Monday, August 12, 2013

Masterpiece: High Noon

Last week my wife and I watched “High Noon” the great 1952 film western directed by Fred Zinnemann and which starred the legendary Gary Cooper. The film lost out in the best picture category that year, losing out to “The Greatest Show on Earth”, a circus drama that is virtually unwatchable today.

I call High Noon a great film for the simple reason that it can be viewed over and over again not only with enjoyment but with total involvement. It is not just that repeated viewings bring out things you might have missed originally. It is not the nuances or the background that makes a film great, but the central core, the thing that the director most wanted the viewer to see and know.

Any great story or work of art works in that way. As children, when we heard a good story like Goldilocks or Red Riding Hood, we wanted to hear it over and over again. We knew the characters, what they would do, and how it would end, but every telling seemed new. We know that most great literature works that way also. The Homeric epics were meant to be told over and over again to audiences who were totally familiar with them. Year after year we can hear in church the stories of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan and be totally into them. People go to the same operas year after year not to hear something new but to see and hear these great spectacles reenacted.

I can’t say how many times I have seen High Noon since I first saw it as a thirteen year old with my fourteen-year-old cousin back in 1952. Back in those days we went to the movies practically every Saturday for a double feature with five color cartoons and a newsreel. We must have seen countless westerns but High Noon was something different.

It was, and still is, a gripping compelling drama of a small town marshal who is forced to confront four vicious killers. I must have sat open mouthed in the darkened theater as one by one the marshal’s friends refused for various reasons to come to his assistance. In the end he was left alone on the deserted street of the town to face the killers whose leader was arriving on the noon train.

Gary Cooper, a veritable American icon, played the marshal. Maybe he was a little old for the part especially since his new bride was played by young and beautiful Grace Kelly in her first major role. Nevertheless, I can’t think of any other actor of that time or any time who could have played the role of the abandoned marshal. He won a well-deserved Oscar.

Cooper was surrounded by an outstanding cast. Grace Kelly was fine as a young Quaker bride whose wedding to Cooper takes place a few minutes before the news comes of the impending arrival of Frank Miller and his gang. However, Katy Jurado was magnificent as a Mexican woman of the world who had once been Kane’s lover. She won a Golden Globe in 1953 for best supporting actress. I’ll never forget her rebuke to Grace Kelly whose Quaker principles prevent her from helping her new husband: “what kind of a woman are you?"

As a young teenager I could not realize that the real stars of the show were Fred Zinnemann, the director, and Carl Foreman, the writer. For some reason Zinnemann decided to do the film in black and white and omit any colorful Western scenery. The sky is hardly visible in the film and the town seems isolated in a kind of haze.  Along with his cameraman, and editor, Zinneman produced a film of incredible pace and tension. It never drags and the tension is heightened by the constant references to clocks ticking in the background as the hands approach high noon.

Carl Foreman’s script was taut, adult, and free of the usual western clich├ęs. Characters were able to appear as human and many-sided and each had a chance to state his or her case. Lloyd Bridges, Thomas Mitchell, Lon Chaney Jr., and a young Harry Morgan were all given wonderful supporting roles.

As a thirteen year old back in 1952 I had no idea of the controversy that surrounded this film and that still crops up in most critical evaluations. I was certainly not aware of Cooper’s womanizing off screen, nor could I have imagined the tragedy that awaited Grace Kelly. I would not have know that Fred Zinnemann was an Austrian Jew or wondered why he would make an American western. Neither was I aware of the investigation spearheaded by the House Un-American Activities Committee to track down Communists in the American film industry.

Carl Foreman had been called before the Committee and admitted that he had been a Communist years before but that he had become disillusioned with the Party and left. Nevertheless, he was blacklisted in Hollywood and eventually left the country to settle in England. He only returned a couple of years before his death.

In a commentary that accompanied the DVD Foreman’s son said that his father told his own story in High Noon. He felt that he had been deserted by all his former friends and employers in Hollywood and left alone to face his critics.

I’m glad that I didn’t know any of this background information back in 1952, and today, more than 50 years later; I don’t think it matters any more. The film is still a great film. The director, writer, cameraman, editor, and cast all came together to make a work of art that transcended all their personal lives and politics. Just click on this link to see the incredible two minute build up to arrival of the train at high noon, or view the video below.

I should not fail to mention the haunting ballad, “Do Not Forsake Me, O my Darling” that was sung by Tex Ritter and that provides most of the musical background. How could a film that includes these lyrics by un-American?

I do not know what fate awaits me.I only know I must be brave.For I must face a man who hates me,Or lie a coward, a craven coward;Or lie a coward in my grave. 
After 50 years I still cannot get these lyrics or the melody out of my head.


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