If I recall correctly, this was possibly the first Western I ever saw, probably with my Dad who was something of an aficionado. It has remained with me ever since despite the countless others which followed. It is frequently referred to as the greatest ever of this genre despite the sheer simplicity of both the premise and story. You could say it’s a black and white classic in every sense of the term. Good confronting evil and, despite the odds, emerging bloodied but unbowed.
The explanation for why such a basic plot has achieved enduring longevity is probably in the genes; specifically the writer and producer Carl Foreman, producer Stanley Kramer, director Fred Zinnemann, the soundtrack by Dimitri Tiomkin and, of course, the stellar cast. Gary Cooper in the Western was everything John Wayne was not. Cooper’s legacy lives on in the persona of Clint Eastwood. Where Wayne was invariably loud, verbose and full of jingoism and bravado, Cooper and Eastwood brought minimalism to their dialogue and personified “laconic”. Wayne’s characters bellowed and “the baddies” were supposed to quiver. With Cooper and Eastwood’s characters, beware when they lower their voices and observe very closely the tightening of the facial muscles.
The marshal of Hadleyville, Will Kane (Cooper), is marrying Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) in the local church. It’s 1870 and, after the service, they leave town because, at Amy’s request, Will has handed in his badge. However, the new marshal has not arrived and Will turns back, saying he’s never run from anyone. Call it pride or courage Will has learned that a notorious killer, Frank Miller (Ian McDonald), whom he arrested four years earlier has been granted a pardon. He’s been released from state prison and is on the noon train, hell-bent on settling a few scores with those who sentenced him to hang.
There’s the marvellous sequence of cameos as Will walks around the nearly deserted streets of Hadleyville, seeking support from the townsfolk and deputies from the men. Judge Percy Mettrick (Otto Kruger) who sentenced Miller, is leaving town, deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) who expected to succeed Will, gets drunk and the latter has to render him unconscious.
The marshal’s former mistress, Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), has sold her business and plans to leave on the noon train. There’s also the brilliant juxtaposing of the denizens of the saloon, many of whom look forward to the return of Miller and his outlaw mates, with the church congregation. The good citizens concede that Will has cleaned up their town, but they maintain that it’s the marshal for whom Miller is returning to settle scores and, hence, it’s not their problem.
This is the nub of the clear, unequivocal moral of the tale; that most human beings will not stand up for what they know in their hearts is right, it’s just so much easier to run and hide or retreat into a state of denial. Watching the film today, you’d have to ask, what’s changed?
In the end, Will, with the unexpected help of Amy who has returned from the station, unable to desert her new husband, despatchs Miller’s three henchmen. There’s the climatic showdown in the dusty main street when the wounded marshal confronts his old adversary who has taken Amy hostage. She, however, manages to break free so that her husband can shoot Miller. There’s a loving embrace as the townspeople emerge from hiding but, in an immensely satisfying conclusion, Will, totally disgusted at their cowardice, throws his badge in the dust and he and Amy turn their backs on Hadleyville, for good.
Reliving High Noon for this review was such a pleasure. There are some wonderful performances from an exceptionally strong cast, the archetypical western set, the long, lingering cuts to the isolated railway station, where Miller’s outlaw mates lounge around awaiting his return, whilst the stationmaster literally marks time, frequently consulting his fob watch. Hadleyville becomes a community of clocks as the tension steadily builds and all the time Tomkin’s haunting soundtrack and lyrics provide the icing on the cake. What more could you ask? High Noon is a true classic. No wonder it won four Oscars.