AFI Countdown Challenge #33: High Noon

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first:  as someone who writes for Gabbing Geek, clearly the name “Frank Miller” means something to me beyond the meaning it has for this film.  And yes, the first time I saw High Noon ages ago, that name, as mentioned in the opening theme song and repeated throughout the film, jumped out at me.

But this Frank Miller had nothing to do with any goddam Batman, so now that I have said as much, we can talk about Marshall Will Kane and his allegorical problems when Frank Miller comes to town.

High Noon is, of course, a spectacular Western that embodies many of the tropes and signature moves of the Western genre.  There’s an outlaw coming to town, a showdown in the town square, a beleaguered law man who says as little as possible, and a host of other things that have appeared in many films in this genre both before and after its release.

But there are two things that more than anything else set High Noon apart.  The first is the fact the film runs in real time.  Outlaw Frank Miller is coming in on the noon train to get revenge against Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the man who sent him away at some point in the past.  Frequent appearances by clocks show us time passing, and as Kane makes a fruitless search for allies, even if his face never displays a hint of desperation, the audience can feel it by seeing the hands of the clock tick closer and closer to noon.

The other, much more important, is that the film is allegorical.  What the film is trying to symbolically discuss is how many Americans in the entertainment industry were treated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, how names were named, and many creative types stood aside and watched as friends and associates were ostracized and lost their livelihoods.  Many on the American Left loved High Noon as a result, and the idea of a man being in favor of law and order, or standing alone against injustice, made it a favorite of many American politicians on both sides of the aisle.  That said, it wasn’t a favorite of many, and the idea of the lawman being abandoned by a town full of people who should have been grateful and willing to help was highly distasteful at the time it was made by many on the American Right.  John Wayne turned down the lead role and may or may not have regretted it later.  He did hate the film.  So did director Howard Hawks, who made Rio Bravo with Wayne later as a rebuttal to High Noon.

However, how was High Noon itself?

Will Kane is the outgoing marshal of a small town.  It’s his wedding day to a Quaker woman named Amy (Grace Kelly in her major film debut).  He’s sworn off any and all violence when he receives word that the viscous outlaw Frank Miller is coming to town on the noon train specifically to enact revenge on Kane.  A legal fluke released Miller from prison, and he isn’t the type of man to make idle threats.  Likewise, Kane isn’t the type of man to cut and run.  Miller already has three associates waiting at the train station, including Lee Van Cleef is his own film debut.  Surely the people of the town will come out to help him as they did before?

Nope!

As it is, the script is rather brilliant in giving reasons for everyone who turns Kane down.

  • The judge knows he’s on Miller’s hit list and does the opposite of Kane by cutting and running.
  • Kane’s deputy Harvey (Lloyd Bridges) will help if and only if Kane makes a recommendation that Harvey take Kane’s place as the town’s marshal, something Kane firmly refuses to do.  Harvey actually has an interesting storyarc as much of what happens suggests his problem is he is more boy than man.
  • The men in the saloon are unwilling since before Kane had six deputies who were good shots, and now he’s down to one when Harvey quits.
  • One man does volunteer to help, but then backs out when he realizes he’s the only one.
  • One man sends his wife out to tell Kane he isn’t home when Kane knocks on the man’s door.
  • The younger men in the church are initially willing, but then the older ones suggest violence will scare away future investors and the younger men change their minds.
  • The one guy with a good excuse is Kane’s old mentor (horror movie icon Lon Chaney).  He’s an old man with arthritis, and he’s concerned Kane would be too distracted trying to keep him alive.  The old man also expresses a lot of defeatist pessimism about how ungrateful people can be.

Of course, Kane does get some volunteers.  An old, one-eyed drunk and a teenage boy are both turned away for different reasons.  Kane may want help, but he also doesn’t want to put people who shouldn’t be there in too much trouble.

Meanwhile, Amy Kane is having a crisis of her own, as one of Will’s exes, a Mexican woman who also dated Miller and Harvey and is getting herself out of town, suggests a woman should always stand by her man.  Kane won’t run, knowing that he’d be on the run from Miller for the rest of his life if he does.  Amy has her own tragic history involving men in her life and gun violence, but ultimately, Amy will be the only one who will help Kane in his hour of need.  Kane rides off in the end, discarding his star after nearly dying in a gunfight with Miller and his gang.  The town doesn’t deserve Kane, and he shows them as much as he silently leaves for the last time with the one person who does.

Gary Cooper’s career was on something of a low at the time this film came out.  I’m actually surprised he hasn’t appeared on this list before.  Cooper actually didn’t agree with the film’s politics himself, but he took the role and made the most of it.  The tall man of few words was a Western icon, and Cooper was that icon in human flesh.  Sometimes it only takes one man to do the right thing when no one else will, and sometimes people need to be reminded of that fact.

NEXT UP:  You know, of all the different films I haven’t seen before, the only one I really am not sure why I’ve missed is up next:  1974’s The Godfather Part II.

tomk74

Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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