Olive Film’s 60th anniversary Blu-ray edition of High Noon (1952) presents this critically lauded, still controversial western masterpiece in a Hi-Def transfer that renders all other home video versions obsolete.
The Stanley Kramer production, tightly directed by Fred Zinnemann and written by the blacklisted Carl Foreman, earned the hatred of 1950s McCarthyists, including John Wayne and Howard Hawks, who were so outraged they made Rio Bravo (1959) as a right-wing response. Wayne went further than that, teaming up with Hollywood Gossip mogul Hedda Hopper and the House Un-American Activities Committee to run Foreman out of the country. Foreman moved to England and never returned. Wayne forever boasted of forcing the writer into exile. Kramer, responding to accusations that High Noon was anti-American, tried to get Foreman’s name taken off the credits. Gary Cooper intervened on Foreman’s behalf, making Kramer’s effort unsuccessful, but Kramer had better luck forcing Foreman to sell his part of their company. So much for loyalty under pressure: ironic, given the film’s theme of civic morality.
The biggest offense of the film, for Wayne and his fellow extremist kooks, was the final shot of Will Kane supposedly dropping his marshal’s badge in the dust and stomping on it. Wayne saw symbolism aplenty, but his faulty vision was filtered through a lens of Cold War paranoia and exaggeration. Will Kane merely dropped the badge. He never stepped on it. The other offense was the portrayal of the townspeople as a greedy, self-cannibalizing lot, a hypocritical church community who argue their way out of communal (and personal) loyalty. Wayne and Hawks’ Rio Bravo depicted, in sharp contrast, a town full of old-fashioned buddy-buddy camaraderie. If Wayne and Hawks were alive today they might have rethought their depiction, because High Noon could served as an apt snapshot of contemporary division. It’s a good thing that actor/director team didn’t live to see the 21st century, though, because despite the intent behind Rio Bravo, and despite its occasional tendency towards sentimental phoniness, it remains, along with High Noon, one of the standout westerns in the genre’s greatest decade.
One cannot approach High Noon without addressing its political themes, both within the film’s text and those raised in its aftermath. Along with writer Formean, co-star Lloyd Bridges and cinematographer Floyd Crosby were also awarded with temporary blacklists until the FBI cleared them of Communist affiliations. The fifty-one year old Gary Cooper was engaged in an affair with his twenty-three year old co-star Grace Kelly (putting an end to Coop’s affair with Patricia Neal.) Kelly’s fling with the long established Republican protected her from McCarthyism’s scrutiny. Cooper was friendly with the HUAC, and testified before them (without ever naming names), but he only did what was expected of him, then returned to his top priority of resuming his romance with a future princess.
Cooper was in Europe by the time the Academy Awards Ceremony rolled around and asked Wayne to accept the award of Best Actor on his behalf, should he happen to win. Of course, he did, and the Duke did a prompt, public about-face in his acceptance speech: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m glad to see they’re giving this to a man who is not only most deserving, but has conducted himself throughout the years in our business in a manner that we can all be proud of. Coop and I have been friends hunting and fishing for more years than I like to remember. He’s one of the nicest fellows I know. And our kinship goes further than that friendship because we both fell off horses in pictures together. Now that I’m through being such a good sport about all this sportsmanship, I’m going back and find my business manager, agent, producer, and three-name writers and find out why I didn’t get High Noon instead of Cooper.”
The speech renders Wayne a hypocrite, since seeing potential red from the outset, it was he who first refused the role of Marshal Will Kane, thus paving the path for Gary Cooper in the part. Yet, despite Wayne’s standing as a precursor of Rush Limbaugh’s pharisaical aggression, he can, perhaps, best be summed up in an assessment I was privy to in a screening of Red River (1948). The host, an erudite writer, had this to say about Wayne: “I met the Duke’s son Patrick. Unlike his dad, Patrick is a thorough gentleman; pleasant and courteous. Unfortunately, he also differs from his dad when it comes to acting because Patrick’s a lousy actor. His dad was a great actor and that’s not really up for argument.”
