Wednesday 10 February 2010

High Noon (1952)

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Star: Gary Cooper

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

'Do not forsake me, oh my darling,' sings Tex Ritter as High Noon begins, in a Oscar winning song from way back before Oscar winning songs all seemed to come from sappy Disney films. Unfortunately for Marshal Will Kane, nobody except us in the cheap seats could hear Tex and consequently the entire town of Hadleyville, his darling included, decides to forsake him in his hour of need. He needs the help because murderer Frank Miller is on his way back into town to get revenge on the marshal who had brought him to justice. Without help, Kane must face Miller and his gang alone. Given that the very concept of the American western can always be distilled down to a man standing alone, this is one of the truest such films ever made, even though there are very few overt western conventions used, at least until the final shootout. Many filmgoers at the time hated the film for precisely those reasons.

Gary Cooper, who won a deserved second Oscar for his performance as Will Kane (his first was for Sergeant York), suffers noticeably in this film, both as a character and as an actor. As a character, Kane gets a really unfair deal from the town he has cleaned up so well. He starts the film in high spirits, getting married to Grace Kelly the day before he is due to retire and then hit the road, but then the news arrives that Frank Miller is on the noon train and Kane realises that he has to stay, knowingly risking his life, his marriage and his future for what is right. What makes it even worse is that nobody in the town will answer his request for deputies. Everyone turns him down, for the right reasons or the wrong reasons or just any reasons that come to mind.

In its way, the role is as whiter than white and one dimensional as Olivia de Havilland's angelic turn in Gone with the Wind but, unlike de Havilland, Cooper is thoroughly believable both because the situation makes the characterisation appropriate and because he was really suffering as an actor at the time. When High Noon came out in 1952 he was known as one of the great studio stars who had played opposite every leading lady from Marlene Dietrich to Ingrid Bergman via names as disparate as Helen Hayes and Marion Davies, but he had passed fifty years of age and was suffering from both a stomach ulcer and a broken marriage. All that really shows on his face and in his body language as he plays the beleaguered Will Kane.

The masterful way that the film was shot takes advantage of this to a massive degree. Rather than use the usual technology to make the scenery look gorgeous, director Fred Zinnemann had the film deliberately shot in a very bleak manner, taking the atmosphere of old Civil War photographs in which the old film emulsion generally deteriorated to give this effect. There are no contrasting clouds or shining sun or endless vistas, just a burning sky that we see so often framing nothing but Kane's tired features. While we get to meet many members of the town, we only meet them indoors: at home, in church or in the saloon. The streets are empty but for Will Kane, making it seem like he's risking life and limb for nothing more than a ghost town.

Another reason for the bleakness of the film is that scriptwriter Carl Foreman was at the time being grilled by the House Committee on Un-American Activities for any connections he may have had to the Communist Party. He refused to cooperate and thus was blacklisted by Hollywood as an uncooperative witness, not receiving his Oscar for 1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai until 1985. He reworked parts of his script after appearing before the committee and it's easy to see how Will Kane's stubborn stand for what he feels is right is incredibly similar to Foreman's own, especially in the face of such overwhelming odds and with little or no help from those around him. This stand is probably why it failed to win Best Picture, losing it to The Greatest Show on Earth.

Bizarrely, John Wayne, who publicly stated that he would never regret having helped blacklist Foreman and who saw High Noon as 'the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life', accepted his friend Gary Cooper's Oscar for the film when he was unable to attend the ceremony. The conservative right in Hollywood hated the film at the time because of its attack on McCarthyism, Wayne even making Rio Bravo as a response. However over time, such opinions have changed somewhat. After all, while it's certainly anti-blacklisting it's hardly pro-Communist, the Communists in Russia at the time criticising it as 'glorification of the individual'. It has become the most screened movie in the White House, presidents of as different political beliefs as Reagan, Eisenhower and Clinton praising it. Clinton has called it his favourite film and Reagan has publicly appreciated the dedication of the hero to law and order despite his circumstances.

Working through this project beginning in 2004, I saw films dating back to The Passion of Joan of Arc in 1928, and outside of it I'd already seen a lot more that go a lot further back indeed. Yet while 1928 was over twenty years before this and The Passion of Joan of Arc was a silent film to boot, strangely it was High Noon that seemed really old to me when I first saw it. Partly that was because the plot is such a simplistic and timeless morality tale of good against evil, especially the ability to commit evil through inaction, but mostly because even from my inexperienced standing with classic film I recognised so many of the actors but knew them only with much older faces.

Only Grace Kelly, who made a mere eleven films over six years before retiring to become Princess Grace of Monaco, seemed to be the age she ought to be because she was simply not in pictures long enough to grow old. This was her second feature after Fourteen Hours and the one that brought her to prominence, especially as much of what makes her character notable comes towards the end of the film. A year later she was a star, playing opposite Clark Gable in Mogambo, and a year after that she became a legend, with no less than five prominent pictures in 1954, including Dial M for Murder and Rear Window for Alfred Hitchcock and The Country Girl, which brought her a Best Actress Oscar.

Lloyd Bridges, father of Beau and Jeff, is just a baby here, playing Kane's deputy, Harvey Pell, who hasn't grown up yet. In fact, he's younger here than I was used to seeing his sons, even though he already had sixteen years of experience on screen. At the time I first saw High Noon, it was by far the earliest I'd ever seen him but I've seen a number of his earlier pictures since, many of which saw him uncredited in small supporting roles. Unlike Grace Kelly, it took him a long while to arrive. Harry Morgan was old enough to impart plenty of good advice to all and sundry a couple of decades later in M*A*S*H, but he's young enough to need it himself here as yet another of Kane's friends who fails him. Again this was the earliest I'd seen him at the time, though I've seen a few of his earlier films since.

Most notable are those names more commonly associated with westerns. Jack Elam is one of the great western character actors who was so often marvellously old and crotchety, but he's just a young drunk here, about as unrecognisable as Lee Van Cleef. Van Cleef, of course, is a true icon of the western genre, not just for his starring roles in both American westerns and spaghetti westerns, but for the fact that his appearance is so unique. 'Being born with a pair of beady eyes was the best thing that ever happened to me,' he once said, but while he's usually as instantly identifiable as Alfred Hitchcock or Peter Lorre or Marty Feldman, he's almost unrecognisable as one of Frank Miller's gang in High Noon because he's just so young. It's not surprising to find that this was his debut on screen.

And as I run out of review, I should point out that perhaps most importantly as far as the history of film goes, High Noon is shot in real time. Kane gets married at ten forty or so in the morning and Miller is due to arrive at noon. That leaves us an hour and twenty minutes of real time buildup and then a ten minute shootout to finish things up. However well it carries it off, the television series 24 didn't invent the real time concept, this film did half a century earlier. While clocks told the time and even showed the passage of time long before High Noon, it was never done to the degree that it was done here, where every time you see a clock you're watching the suspense build because it's ticking down to the final shootout. Every time you see this done for the purpose of suspense, you're watching the legacy of this groundbreaking film.

No comments: