Sunday, February 16, 2014

HIGH NOON: A FILM COMMENTARY

 
 High Noon.Gary Cooper

By Ronald Fox

I recently re-watched the 1952 film, High Noon, starring Gary Cooper.  I'd seen it before, years ago, but hadn’t remembered much about it other that it was introduced by a catchy tune sung by Tex Ritter and that the good guy, Cooper, prevailed in the end. The film won four academy awards, including a best actor for Cooper and a best song for Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin', which was written by Ned Washington from Dimitri Tiomkin's haunting melody.  It might have won more had it not gotten swept up in the anti-Communist hysteria of the time.  Watching it this time, I was able to apply a broader perspective that comes with age as well as insights drawn from many years of studying and teaching post-World War II cultural history. There’s much more to this film than I originally realized.

High Noon tells a familiar story about a small town marshal, Will Kane, played by Cooper, standing up to a murderous outlaw gang, except this time, in contrast to more typical westerns, the marshal is forced by circumstances to alone face not only the outlaw gang, headed by Frank Miller (Ian McDonald), but also his fellow residents of Hadleyville. The story centers on Miller’s return to Hadleyville after being released from prison on a technicality. He is to arrive on the noon train--high noon--where he will join his gang and fulfill his promise to kill marshal Kane, who was responsible for his going to jail.

Tension in the film builds as the outlaws wait for Miller and the clocks ticks toward noon. Kane, who was recently married to Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), a pacifist Quaker, has resigned as marshal and is preparing to leave town with his bride. His plans are interrupted, however, when he hears the news about Miller’s pending arrival. He reclaims his badge and turns to the town for help. To his disappointment, he finds them cowering in fear of Miller. They even try to encourage him to leave town in the hopes of diffusing the situation. Kane, however, won’t abandon his law enforcing responsibility. He will have to face the killers alone; even his deputy, Harvey Pell (played by Lloyd Bridges), refuses to join him. A shoot-out takes place on the deserted streets of Hadleyville, and Kane, with belated help from Amy (a pacifist taking up arms, surely one of the great character reversals in film history), kills the entire gang. When the townspeople emerge, Will contemptuously glares at them, then tosses his marshal’s badge in the dirt and leaves with Amy.

High Noon is an allegorical political commentary of McCarthy-era witch hunting. The screenplay was written by Carl Foreman, who was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for alleged Communist connections.  Foreman wanted to criticize the witch trials and purges conducted by HUAC (symbolized by the lawless gang of murderers) on various members of the Hollywood’s film industry as well as the failure of the Hollywood community (symbolized by the morally corrupt, irresolute, and cowardly residents of Hadleyville) to fight back against HUAC repression.

The film was released in 1952 when McCarthyism was at its peak and largely unchecked. Americans were instilled with fear and encouraged to constantly be on the lookout for potential “red sympathizers” and to inform on those suspected. In its paranoid, anti-communist striving, American government authorities pushed a Cold War program of increasingly rigid conformity in public thought and action, at the cost of the very civil liberties American constitutional government was supposed to protect. High Noon uses the criminal band of bullies threatening the peace of civilized Hadleyville as a metaphor for the disruptive and repressive nature of America’s emerging national security state.

Like the residents of Hadleyville, Americans were facing two fundamental threats: the threat of coercion and attack from outside the community, and the awful fate that awaits them for their cowardly capitulation to coercion within their own community. Power is corrupting. Even democratic governments are not immune to using coercion and violence to achieve their ends, whether just or unjust. Because of this, if Americans, like Hadleyville’s citizens, are not vigilant, they can awake to find their government has become the mirror image of the anti-democratic nightmare they have been raised to fear and resist at all costs. High Noon can be seen as a wake-up call to not let this happen. Citizens must be morally responsible if our civilization is to be saved.

Will Kane, the embodiment of ideal moral authority, acts alone out of a sense of conviction and integrity to save his town from an evil menace. That’s what good citizens do. In the end, however, he questions the place of such integrity in a corrupted world and he comes to believe that people lacking moral fortitude to stand up to evil are not worthy of enjoying the core democratic values of liberty, equality and justice. His tarnished ideals are apparent when he throws his marshal’s star in the dirt, steps on it, and rides off in the sunset with his wife to find a better life.

Director Fred Zimmerman’s High Noon was a subversive film for its time. This was affirmed by how many people in Hollywood and in government reacted to it. Western movie hero, John Wayne, appalled at the idea that a law man would beg for help, then quit and throw his badge on the ground, called High Noon the most un-American film he had ever seen in his life. (with director Howard Hawkes, he later made the film, Rio Bravo (1959), as a corective to High Noon).

Screenwriter Carl Foreman admitted he wrote High Noon as a critique of HUAC’s attack on Hollywood and the film industry’s failure to combat this attack. Because of his failure to cooperate with the HUAC vigilantes, Foreman would later see his High Noon film credit diminished and ultimately be blacklisted, forcing him to move to England to work in the industry.  Howard Chamberlain, who played the hotel receptionist was also blacklisted, as was Bridges, although he was later "cleared" when he reluctantly named names. Gary Cooper, an avowed anti-communist, was criticized by his friends on the right, including John Wayne, for appearing in the film. To his ever-lasting credit, he defended Foreman for the rest of his life. Cooper's performance was masterful, well deserving of his best actor award.

Right wing presence on the film, along with the ever watchful eyes of Hollywood censors, makes Foreman’s conjuring trick to get an anti-HUAC message across especially remarkable.  In those days, and even into the 1960s, it was next to impossible to get any film that presented a critical view of the American political system or of U.S. foreign policy by the cowardly Hollywood censors. Critical message film makers had to be subtle, employing allegories, parables, metaphors, symbolism, and later in the period, black humor (think of Dr. Strangelove and Catch-22), to escape the censor’s knife. High Noon is one such film. Even if you’ve already seen it, it deserves a second viewing.










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