However, as skilled an actor as he was, Wayne as Will Kane would have been a loose right-wing cannon. Gary Cooper’s brand of authentic conservatism merged seamlessly with his marshal. Cooper’s laconic, weathered portrayal of internalized integrity shines through Zinnemann’s opulent artistry.
Ronald Reagan and Dwight D. Eisenhower were among the film’s fans. Reagan saw positive American values in the theme of an individual placing the safety of his peers above his own personal interests. When I first saw the film in my youth, prior to readings of political allegories, my interpretation of the film paralleled Reagan’s.
If Wayne has come to embody our idea of the snarling, mythological Westerner, Gary Cooper is our moderate, amorous Reno cowpoke. We readily accept his pairing with Grace Kelly’s Quaker Amy Fowler (the “darling Clementine” of the film’s theme song). Amy is a model of another form of extremism. Amy’s tragic past has rendered her a pacifist with a checklist, adhering to each dogmatic bullet point. Will cannot violate his conscience to succumb to any extreme ideology. We genuinely root for their reconciliation. Oddly, it is in its climax that we find High Noon is, in fact, a paradigm for conservative mythology. Once faced with physical threat, Amy’s militant pacifism is, in fact, submitted as a futile, theoretical interpretation of Christian tenets. The townspeople, led by Mitchell, have their own ideological creeds, dictated primarily by the potential capital gains Frank Miller and his gang bring by their return to Hadleyville.
Katy Jurado’s Helen Ramirez is the literary female counterpart to Kelly’s pure Virgin Mary. Helen, the tainted Magdalene, is, of course, a necessary contrast, and she steals every scene she is in, despite Zinnemann’s efforts to highlight Kelly. Not unexpectedly, there was rivalry between the two actresses on set. Lon Chaney, Jr. shines in his role as the arthritic former lawman and Kane mentor, Martin Howe. Chaney acts with such effective pathos that one wished producers had realized his greater potential as a character actor, rather than as a B grade horror star. Lloyd Bridges’ portrayal of self-serving deputy Harvey Pell is less effective, occasionally stiff in line readings, and a noticeable case of miscasting. Lee van Cleef, debuting here, was originally cast in the role of Pell, but he would not surgically alter his nose, which producers thought “too villainous looking.” Instead, Cleef was relegated to playing one of the thugs, setting him on the path to a wonderfully typecast career.
Editor Elmo Williams’ work here is exemplary and, with much ballyhoo, he cut the film to play out in real time. Dmitri Tiomkin’s score is perfectly synchronized, and Tex Ritter’s theme song, which sold over a million copies, is so iconic that every singer tackling it since then has rendered a pale imitation.
Zinnemann and Crosby intentionally shot High Noon in stark black and white. Zinnemann valiantly fought to keep media mogul Ted Turner’s filthy colorizing hands off the film. Alas, Zinnemann lost and Turner, with Republic Pictures, produced an asinine colorized version for television. Therein lies the difference between celluloid and the corporal world. In the latter, sometimes the bad guys win.
- Due to John Wayne’s interpretation of this scene, he and fellow right wing extremist Ward Bond bullied Gary Cooper into backing out of a planned independent production company with Forman and producer Robert Lippert. [↩]
- The American Film Institute lists High Noon second in its list of top ten westerns. First is John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) with Wayne. Two other films starring Wayne made the list: Red River at number five and Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) at number nine. [↩]
- The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was as hypocritical as Wayne, awarding the Best Picture Oscar to Cecil B. DeMille’s dreadful The Greatest Show On Earth (1952), in order to appease Joseph McCarthy and the right-wing campaign launched against High Noon. This snub is, justifiably, seen as one of the many examples of the Academy’s irrelevancy. [↩]
- Gregory Peck was next offered the role after Wayne refused it. Peck also declined the part, feeling it too closely resembled The Gunfighter (1950), which he had just made. Peck later counted the decision as his biggest career mistake. However, Peck, ever the gentleman, admitted he could not have played the part as well as Cooper. Charlton Heston, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and Kirk Douglas were also offered the role and declined it. [↩]
- Zinnemann and makeup artist Gustaf Norin gave Cooper no makeup in order accentuate the actor’s inherent sense of anguish. [↩]