay true to his convictions even though no one would stand up for him. This interpretation might’ve come from the fact that screenwriter and former communist Carl Foreman (THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE) was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee while working on the movie and got blacklisted for not naming names. But Zinnemann and Cooper did stand up for him and prevent him from getting kicked off the movie.

John Wayne (who actually accepted Cooper’s best actor Oscar for the movie) was quoted as calling it “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life” and said he and Howard Hawks made RIO BRAVO in response to it. From the sounds of it their position was that Kane was a pussy to go around looking for help and should’ve just done it by himself in the first place, like Rambo would’ve done. But I don’t get that, because in RIO BRAVO even though Chance turns down help from the town he does have a couple guys to help him, an old man and drunk ass Dean Martin. Kane chose not to let his drunk friend help him, he went it alone. He’d have grounds to call Chance a pussy but he’d never do it because he’s a gentleman and a newlywed.

I mean I like John Wayne but that’s kind of a dick move when a guy totally sacrifices himself and you tell him that’s just not enough. Kane thinks it’s suicide and he does it anyway. He sits down and writes his last will and testament first. I hope that friend of his who “wasn’t home” wasn’t included in it.

This black and white cinematogacism looks gorgeous on the blu-ray, and ol’ Zinnemann Toast Crunch shows some impressive directorial chops. You know, it’s mostly pretty normal and stationary but then he throws in some fancy shots for emphasis, like when the judge asks if he remembers Miller threatening his life while sitting in that chair right there, and the camera zooms in on the empty chair as you picture him doing it. Then much later in the movie they repeat that shot to remind you of the threat.

One impressive thing is that this is pretty close to real time. It’s the original 24! It’s all leading to a big shoot out of course, and that’s well done. But like so many things the anticipation is the best part. It really captures that feeling of the clock ticking down and the Marshall getting that sinking feeling as it becomes more and more clear that he’ll be standing there all by himself when that train pulls up. A great theme song by Tex Ritter fades in and out like a light breeze blowing through the quiet town, haunting him as he waits for the hammer to drop.

It’s interesting, because this is such a famous title that I want to assume it’s typical of the classic westerns. But reading about it I see that at the time it was considered very unconventional for concentrating on the civics instead of shootouts and Indian attacks and shit. Variety called it “more of a western drama than the usual outdoor action feature.” Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times that “Every five years or so, somebody – somebody of talent and taste, with a full appreciation of legend and a strong trace of poetry in their soul – scoops up a handful of clichés from the vast lore of Western films and turns them into a thrilling and inspiring work of art in this genre.”  It sounds like for them it was the kind of movie I love to see now, one that uses genre trappings successfully but in a different way that sort of challenges the idea of what that genre is supposed to be. As Crowther called it, “a rare and exciting achievement.”

It’s a solid movie all around. I guess they knew what they were doing when they made it a classic.

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40 Responses to “High Noon”

  1. I liked that movie. It’S one of the very few classic westerns that I ever saw. For a movie, that is basically just about a guy who goes from door to door and asks for help, it’s seriously entertaining and well done.

  2. I always interpreted Wayne & Hawks’ indignation with the film being at the representation of the cowardly townspeople not wanting to help Kane out – that was what they sought to ‘correct’ with RIO BRAVO

  3. This is a really great movie. The tension is crazy. I really wish Gary Cooper had burned that fucking town down after saving it, though. Even the Quaker wife had more balls in the end than most of that town. I know there’s debate about how she betrayed her own beliefs, leading it to be more of a tragic act than one of triumph, and it just makes me even more angry at those cowardly dickheads.

  4. I don’t comment on this site enough, even though I am a huge fan of Vern’s and love reading all of his reviews.

    I just need to chime in to say that this might be my all-time favorite film, and I think the world is a better place because High Noon exists.

    I can’t imagine anyone other than Gary Cooper playing Marshall, but apparently Gregory Peck was first offered the role and turned it down. Atticus Finch squaring off against the bad guys? Maybe they should have done a sequel- High Noon 2: The Squeakuel.

  5. Liked this one alot, but I think since I saw Outland (the Hyams/Connery sci-fi remake with the awesome VHS cover) first, some of the impact was missing. Hope Vern will review that one, as it’s not only a nice High Noon companion piece, but also an Alien one as well (seriously, the sets, costumes, cinematography and music are all straight from Alien – it’s a more plausible spin-off than Prometheus, that’s for sure)

    I heard all the clocks you see onscreen in High Noon are actually running in real time, which not only seems like a cool gimmick but an impossible one considering when this was made. If they tried that now, you can bet they would just CGI the clocks in since I’m sure there’d be a ton of post-production focus-group rejiggering and tons of scenes would be changed/left on the cutting room floor.

  6. Hans – this time John Wayne does not ride off into the sunset with Grace Kelly.

    McLane – That was Gary Cooper, asshole.

  7. I love me some westerns. For classics, you can’t go wrong with John Ford, one of the best directors of all time. His movies show you where our western myths come from and why they were important to our nation building. Start with his best…The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Balance, and his “Calvary” trilogy, which includes my personal favorite She Wore A Yellow Ribbon”. I really enjoy all of the character actors that Ford assembled for his movies, especially Victor McGlaughin.
    And don’t sleep on The Wild Bunch…my favorite movie. It is the essence of badass cinema, especially in relation to their code of honor.

  8. TJ, they did make a High Noon 2. It was written by Elmore Leonard.

    And yeah, a Wild Bunch review would be great. It gets my vote as the most bad-ass film of all time.

    And then a Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid review after that.

  9. apparently Gregory Peck was first offered the role and turned it down. Atticus Finch squaring off against the bad guys?

    Peck’s played a lot of bad-asses (The Gunfighter) and even straight-up bad guys (Duel in the Sun where he rapes Jennifer Jones, and he was Captain Ahab for christsakes) before, so it’s really not that big of a stretch. Plus, it would have made Grace Kelly as the bride a little less of an act of cradle-robbing.

  10. A Danish poster, Vern? People will say that STAGECOACH, SHANE and THE SEARCHERS should be next. But I would say that VERA CRUZ, RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY and RIO CONCHOS are far better – and a lot more important to the development of the American western than the previous three. THE WILD BUNCH is of course the holy grail of all movie reviews.

  11. Thanks Vern; I think you’re making an important point here. I’ve never really understood where Wayne and Hawks were coming from with their criticism of HIGH NOON. By the end of RIO BRAVO Chance has a veritable rainbow coalition – the old and disabled, a reforming addict, a kid, a woman, and an Hispanic American – pitching for him, quite literally in the case of Walter Brennan’s Stumpy. Yet somehow the Wayne-Hawks view is an entrenched one; it’s like they never really watched their own movie.

    HIGH NOON stands on its own terms, but to get to the WILD BUNCH from here you probably need to go via VERA CRUZ. It may not be Robert Aldrich’s best western (I’d want to say that’s ULZANA’S RAID) but for me it set the trend in bad men going down to Mexico. And aside from Gary Cooper letting Burt Lancaster steal the movie, you have a cast that includes Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Charles Bronson.

  12. Sorry Pegsman, I missed your remark while I was writing mine. What you said!

  13. I respect the legacy and quality of Ford and Wayne’s collaborations, but I can’t say I’m a fan of any of their films. Maybe it’s my age. I grew up with The Man With No Name, Josey Wales and Pale Rider as my Western reference points, though I saw THE COWBOYS and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE on Sunday afternoon TV at my grandparents house when I was a kid. And I did like Don Siegels THE SHOOTIST. It was nice summation of the legend of, and hat-tip to John Wayne.

  14. Someone once made the brilliant point that The Magnificent Seven, The Professionals and The Wild Bunch all reflected the American public’s view of their involvement in Vietnam in their respective years (albeit indirectly). I usually hate this kind of reductionist reading of films (saying The Wild Bunch is a Vietnam allegory is the most boring way to read the film), but when the 3 films are placed beside each other it gets pretty interesting. Seven is idealistic about American interventionalism, The Professionals is more cynical, realizing that the mission might be corrupt but there’s still a chance of salvaging things and The Wild Bunch is basically “no one gets out alive”.

  15. Some old westerns can be hard to stomach these days. I wonder what kids today say have to say about THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS on.

