Saturday, November 30, 2013

High Noon (1952)

Growing up in an inner-city suburb of Sydney in the 50s and before my Dad bought us a b&w television, every Saturday he would take my younger brother and me to the local cinema for the matinee, which most days featured a Western. So by the age of 7 or 8 I had pretty well absorbed all the conventions of the genre and my hero was the cowboy. Around that time after a spell in hospital my parents gave me a special gift. A cow hide cowboy outfit. The full kit. Hat, chaps, vest, tin spurs, and double-holster six-guns. I was over the moon. And the coolest thing was that riveted on to the jacket was a tin star. That meant I was the good guy.

A tin star. With it went power but even more an obligation. Adherence to a creed that required courage and perhaps sacrifice for a greater good. Those worthy of that tin star were decent and courageous men. The selfish concerns of family, comfort and material well-being trumped by allegiance to a higher more demanding code.

In High Noon, set in a small frontier town, Marshall Will Kane, needs to get up a posse of deputies fast. A convicted killer, Frank Miller, is heading into town on the noon train, and he will in all likelihood, in cahoots with three hombres waiting at the station, be gunning for Kane, the man who arrested him five years before, only to be saved from the gallows, imprisoned for five years, and then pardoned by abolitionists up North. Kane is bitter at this leniency yet allows that “sometimes prison changes a man”. But can he rely on this unlikely possibility?

This classic scenario is played out in real time over 85 minutes in a taut progression of scenes that are marked by cuts to ticking clocks pointing to the impending confrontation. Kane has to face the threat alone. Those who he would rely on, either from cowardice, ambition or selfishness, desert him. There are even those who welcome the bad guys because they are good for business: the saloon keeper, a barber cum coffin-maker, the hotel clerk, and an ambitious but callow deputy who turns in his badge.

Kane is not young, and maybe a little tired. When the news of Miller’s impending arrival hits town, an aging still handsome Gary Cooper, always an actor with a quiet gentleness, has just married a young Quaker woman played by Grace Kelly. They are leaving town to start a new life. A new Marshall will arrive the next day.

Kane hesitates feeling he must delay his departure to face the threat.  Kane’s new wife abhors violence and wants him to remove his Marshall’s badge and leave town as planned. Kane reluctantly agrees but not long out of town – to her consternation – he turns back. He won’t run. He puts his badge back on, while she heads for the train ticket office.  Later though, back in town to wait for the noon train at the local hotel, she confront her fears and, after meeting a Mexican business woman from Kane’s past (Katy Jurado), finally accepts the imperative of standing by her man.

In Kane’s fruitless search for deputies he is revealed as a taciturn man, polite, self-effacing, with his doubts, and fearful, even wavering, but in the end ready to face fate and his obligation as best he can. Director Fred Zinnermann and his team have respected Carl Foreman’s no-nonsense script by not intruding and letting the wonderful Cooper by his signature decency tell the story.  An elemental story told simply and with economy. Those who make long speeches are cowards or pleading self-interest. Kane is a man of few words.  His responses are direct and honest.  The film-makers give their protagonist distance and approach their task with the same economy of plain-speaking and simple evocation. Tight clean shots, cut editing, and the melancholy and plaintiff theme song gently interspersed with the silent moments where the visuals do the talking. This is why that magnificent soaring crane shot when noon strikes is so powerful.

The crisp monochrome photography of cinematographer Floyd Crosby against a flat sky fosters a confining atmosphere that only really breaks loose when we hear the whistle of the noon train as it approaches town. The consummate editing by Elmo Williams sustains the tension even while we see Kane go about his almost laconic search for support. Particularly effective are frequent repetitions of the same static shot of the empty rails at the edge of town. The threat posed by the men already assembled is deftly evoked by menacing tight close-ups of their faces. We actually feel anxiety and frustration as precious minutes tick by. Another reviewer has called Dimitri Tiomkin’s score as ‘fretful’, a canny description of Tiomkin’s pitch perfect contribution.

His friends tell Kane to leave town. This is no longer his fight. He can’t and he won’t. The old Marshall whose hands are crippled by arthritis can’t help him and joins the chorus. He speaks from bitter experience: in the end it’s “all for nothing”. Is that why the tin star is finally thrown down into the dirt? You must come to your own view about that. An ambivalent action bitter with disillusion, and for Kane final. (The original story by John W. Cunningham which Foreman adapted for the screenplay was titled The Tin Star.)

A lot has been said and written about High Noon. Contemporary American audiences were ill at ease with the final repudiation. (The same audiences were equally unhappy with the vinegar served by Billy Wilder the year before with Ace in The Hole.) The history of the great Westerns has been ever thus. The form’s conventions periodically used to present new arguments, reflect a changed zeitgeist, or as a commentary on contemporary events. High Noon does all this and more without breaking the conventions and at a level of reality that forestalls the pretensions of those who would critique the aesthetics, while ignoring the strength of the allegory and the respect for genre imperatives. Still there were contemporaries in Hollywood whose hubris saw the film as a betrayal of the genre. No betrayal though. More a maturation that chafed against the yoke of machismo and facile patriotism.

High Noon is that rare combination: a great Western and a great movie.