High Noon: Context, Subtext of Zinnemann-Cooper Western

Context and subtext are far more important than text in Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon,” a Western that over the years has assumed a mythical meaning and overrated status in American film history.

At present, “High Noon” is better known as the movie directly responsible for the making of “Rio Bravo.” Howard Hawks found “High Noon” so repulsive and offensive that he made “Rio Bravo” as a counter-response.

Nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, “High Noon” won four awards. In one of Oscar’s shameful, unfair chapters, the 1952 Oscar, Cecil B. DeMille’s circus melodrama, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” unaccountably won over the far superior “High Noon” and John Ford’s picturesque romance, “The Quiet Man.” Evidence suggests that High Noon lost the top prize for political rather than artistic reasons. Even so, “High Noon” features one of Gary Cooper’s best performances–it’s hard to imagine the film without him–for which he won a second Best Actor Oscar; the first was for “Sergeant York.”

Aging marshal Will Kane (note the symbolic name) is about to leave town after marrying a Quaker (Grace Kelly), when he learns that Frank Miller, whom he had sent to prison, has been released and plans to come back to Hadleyville to get even with him. Burdened with fear of fighting along, after his plea for help is rejected by every member of the community, Kane must choose between running out of town and saving his neck, as his wife Amy wishes, or face the villains by himself. Amy, whose brother and father were killed by the Indians, holds that “there’s got to be a better way to live.” Needless to say, Kane meets the challenge single-handedly, ultimately winning the understanding and even help of his wife.

Bosley Crowther, then dean of the New York film critics, was so excited when the movie opened that he wrote: “Every five years or so someone with an appreciation for legend and poetry scoops up clichfrom the Western and turns them into an inspiring work. Meaningful in its implication, as well as loaded with interest and suspense, High Noon is a Western to challenge Stagecoach for the all-time championship. Though made out of ordinary materials of the Western formula, “High Noon” achieves the shape of a democratic allegory, reaching people in the same way, and for the same reasons, as “The Best Years of Our Lives.” However, Pauline Kael and other astute critics dismissed the film’s insights as primer sociology.

Auteurist critics still debate who’s fully responsible for the film’s final shape and overall impact: producer Kramer, whose liberal politics were also evident in other pictures; left-wing scripter Carl Foreman, or Zinnemann, who has shown before penchant for taut suspenseful dramas. Others claims that perhaps Cooper, who was in top form after years of mediocre work, should receive more credit for the picture’s emotional resonance–after all, Cooper was the screen embodiment of the honor-bound yet humble noble man.

Much has been made of the Western’s structural novelty: The actual story runs from 10:40 a.m. to high noon, almost matching the film’s running time, 84 minutes. Visually, too, Floyd Crosby’s stark, black-and-white cinematography and long shadows, specifically of Kane marching in an empty street, were impressively realistic.

Ironically, from the first day, the front office complained about the poor photography. Zinnemann recalled in a 1973 interview: “Floyd and I thought that High Noon should look like a newsreel would have looked if they had newsreels in those days, and we also studied Matthew Brady’s photographs of the Civil War.” Up to that time, there was almost a religious ritual about the way Westerns were made: “There was always a lovely gray sky with pretty clouds in the background. Instead, Crosby used no filters, granting the sky a white, cloudless, burnt-out look, and his flat lighting gave the film a grainy quality.

Sharp editing, credited to Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad, contributed to the tightly controlled tension. In one scene, Zinnemann shows over Kane’s shoulder a white paper on which a slowly moving pen scrawls, “last will and testament.” He then cuts to the pendulum of the clock–the movie’s recurrent visual motif–and to a shot of the prairie from the empty railroad tracks. Applying striking montage, the viewers see in quick succession of shots, the faces of people waiting in the church and saloon, the quiet street outside, the thugs waiting at the station, the tracks again. Suddenly, there’s a whistle of the train and, looking down the tracks again, a wisp of smoke is seen from the approaching train.

Finally, many viewers remember High Noon for its music: Dmitri Tiomkin won an Oscar for Best Score in a non-musical film, and Tiomkin and Ned Washington won the Best Song Oscar for the highly melodic ballad, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling.”