  16. I don’t think it’s all about age. If you look at a movie like RIO CONCHOS from 1964 it’s more violent and harsher in both tone and politics than, let’s say THE MISSING from 2003. The classics, like HIGH NOON, STAGECOACH, SHANE and THE SEARCHERS, might be a little stale and long winded for the kids of today. But there are plenty of other westerns from the same period that would satisfy even the x-box generation. If they are into RED DEAD, that is. I wouldn’t dare to suggest anything with Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott or John Wayne pre HONDO to my kids. Most, if not all, of John Fords westerns are outdated too. But the several times mentioned VERA CRUZ, from 1954, who according to Sergio Leone inspired both the look and the feel of the spaghetti western, would be well recieved. I think.

  17. I´d say the heroic depiction of a massmurderer like Custer in that movie might seem incredibly offensive today.

  18. But you are right. It´s not all about age.

  19. Good review, Vern. I think a western a month to review would be awesome. Winchester 73 would be my vote. Or The Good, the Bad, the Weird. Yeah do that one.

  20. John Waynes dislike of HIGH NOON becomes a lot more strange when we know the he on one hand supported the blacklisting of people working in Hollywood, and on the other made a career out of playing men who stood up against “The Man”. Didn’t he realize that he was working for pretty much the same “Man”? He personally ruined Carl Foreman’s life and vocally supported the greylisting of Lloyd Bridges and Henry Fonda in an interview as late as 1971.

    Shoot, they are all pretty messed up these so-called historical dramas from the first half of the century. A lot of the later ones too, come to think of it.

  21. John Carpenter wrote a piece about westerns for a magazine or website or something that you can google up (don’t have the link) where he basically shit all over this movie and Gary Cooper “crying” or something like that. Then again Carpenter is a Hawks fanboy so don’t be surprised.

  22. Here is what JC precisely said: “The greatest Western ever made. It’s about a man reclaiming his self-respect. It was made in reaction to High Noon. There you had a sheriff who breaks down and cries when no-one helps him. It’s ridiculous. Hawks made Rio Bravo because he was so disturbed by the silliness of High Noon.”

    From his Top 10 westerns list he wrote. Worth a read.


  23. Nice article RRA. I too, wish Carpenter had directed TOMBSTONE, like he said he wanted to.

    John Carpenters’ TOMBSTONE.

    Damn that’s got a nice ring to it.

  24. I was gonna say the EXACT same thing!


  25. Carpenter’s Top 10 is kinda cool. Mine’s a little different, and I don’t get why he claims that John Wayne dies in TRUE GRIT, but you can see that the guy knows his westerns.

  26. I like how laid back Carpenter is nowadays. He just chills the fuck out, smoke weed and play videogames and is still capable of producing amazing shit like LOST THEMES.

  27. Strange really that he’s never directed a western. There was a piece in Empire (I think) a long time ago about how initially brilliant directors named John seemed to lose it after a while; Carpenter, Badham, Singleton etc.

  28. John Hughes, John McTiernan, John Woo (?)

  29. I’m with neal2zod, OUTLAND somewhat ruined this one for me. (I also agree that OUTLAND mimics the ALIEN mood pretty well, even if some of the shown tech is that little bit more kitschy than in Scott’s film. I know it’s all over and done with, but I’m sure I would have liked PROMETHEUS a tad more had it shared some of these films’ visual tics. Then again, Emmerich’s MOON 44 also went with the copycat ’80s run-down, dark and grimy sci-fi look and that did pretty much nothing to improve that film’s overall quality. Looked nicely retro, though.)

    Vern, how about a review of BITE THE BULLET, with Hackman, Coburn and Candice Bergen? It’s not really a western in the straightforward sense, more of a long-distance race/western hybrid, but I recently re-watched it and just really enjoyed it. Great performances, good visuals, nice ‘n’ dry sense of humour.

  30. OUTLAND came under heavy critisism – from sci fi author Harlan Ellison, among others – for as I see it some of the same reasons HIGH NOON is hailed as a masterpiece. The most interesting difference between Zinneman’s and Hyam’s version is that the latter does what Hawks did with RIO BRAVO and portrays Connery’s marshall as a man who rises to the challenge without crying – if I can be a bit simplistic and use that as a metaphor for all the feelings Kane goes through. In fact at one point he says about his deputys; “My men? My men are shit!”

