You can celebrate Gary Cooper’s birthday on May 7 by watching his Oscar-winning performance.
Everybody knows it high noon — now available on multiple streaming platforms – is the story of a noble marshal who must face vengeful outlaws alone while the cowardly citizens of his small town refuse to offer help. As is often the case with things “everyone knows,” however, director Fred Zinnemann’s classic 1952 Western is noticeably more complex than conventional wisdom suggests.
Sure enough, Will Kane (Gary Cooper, whose birthday we celebrate on May 7) seems like an icon of integrity when we meet him on what he thinks is the first day of a whole new life. Judging by what he says and what is said about him, he has been the highly respected Marshal of Hadleyville for several years, dutifully transforming a lawless Old West town into an oasis of righteousness and family values. Now he hands over his badge and marries Amy (Grace Kelly), a particularly young Quaker lady who wants her new husband to take a pacifist approach to life.
But just before the newlyweds can set off on their honeymoon, Will gets some bad news: Frank Miller, a surly killer that Will helped send to prison years ago, is on his way back to Hadleyville to settle accounts with the lawyer. Three of his armed henchmen wait at the depot, waiting for Frank to arrive on the noon train. And it’s already 10:40 a.m. Uh-oh.
Being a reasonable man – and, more importantly, newly married to a beautiful Quaker lady – Will initially agrees with the townspeople who suggest he and Amy should get out of town. Minutes from Hadleyville, however, our hero feels compelled to turn his buggy around and drive home because…well, you know, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
The problem is that Will can’t find anyone to do it with him. For about an hour, he rushes from person to person, group to group, trying to rally support for his position against the barbarian invaders. Time and time again, however, Will is pushed away or betrayed.
Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), his inexperienced deputy, refuses to get involved as he blames Will for hindering his career advancement. (Harvey thought he would be an excellent replacement marshal; Will obviously thought otherwise.) Martin Howe (Lon Chaney Jr.), Will’s mentor and predecessor, is too embittered – and, to be fair, too arthritic – to risk his head once more. for ungrateful city dwellers. Mayor Henderson (Thomas Mitchell) actively discourages any help to Will, insisting that heavy gunfire on city streets would be bad for business and worse for Hadleyville’s image. Meanwhile, Amy sits and stews in the local hotel, threatening to leave town on the very train carrying Frank Miller to his date with fate.
In the end, Will – with a little help from Amy, who decides to stay and, better yet, shoot one of the bad guys in the back – has to mind his own business without the help of the Hadleyvillians with lily liver. He throws his badge on the street in a final gesture of disgust and leaves with Amy for a better and probably calmer life elsewhere. The end.
high noon greatly upset some traditionalists when it was first released in 1952 – John Wayne and Howard Hawks were among its most vocal detractors – but many critics warmly hailed the film as a clever and sophisticated “adult western”. The public bought heaps of tickets and Academy voters honored Gary Cooper with a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar. (Cooper — then 50, but looking even older — stoically endured a bleeding ulcer during filming, which partly explains the generally gloomy and often painful expressions that bolster his performance’s credibility.) The Oscars are also went to the film’s editing and musical score. , and the memorable atmosphere high noon theme – aka “Don’t Forsake Me, Oh My Darling” – sung throughout the film by Tex Ritter.
After more than half a century of revivals, revisionist reviews and television remakes, high noon continues to fascinate as a political allegory. It was written by Carl Foreman, who then endured a long series of blacklistings for alleged communist sympathies. (He had to use a pseudonym when he co-wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai, and couldn’t accept its award when this 1957 film won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.) For those prone to getting bored, the film is easily interpreted as a metaphor for the climate of fear generated by McCarthyism in the 1950s, a time when many directors, writers and actors were dumped by old friends – treated like outcasts, in effect – because they had been branded “subversives”. (Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Frankel examines this story behind the story in his recent and well-received book, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic.)
Beyond his politics, high noon remains remarkable because of its formal structure. The 85-minute film is ingeniously paced and edited to maintain the illusion of its unfolding in “real time”, methodically and inexorably counting down to the final showdown. To heighten the suspense, director Zinnemann and his Oscar-winning editor Elmo Williams occasionally cut close-ups of relentlessly ticking clocks, effectively underscoring Will’s growing desperation.
Everything is fine, of course. But what almost always goes unmentioned in discussions about high noon are the subtle hints and clues that suggest maybe, just maybe, that the big picture isn’t as black and white as it seems. Here and there you can display clear signs that, for some people in Hadleyville, Will Kane has been a judgmental spoilsport who will not be missed or mourned. It’s not so much that they’re afraid to offer help – it’s more that they’re eager to see a long-delayed return on investment. Or, as one hotelier put it bluntly of Will, “He’s got a reward coming up.” Clearly, Frank Miller still has friends and admirers all over town. Just as obviously, Will hasn’t done enough during his time as Marshal to sway their allegiance.
And then there’s the tricky question of the sexual plot. Tricky, which is because a 1952 movie couldn’t be very explicit about who might be sleeping with whom, and why they might not want anyone to know. Early, high noon none too subtly indicates that Will once had a great fondness for Helen Ramirez (Kathy Jurado), a tough, fiercely proud Mexican woman who used to hang out with Frank Miller. Is that why Will arrested Frank in the first place? Was he eager to eliminate a romantic rival? Questions linger in the air, unanswered.
Given the demands of time, place, and local customs, Will more than likely felt he could never openly woo, let alone marry, someone like Helen. (A local businessman is grateful for her help as a silent partner — but she knows enough not to insist he’s ever seen in public with her.) Even so, that hasn’t stopped Harvey. , the swaggering and overcompensating deputy, to try to replace Will in Helen’s affections after the marshal becomes attached to a respectably Anglo friend. Unfortunately, an inexperienced boy is no substitute for a mature (albeit image-conscious) man, and Helen tells Harvey as much the first time we see them together in high noon. Which, of course, suggests that professional frustration isn’t Harvey’s only motivation for refusing to help Will.
Towards the end of the film, the two men meet in a barn. Will briefly considers saddling a horse and riding off, and Harvey strongly encourages this tactical retreat. But no, Will just can’t bring himself to cut and run. Harsh words are exchanged, accusations are made – and the result is a brutal, brutal brawl. The Oedipal undertones are unsettling, if not totally unexpected, as the young man tries (and, of course, fails) to subjugate his older former mentor. In fact, the testosterone-fueled slugfest is so deliberately prolonged and so laden with sexual jealousy that the final gunplay feels almost anti-climax.
Which just goes to show you: even in a Western limited by the constraints of the production code, there can be more than one reason why a man should do what a man should do.