You can celebrate Gary Cooper’s May 7 birthday by watching his Oscar-winning performance.
Everybody knows that High Noon — now available on several streaming platforms — is the story of a noble marshal who must stand alone against vengeful outlaws while the cowardly citizens of his small town refuse to offer assistance. As often is the case with things that “everybody knows,” however, director Fred Zinnemann’s classic 1952 western is appreciably more complex than conventional wisdom suggests.
Sure enough, Will Kane (Gary Cooper, whose birthday we celebrate May 7) does appear to be an icon of integrity when we meet him on what he figures to be the first day of a brand-new life. Judging from what he says, and what is said about him, he’s been the well-respected marshal of Hadleyville for a number of years, dutifully turning a lawless Wild West town into an oasis of rectitude and family values. Now he’s turning in his badge and tying the knot with Amy (Grace Kelly), a notably younger Quaker lady who wants her new husband to adopt a pacifistic approach to life.
But just before the newlyweds can depart on their honeymoon, Will gets bad news: Frank Miller, a surly killer Will helped send to prison years ago, is on his way back to Hadleyville to settle accounts with the lawman. Three of his gun-slinging goons are waiting at the depot, waiting for Frank to arrive on the noon train. And it’s already 10:40 a.m. Uh-oh.
Being a reasonable fellow — and, more important, newly married to a beautiful Quaker lady — Will initially agrees with the townspeople who suggest that he and Amy should skedaddle out of town. A few minutes out of Hadleyville, however, our hero feels compelled to turn his buggy around and head back home because… well, you know, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.
Trouble is, Will can’t find anybody to do it with him. For the next hour or so, he dashes from person to person, group to group, trying to rally support for his stand against the invading barbarians. Time and again, however, Will is rebuffed or betrayed.
Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), his callow deputy, refuses to get involved because he blames Will for impeding his career advancement. (Harvey thought he would be a great replacement marshal; Will evidently thought otherwise.) Martin Howe (Lon Chaney Jr.), Will’s mentor and predecessor, is too embittered — and, to be fair, too arthritic — to risk his neck once again for ungrateful townspeople. Mayor Henderson (Thomas Mitchell) actively discourages any assistance to Will, insisting that violent gunplay on the town’s streets would be bad for business and worse for Hadleyville’s image. Meanwhile, Amy sits and stews in the local hotel, threatening to leave town on the very train carrying Frank Miller to his date with destiny.
In the end, Will — with a little help from Amy, who decides to stick around and, better still, shoot one of the bad guys in the back — has to take care of business without any help from the lily-livered Hadleyvillians. He tosses his badge onto the street in a final gesture of disgust, and rides off with Amy to a better and presumably quieter life elsewhere. The End.
High Noon greatly upset some traditionalists when first released in 1952 — John Wayne and Howard Hawks were among its most vocal detractors — but many critics warmly praised the movie as a smart, sophisticated “adult western.” Audiences bought scads of tickets, and Academy voters honored Gary Cooper with a richly deserved Oscar for Best Actor. (Cooper — then 50 years old, but looking even older — stoically endured a bleeding ulcer during filming, partly accounting for the generally mournful and frequently pained expressions that enhance the credibility of his performance.) Oscars also went to the film’s editing and musical score, and to the memorably mood-setting High Noon theme — a.k.a., “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’” — sung throughout the movie by Tex Ritter.
After more than a half-century of revivals, revisionist reviews and made-for-TV remakes, High Noon continues to fascinate as a political allegory. It was written by Carl Foreman, who subsequently endured a long spate of blacklisting for alleged Communist sympathies. (He had to use an alias when he co-wrote The Bridge on the River Kwai, and couldn’t accept his award when that 1957 movie earned an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.) For those inclined to bother, the movie is easily interpreted as a metaphor for the climate of fear generated by McCarthyism in the 1950s, a period when many directors, writers and actors were abandoned by old friends — were treated as pariahs, actually — because they had been branded as “subversives.” (Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Frankel examines this story behind the story in his recent, well-received book, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic.)
Aside from its politics, High Noon remains noteworthy because of its formal structure. The 85-minute movie is ingeniously paced and edited to sustain the illusion of its unfolding in “real time,” methodically and inexorably counting down to the final showdown. To intensify the suspense, director Zinnemann and Elmo Williams, his Oscar-winning editor, occasionally cut away to close-ups of relentlessly ticking clocks, effectively underscoring Will’s mounting desperation.
All well and good, of course. But what almost always goes unmentioned in discussions of High Noon are the glancing hints and subtle intimations that suggest maybe, just maybe, the entire situation isn’t as black and white as it seems. Here and there, you can sport clear-cut signs that, for some people in Hadleyville, Will Kane has been a sanctimonious spoilsport who won’t be missed or mourned. It’s not so much that they’re afraid to offer help — rather, it’s more like they’re eager to witness long-delayed payback. Or, as a hotelkeeper bluntly says of Will, “He’s got a comeuppance coming.” Obviously, Frank Miller still has friends and admirers throughout the town. Just as obviously, Will hasn’t done nearly enough during his tenure as marshal to sway their allegiance.
And then there’s the delicate issue of sexual intrigue. Delicate, that is, because a 1952 movie couldn’t be terribly explicit about who might be sleeping with whom, and why they might not want anyone to know about it. Early on, High Noon none-too-subtly indicates that Will once had a major hankering for Helen Ramirez (Kathy Jurado), a harshly beautiful and fiercely proud Mexican woman who used to dally with Frank Miller. Is that why Will arrested Frank in the first place? Was he eager to remove a romantic rival? The questions linger in the air, tantalizingly unanswered.
Given the exigencies of time, place and local custom, Will more than likely felt he could never openly court, much less marry, someone like Helen. (A local businessman is grateful for her help as a silent partner — but she knows enough not to insist that he ever be seen in public with her.) Even so, that hasn’t stopped Harvey, the swaggering and overcompensating deputy, from trying to replace Will in Helen’s affections after the marshal attached himself to a respectably Anglo sweetheart. Unfortunately, a callow boy is no substitute for a mature (albeit image-conscious) man, and Helen tells Harvey as much the first time we see them together in High Noon. Which, of course, suggests that professional frustration isn’t Harvey’s only motivation in his refusal to help Will.
Late in the movie, the two men meet in a barn. Will briefly considers saddling a horse and riding away, and Harvey strongly encourages this tactical retreat. But no, Will just can’t bring himself to cut and run. Harsh words are exchanged, accusations are made — and the upshot is a viciously brutal fistfight. The Oedipal undertones are unsettling, if not entirely unexpected, as the younger man tries (and, of course, fails) to subjugate his older former mentor. In fact, the testosterone-fueled slugfest is so purposefully protracted, and so charged with sexual jealousy, the final gunplay almost appears anti-climactic.
Which just goes to show you: Even in a western restricted by Production Code constraints, there may be more than one reason why a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.