  31. Vern needs to review Carpenter’s LOST THEMES album. Good to know the old bastard can still crank out good music.

    Pegsman – Carpenter incidentally once tweeted that he wasn’t a fan of the Coen Bros.’ remake. He never elaborated on why.

    Plus OUTLAND gave us exploding heads.

  32. Ah man, you left out the best part, though! That couplet in the song, which is one of the top rhymes ever:

    “He made a vow while in states prison/Vowed it would be my life of his’n.”


  33. Man, OUTLAND is one of those films that I just want to love, but can’t. I’ve seen it at least three times, probably more, and I’m damned if I can remember a thing about it. I remember the arts style and I remember Connery. I don’t remember the story or characters. It just made no impression on me. Not sure whether that’s a problem with me or with the film, but… there ya go.

    And I’m sure I’ve seen HIGH NOON at some point, but I was very very young at the time and I don’t recall it. I’ll have to look at it again. The thing is, even though I’ve liked most of the Westerns I’ve seen (and count UNFORGIVEN as one of my favorite films), it’s not a genre I’ve ever had any particular interest in. So I don’t look out for Westerns the same way as I would look out for, say, noir.

  34. High Noon, part 2: The Return of Will Kane. A 1980 made for TV sequel that stared Lee Majors as Kane and David Carradine the villain (surprise, surprise.) It’s available on youtube. In 2000 Tom Skerritt played Kane and Micheal Madsen played Frank Miller in a made for TV remake. Can’t claim there any good “cause I aint seen ’em but there you are.

  35. I prefer Howard Hawks’ reason for his making RIO BRAVO in response to HIGH NOON, in that it’s not that Gary Cooper was a “pussy” for asking for help that he was supposed to be a professional, and was asking the help of “amateurs”. They make the argument in BRAVO where Wayne said the reason he doesn’t want help is that “bunch of well meaning amateurs, most of them worried about their wives and kids.” while the bad guy has hired “All professionals, the only thing they’re worried about is earning their pay.” It is all about how “good” they are in terms of skill. Ricky Nelson proved he “good enough” so he got to join and Dean Martin had to get completely sober to help. Wayne tells Walter Brennan he has to stay behind when they all go off to the final showdown because of his bum leg, but he shows up later anyway.

  36. Thanks Lawrence. That and some of the other interpretations people have mentioned here are much more reasonable than how I read the Wayne quotes about the topic.

  37. I agree with John Carpenter on this. I’ve never been a fan of High Noon. I can see why it is respected as it is a very well made film with good performances, just that after all the years of hearing it being hailed as a classic, I expected more.

    Funnily enough I have always been a fan of Outland, which is just a sci fi reworking. I think it has more to do with the space setting and Sean Connery taking charge instead of running around begging for help. Also the first time I seen Outland I never had any expectations, so was pleasantly surprised by it.

  38. I don’t really think of HIGH NOON as a real western. It’s too claustrophobic for that. It’s more of a psychological noir story about a specific ethical conundrum that happens to be set in the West. So I can see how real Western dudes would find it a little too East Coast in its concerns and attitude. But I like it.

  39. The main problem I have with almost all classics is that I saw them too early. They were always on telly it seemed, and when you see something like SHANE or CITIZEN KANE or ON THE WATERFRONT as a child you tend to be bored a lot of the time. And that feeling sticks. So even if I like them now there’s always that little kid inside me who yells “Come on, shoot him! Get on With it!”

  40. Because western films are rare, it’s easy to get over excited when you see a good one, but I’m compelled to recommend THE SALVATION with Mads Mikkelsen, a Danish co- production. It’s a real straight up revenge story with Jeffrey Dean Morgan channeling Powers Boothe as an evil bastard and Mikkelsen the cipher for Clint’s Munny via Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH. Eva Green gets down and dirty also, though it’s the rare movie she keeps her clothes on. Oh, and she plays a mute. With a Winchester.

    In the spirit of Vern’s Best Thing I’ve Seen Lately.

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