Monday, March 15, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: High Noon (1952)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal here at, where I review an old Best Picture nominee through my 2021 lens.

Today I'll be talking about the 1952 classic Western, High Noon, starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly.  Very unconventional for its time, High Noon is a simple tale about a retiring town Marshal who must singlehandedly protect his town from a dangerous outlaw returning from prison.  The newly married Marshal Kane, who planned to hang up his gun and badge, learns on his wedding day that Frank Miller (wait, the comic book writer??), a savage murderer he sent to prison, is returning via the noon train and rightly assumes Miller's gang will try to take revenge on him and his new bride.  Rather than have the bad guys follow him to his new home, Kane opts to remain a Marshal for one more day and deal with Miller's gang before going off to start his new life.  After his deputy Harvey Pell walks off the job due to resentment over not being named Kane's successor, Kane attempts to deputize numerous townspeople to help him fend off the coming attack.  

The film plays out in real time, Miller's imminent arrival hanging over the film like a death shroud as Kane scrambles to come up with a plan, while his new wife, a pacifist Quaker, refuses to stay.  Cooper plays Kane as an deeply uncertain lawman, knowing he's doing the right thing but often ineffectual in his execution.  Kane is unable to convince the townspeople to stand up to the outlaws; most of them just want him to leave so Miller's gang will spare the town.  A few men offer to help, but one is missing an eye and is far too old to be of use, another is a young teenager, and the one able-bodied adult who stands by Kane balks upon learning he's the only volunteer.  Everyone else tries to talk Kane out of his impending showdown, and the film becomes something of a parable about a respected leader struggling to find a balance between what is right and what is popular, the old mob mentality issue.  
High Noon was strangely controversial on its release, given the uncertainty of its protagonist in a genre dominated by macho, alpha-male types.  John Wayne even went so far as to call the film "un-American," a bizarre adjective in this context (The more I read about John Wayne, the more I think he was a Grade-A asshole - he turned down the chance to play Kane because he thought the film was a statement against McCarthy-era blacklisting, heaven forbid).  Even beyond Kane's hesitation and the fact that his wife ends up helping him dispatch the bad guys (A strong female character?? For shame!), a Western with very little action built around dialogue dealing with moral issues took many audiences by surprise.  Despite its polarizing reception however, High Noon garnered seven Oscar nominations and won four, including a Best Actor trophy for Gary Cooper (which Wayne accepted on his behalf, ironically).  

I found the film an intriguing exercise in suspense and style, carried by Cooper's nuanced central performance and the use of the "ticking clock," a visual motif that pops up throughout.  The long-awaited final showdown was perhaps a bit tame considering the buildup, and Ian MacDonald's performance as the intensely feared Frank Miller lacked for me a sense of palpable menace (perhaps a bigger name actor with more gravitas would've been apropos, a la Kevin Spacey's surprise appearance in Se7en).  But High Noon is visually engaging and deals with complex moral choices while relishing the anticipation of the gunplay; rather influential traits for a 1950s Western, that would be explored further in Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy.  As a genre picture this film was pretty groundbreaking for 1952.

I give the film *** out of ****.

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