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Watch THIS Instantly: High Noon (1953)

Justin here with a look at the classic western, High Noon which is currently available on Netflix to Watch Instantly.

First, a confession: even though I have a deep affection for western movies and have seen dozens and dozens of them, I had never seen High Noon until last night. Unlike a lot of movies that I come to late, I'm not upset that it took me this long to see the Gary Cooper classic for the simple reason that now, in 2011 the movie is more relevant than ever before. I read that when the movie was originally released in the early 50's a lot of people read it as an allegory for the McCarthy HUAC trials. While that is most definitely a sound interpretation, I think that like all good westerns High Noon gets to heart of what it means to be American.

As I have stated before, I approach western movies from the premise that they are a reflection of idealized American values. This is two-fold, both from the time that the movie was produced and also in regard to the bigger questions about the nature of democracy. Whether or not you sympathize with the old cliché of the American cowboy in a white hat fighting for what-is-right-come-hell-or-high-water is a moot point because there have been plenty of westerns that use those conventions as a sounding board against that sentiment. Movies like The Wild Bunch, Red River, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Outlaw Josey Wales are all highly critical of what are largely seen as conventional American values. High Noon is a little more slippery because while the movie asks questions about the role of the individual in society, taxation, religion, and the limits of ideology, it also features the lone good guy with a tin star and a six gun standing up for what's right.

High Noon starts with Marshal Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper getting married to his lovely bride to be as played by Grace Kelly. Just before the newly weds take off for their honeymoon, Kane finds out that a killer he put away a couple of years ago has been released and is coming after him. The movie progresses more or less in real-time. The killer, Frank Miller, is set to roll into town on the noon train in just over an hour. Kane must make the first of several moral decisions, leave town knowing that Miller will be on his trail or stay and fight.

To the objections of his Quaker wife, Kane puts back on his marshal's star and six guns and begins looking for help to fight off Miller and his three buddies. This is a much more difficult task than it should be. Kane quickly discovers that many people are unwilling to help him because of fear. Some say it is because it is not their job to defend the town as they are the ones who pay Kane's salary. No one wants to argue that Kane isn't brave for making a stand, but they refuse to offer any help. Even Kane's deputy quits his job for entirely selfish reasons. Kane is left alone to face four bloodthirsty men.

If this was a John Wayne movie, then there wouldn't be anything to worry about. Wayne would probably come riding in on a horse shooting two rifles with the reins in his mouth Rooster Cogburn style. John Wayne doesn't die. That's not the case here though. Director Fred Zinneman conveys such a sense of mortality and dread throughout the movie. Nearly every sequence has a clock in it, reminding the viewer that regardless of if Kane can raise a posse or not, the noon train is still coming in right on time. The movie was filmed in black and white at a time when color was readily available creating a moody and uneasy world. Cooper does a fantastic job as well. As his situation looks more and more hopeless, we see a man who is beyond stressed out. We never question his courage or resolve, Cooper never looks afraid, just stressed. Even the title and climax of the movie plays to this sense of dread. At noon, the sun will be at apogee, there will be no shadows and as everything is illuminated, there will be the moment of truth between Cooper and Miller's gang.

Zinneman's direction is flawless. His was a name that I didn't recognize immediately, but then realized that he had directed some of my other favorites like A Man for All Seasons, the biopic on Sir Thomas Moore. In High Noon, there is one wordless sequence in particular just before the noon train arrives that conveys more than a thousand lines of dialogue. Dread permeates the air as a series of shots cut in time with the ominous music flash on the screen: train tracks, the church, other scenes of town, Kane steeling himself. The use of music throughout the move is also noteworthy. As Kane stalks the streets, the ballad, “High Noon” as played by Tex Ritter plays over and over at different lengths and volumes. That song has a haunting melody and dirge-like delivery that is punctuated by an unusual percussion arrangement that captures the pulse of a clock ticking off the seconds. This song, clearly meant to convey the somber thoughts of a man facing doom is interrupted by the upbeat “Buffalo Gals (Won't you Come out Tonight)” on honky tonk piano coming from the lively saloon.

***Spoilers Ahead***

Even with all the evidence building that anything could happen at High Noon, I still expected that Cooper would face down Frank Miller's gang in the middle of the street and gun them all down one by one before riding off into the sunset. The way the final gun fight went down though was much more terrifying. Kane had to pick off Miller's gang one by one. At the end, when cornered by two men, Kane's wife shoots one in the back. This doesn't happen in westerns. The hero NEVER shoots the bad guy in the back, and he NEVER gets saved by the helpless damsel. As Grace Kelly is taken hostage, I expected Kane in an unnatural display of sharp shooting to blast one from the hip and get Miller right between the eyes. Again, I was mistaken, Kelly gets free and claws Miller in the eyes giving Kane time enough for a shot.

***End Spoilers***

High Noon is a western that breaks all the rules while looking like your run of the mill western. I think one of the reasons why I had avoided seeing it for so long was because I thought it was going to be so conventional. Happily, I was completely wrong. High Noon is one of the best westerns, or even movies ever made. It is extremely well crafted all around and is as intellectually engaging as it is awesome. At the heart of the movie lies many difficult questions about what it means to be American, the most pressing one is about the limits of ideology. As it is easy to moralize about what the correct course of action is, but much harder to get your hands dirty.


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Watch THIS Instantly: High Noon (1953) + TIME