Richard J. Leskosky: Showdown awaits in 'High Noon'

Richard J. Leskosky: Showdown awaits in 'High Noon'

If you like westerns with psychological depth or westerns with political subtexts or just westerns in general, you'll want to see the next entry in The News-Gazette Film Series — the 1952 classic "High Noon," showing at 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday at the Virginia Theatre.

Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) plans to leave Hadleyville with his new Amish bride, Amy (Grace Kelly), right after the wedding. But just as it concludes word arrives that Frank Miller, a killer Kane had sent to prison years before, is coming in on the noon train to rejoin his gang and kill Kane.

Amy wants Will to leave town with her, but he realizes that Miller and his men will just come after him and that his best bet is to face him in town. Unfortunately, though, nobody in town is willing to risk his life to help Will. And Will's deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), is sulking because the town council did not make him marshal — he'll only help if Will pressures them into giving him the job. Worse yet, Amy threatens to take the noon train to St. Louis if Will insists on staying.

As the clock ticks down to noon, Will's desperation grows as it becomes clear that he will have to face Miller and his three henchmen alone.

"High Noon," along with "The Gunfighter" (1951) starring Gregory Peck and "Shane" (1953) starring Alan Ladd, kicked off the 1950's trend toward psychological westerns — cowboy films with more than simple action to hold the audience's interest.

The film is clearly a parable, and it's easy to read it as referring to the situation in Hollywood at the time, when government hearings on communist influences in the movie industry and the threat of blacklisting tested the courage of many in the industry. Producer Stanley Kramer, who made his share of political films (including "Judgment at Nuremberg" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"), maintained even years after the hearings, though, that there was no immediate political intent in the production. Viennese director Fred Zinnemann also claimed that his interest in the film was not political but rather centered on the quality of the script and the story it told.

The man who wrote that script, though, University of Illinois alum Carl Foreman, had first-hand knowledge of the sort of lonely challenge Will Kane faced. He had been called as a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee but refused to testify or name names. Just as "High Noon" was nearing completion, Foreman was blacklisted and went into a self-imposed exile in England for several years.

Foreman's script is as lean as its hero. There's not a wasted word in it. It's somewhat ironic then that it got no further than a nomination for an Oscar as best screenplay while the film's song, "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'," did win an Oscar. The ballad, written by Ned Washington and sung by singing cowboy star Tex Ritter (comic actor John Ritter's dad), basically narrates the story and lets the viewer in on Will Kane's thoughts throughout the film. You can pretty much read Kane's thoughts on Cooper's face anyway, so the lyrics are redundant, but it does help keep the audience involved in Kane's emotions.

Zinnemann's Oscar-nominated direction is enhanced by the Oscar-winning editing of Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad. The film plays out close to the time depicted, with cutaway shots to various clocks reinforcing that sense while building tension.

The cast is filled with both older (Thomas Mitchell, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney Jr.) and younger (Harry Morgan, Robert Wilke, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam) generations of character actors. Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado, making their first major Hollywood appearances, are both superb as the two types of women in Kane's life. Jurado's character is central here, linked romantically in succession to Miller, Kane and finally Harvey Pell, and Kelly's takes an active role in helping Will during the showdown despite her pacifist principles.

The actors portraying Miller's gang members all went on to significant or at least interesting careers. In particular, Lee Van Cleef, despite not having a single line of dialogue here, became a familiar villain in westerns and crime films until he broke into starring roles in spaghetti westerns with Sergio Leone's "For a Few Dollars More" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." Jack Elam, playing the town drunk here, went on to numerous villainous and comic roles and notably showed up in the lengthy pre-credit scene in Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West" that deliberately referenced the shots here of Miller's gang waiting for his train.

The film belongs to Cooper, though, as the marshal abandoned to his fate, and Will Kane is probably the role he is best remembered for these days (he won his second Oscar for it). Cooper was far from Kramer's first choice for the role, but Kramer got his financial backing for the film from a local lettuce grower who insisted on Cooper, and the green stuff green lit the film.

The black and white cinematography here, superb though it is, was somewhat unusual at a time when most westerns had gone to color. It's particularly ironic then that during the height of the colorization craze "High Noon" was released on video and TV in a colorized version.

"High Noon" garnered an Oscar nomination for best picture (Cecil B. DeMille's circus movie, "The Greatest Show on Earth" won that year), and Zinnemann received a nomination as director. Dimitri Tiomkin won for best score for a dramatic or comedy picture. And Foreman may not have won an Oscar for his screenplay, but the Writers Guild of America gave him its highest award for best written American drama. The film is a textbook case of fine Hollywood direction, writing, acting and editing all coming together to forge a classic.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

Topics (1):Film

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