The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - HIGH NOON (1952) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - HIGH NOON (1952)

high noon review
A sheriff struggles to convince his townsfolk to aid him in an impending gunfight.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Fred Zinneman

Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney Jr, Harry Morgan, Lee Van Cleef

high noon blu-ray

There's an old adage that states "If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you're the asshole." In director Fred Zinnemann's 1952 western High Noon, adapted from John W. Cunningham's short story 'The Tin Star', a sheriff runs into so many assholes over the course of 105 minutes (the film runs not in real time, as is often stated, but rather for 85 minutes) that you begin to wonder if maybe he's the asshole.

The sheriff is Will Kane, played with the solemnity of a great old oak by Gary Cooper. At 10.35am on a Sunday morning he's just gotten married to Amy (Grace Kelly, amateurish in one of her first roles), a pretty Quaker girl young enough to be his granddaughter. Not a bad way to start any morning, but Kane's glee is short-lived when a telegram arrives informing him that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), an outlaw Kane had sent to prison, has been released and is due to arrive in town on the noon train (11.56am in the German cut; 12.15pm in the Irish version). Knowing Miller intends to gun him down, Kane makes off with Amy on a carriage speeding out of town.

high noon review

Of course, it wouldn't be much of a western if Kane's stubborn male pride didn't kick in, forcing him to turn back and stand his ground in town. As violence is completely at odds with her religious beliefs, Amy is far from happy about this troubled start to her marriage, but her protestations fall on Kane's deaf ears. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, and all that.

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To add to Kane's trouble, Miller is set to be joined by three thugs who have arrived already and are waiting at the train depot (among them is Lee Van Cleef, making his western debut). This leads Kane to spend what little time he has to prepare for his nemesis' arrival by attempting to deputise members of the townsfolk. His pleas for help fall on deaf ears however, as they find excuses not to aid him, some out of cowardice, some out of common sense self-preservation, and some because they have no quarrel with Miller and actually preferred life in the town before Kane took over as Marshall.

high noon review

I have to admit, I find myself falling in line with the townsfolk on this matter. It's a bit much for a lawman to expect butchers, bakers and candlestick makers to take up arms for a fight they never asked for. Most of them don't even seem to like Kane, and given his complete lack of charisma, it's easy to see why. Part of this comes from Cooper's one-note turn, which I suspect is the sort of performance people who have never watched a John Wayne movie mistakenly believe The Duke delivers in all his movies. As played by Cooper, Kane just doesn't seem all that bothered by his impending murder, so why should the audience care? I can only imagine how great Jimmy Stewart might have been in this role, as few actors could sell thinly veiled panic quite like Stewart.

But it's mostly from how the character is portrayed as selfish and sanctimonious. The key illustration of this comes when Kane interrupts a church service in his quest for volunteers and is swiftly reminded by the parson that given how he failed to take an active role in the church, he has quite the cheek to expect the congregation to put their lives on the line for him. The moment that bothers me most about Kane is when he is approached by the blind-in-one-eye town drunk, Jimmy (William Newell), who offers to fight alongside Kane. The Marshall condescendingly dismisses him off to the saloon, an act that must be soul-destroying for poor old Jimmy. If this were a John Ford or Howard Hawks movie, Kane would be played by John Wayne, Jimmy by Walter Brennan, and Kane would recognise how much the old drunk needs to feel useful. He'd give him a rifle, set him down behind some cover and tell him that when he sees two Frank Millers, shoot both of them.

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This isn't a Ford or Hawks western, however, it's a Zinnemann western. It's the only western Zinnemann ever made, and it's clearly a genre he's uncomfortable in. There's something awfully patronising about the vision of the west constructed by Zinnemann and writer Carl Foreman here, and you get the sense the western is a genre they both have disdain for. Like the social dramas of Ken Loach, High Noon is a film that goes through its motions in service of delivering a message rather than focussing on its characters, and as such it's heavily reliant on the audience being on board with its message. At the time of its release the film was considered an allegory for McCarthyism, and right-wingers like John Wayne labelled it communist propaganda. That's a strange accusation, as no communist propaganda movie would portray a community in such a negative fashion. If anything, Kane behaves like a fascist, and his attempts to coerce the innocents of the town into spilling blood now play like jingoistic right-wing propaganda. I imagine that if you watched High Noon during the Vietnam era it might have come off as a pro-draft polemic. Now you might see it as an allegory for how America bullies other countries into joining in with its various wars.

high noon review

Regardless of where you fall on its politics, High Noon just isn't a very interesting western. Despite the ticking clock narrative, Zinnemann fails to imbue his film with much suspense, and you can see why he was fired from his directing gig on the similarly constructed The Clock and replaced by Vincente Minnelli. It's in the climactic shootout that Zinnemann's failings as a director of action come into full effect. Having failed to previously establish the geography of the film's one horse town setting in the way the likes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and A Fistful of Dollars do so effortlessly, High Noon leaves us spatially confused as to where Kane is in relation to his would be killers, draining any potential for tension and suspense from the set-piece.

The critic Andrew Sarris called High Noon "the favourite western of people who don't like westerns," and you might argue it's also made by people who don't like westerns. Zinnemann famously didn't want High Noon to look like a western and so purposely shot it in stark black and white, which ironically now makes it look like the TV westerns of the '60s and shows up its appropriations of western tropes all the more explicitly. If Zinnemann and Foreman desired realism, they failed, as nobody in High Noon feels like a real character, unlike the people who populate the immaculately crafted western worlds of directors like Hawks, Ford, Peckinpah, Mann, Boetticher et al. I'm reminded of a line from Joanna Hogg's recent British drama The Souvenir, in which a character remarks that he likes Powell and Pressburger because even though their films don't look real, they feel real. The great westerns rarely look real, but they feel real. High Noon barely even looks real.

The stunning 4K restoration is accompanied by two new feature commentaries - one by historian Glenn Frankel, the other by western authority Stephen Prince; a video interview with historian Neil Sinyard; three documentaries of varying lengths (47, 22 and 10 minutes); 1969 audio interview with writer Carl Foreman from the National Film Theatre in London; theatrical trailer; collector's booklet featuring John W. Cunningham's short story 'The Tin Star', along with new and archival writing on the film and archival images and press materials.

High Noon is on blu-ray September 16th from Eureka Entertainment.