Monday, 6 August 2012

High Noon (1952)

Dir. Fred Zinnemann
Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado 

Will Kane (Gary Cooper) begs his darling to not forsake him (it is their wedding day). The noonday train will bring Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald). If Kane is a man he must be brave and he must face that deadly killer or lie a coward (a craven coward) in the grave. Kane is torn ‘twixt love and duty, supposing he’ll lose his fair-haired beauty. He watches the big hand of the clock move along nearing high noon. Miller made a vow while in state’s prison; he vowed it would be Kane’s life or his ‘n’ Kane’s not afraid of death, but he doesn’t know what he will do if his wife leaves him. 

The entire plot synopsis of classic Western High Noon is helpfully explained in song by Tex Ritter before a character even speaks. It’s like one of those American reality TV shows where they show all the highlights of the next hour in the first two minutes. And then keeps repeating them before and after every advert break. There are no ad breaks in High Noon but that famous tune keeps appearing. And appearing. And appearing. To be honest I was quite impressed with the variations on the tune composer Dmitri Tiomkin, the daddy of Western soundtracks, pulled out to match different changes in mood. The singing I could do without. 

For those who weren’t listening to the lyrics we find ourselves in Hadleyville, a small Western town that has boomed in the last five years since Marshal Will Kane rode in to clean it up. Outlaw Frank Miller was captured, tried and shipped off for execution. But on Kane’s last day in office, as he weds his pacifist Quaker bride Amy (Grace Kelly), news comes in that Miller has been pardoned. He will be arriving in Hadleyville on the noon train, will meet up with three of his former gang, and then will come to wreak his revenge upon Kane. His friends glance at the clock (it is 10:35) and urge him to flee while he still has time. But Will cannot do that. A combination of pride (he hates the idea of running), duty (the new Marshal is not due into town until the following day) and practicality (four men on horses would be able to outrun his wagon) makes him turn around. With a united town behind him he will be able to face down Miller’s boys and save Hadleyville from their depredations. 

Except that Hadleyville is not a united town. Over at the saloon and the hotel many want Miller to return, remembering how much more fun the unruly sinful town he used to control was. Kane’s deputy Harvey (Lloyd Bridges, decades before Airplane!, looking frighteningly young despite actually being 38) will not help unless he is named the new Marshal. The judge packs up and flees town. The churchgoers pass the buck – it’s the politicians who freed Miller that should clean up the mess - they have paid to fund the Marshal’s office so why should they put their own lives at risk - they warned that they weren’t paying enough to fund the Marshal’s office – the sight of gun battles in the street will deter investment in the town. Their conclusion: it is Will’s problem. If only he had left town when they said there would not be an issue. The upshot: no one will stand with him. The townsfolk are too old, too drunk, too chicken to put their lives in jeopardy. It will be him alone against the Millers. Even his own wife, abhorring violence, leaves to catch the train out of town. 

Worst. Conga. Ever.

John Wayne famously hated the movie. To him it was some sort of Communist treatise. No American, in his view, would ever shirk from doing the right thing. The sight of a U.S. Marshal having to go door to door begging for help was unseemly. The characterisation of his office as “just a tin star” was nothing short of un-American to him. He even went out and made the suitably heroic Rio Bravo as a riposte.  Carl Foreman found himself blacklisted by the House Un-American Committee (the film can even be read, as with The Crucible, as an allegory on the Communist witch-hunts of the early ‘50s). I suppose it shows how times have changed. To modern-day sensibilities there is nothing grotesque or unusual about a story of one man alone against the world. In fact I thought the ending a bit of a cop-out. The good guy always wins. The moment was saved by the very last scene however; the townsfolk crowd around him in congratulation, Kane takes off his tin star and throws it into the dust and hen rides off without a word. The town disgusts him.  

I suppose we are used to the idea of one man against the world. Just look at some of the films seen this year, whether they be Westerns (James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma), pseudo-Westerns (James Mangold’s Cop Land), or not-very-Western at all (Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront). Incidentally President Dwight D. Eisenhower loved it. As did Bill Clinton. Allegedly High Noon is the film most requested to be screened for presidents at the White House. 

I didn’t hate the movie. The layering on of reasons why the townsfolk refuse to help him showcases so many different strands of opinion and interest in a small town; Cooper’s whole body language becomes more and more beaten and bowed as he realises that he is the only one willing to do the right thing. It is also one of the earliest films to effectively portray suspense, with frequent cuts to clocks ticking on walls or the hoodlums waiting menacingly at the station, staring down the long, empty railroad track. A sense of dread is built up in real time (apparently if you start to watch the film at 10:50 the train really will scream into the station at noon – suck on that 24!). The character of Mrs Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado) is also wonderfully nuanced – scared but determined not to show it, vengeful yet worried for Will. Jurado became the first Mexican to win a Golden Globe on the strength of this performance. I would have liked to learn more about her backstory. 

Yet for all that, High Noon is not a great movie. Like the clock on the wall, it ticks along pleasantly, but I have certainly enjoyed other films more.  

What have I learnt about New Mexico?
New Mexico is never named in the film. Hadleyville is just located in “the Territory” – this is before statehood came to the area. Authorities are “up north”. Miller is released in Abilene, Texas. Amy buys a ticket to St. Louis. So even tinpot little towns like Hadleyville are connected to the wider United States by the railroad. The importance of the steam train in opening up the West is quite apparent. In this frontier land sultry Mexican widows have the money, rough hard-drinking cowboys fill the saloons, and a couple of lone Indians wait on the street. This shows the expansion of the U.S. just as it was starting to civilise its rough edges. It needed the expansionists, speculators and desperados to tame the wilderness. It then needed the lawmen and their families to tame the desperados. The tragedy of the Miller gang and their supporters is that they didn’t realise it was a one way process. Once order had been brought to a territory the apparatus of the United States would not tolerate that state of affairs to be reversed. Sure, they stood a good chance of killing Kane and making Hadleyville into their own personal fiefdom once more. But the very next day the new Marshal would arrive. The judge would inform the authorities what had happened and order would be restored once again. The Millers and their saloon-room buddies hoped for the clock to be reset; as the viewer knows full well from this film, however, time only runs in one direction. 

Can we go there?
For New Mexico read California. The film was shot around Jamestown in central California (on the route up from San Francisco Bay to Yosemite National Park).The Gold Rush-era houses of Columbia State Historic Park was used for Hadleyville (with back-up scenes shot on the Columbia Studios Ranch in Burbank). St Joseph’s Church in Tuolumne City was used for the town church. The railway station was created near Warnerville on the Sierra Railroad east of Oakdale. The steam train that brings Miller to town is one of the most filmed trains in existence. It is Sierra No.3, and it has also featured in The Virginian, Finian’s Rainbow, Pale Rider, Back to the Future III and Unforgiven as well as TV series such as The Lone Ranger, Rawhide and Bonanza. The train can still be seen in Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown – for the time being. The park is threatened with closure so any visit will be gratefully appreciated. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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