PG | 1h 25min | Drama, Thriller, Western | 30 July 1952 (USA)
Similar to 1960’s “The Magnificent Seven,” director Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon” (1952) is a Western about courage and standing up for what’s right, no matter the odds. And although this film shares that message, it doesn’t begin as dramatically as the later film does.
“High Noon” starts off much more subtly, with shots of scruffy henchman Jack Colby (Lee Van Cleef) smoking a cigarette under a tree. Soon, he is joined by a couple of similar, devious-looking men, Jim Pierce (Robert Wilke) and Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley). The three men travel via horseback to a lone train station to await the noontime arrival of their leader, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald).
Not too far away is the dusty little (fictitious) town of Hadleyville, New Mexico. (The film was actually filmed at locations in the beautiful state of California). The town’s standup marshal, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), has just gotten hitched to a young Quaker named Amy (Grace Kelly).
Will wants to leave the law enforcement business behind and begin a new life as a loving husband. Therefore, the couple plans to leave Hadleyville and get a fresh start elsewhere. His replacement is due to arrive the following day, and the townsfolk assure him that they’ll be safe without a marshal for one day.
Suddenly, Will receives news that Frank Miller is headed for Hadleyville in order to seek revenge on him and a few other folks, who sent him up to hang for his crimes. Will is faced with a dilemma—should he stay and defend his hometown and the innocent townspeople who live there, or turn and walk (or in this case, ride) away with his new bride?
The townsfolk insist that Will and Amy ride off, purportedly to protect the newlyweds’ lives. In a moving scene, Will grapples with this dilemma as he and Amy ride off on horse and buckboard. His face visibly registers his inner turmoil as he shifts around uncomfortably and his hands clutch and fumble with the reins.
Despite Amy’s warnings against their staying in town, Will turns the buckboard around and heads back. He’s made his mind up to stay and protect its citizens. After returning to Hadleyville, Will prepares for his showdown with Frank Miller at high noon, and it’s here that the film shows the different relationships between its main characters.
There’s his second-in-command, Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), a young hothead who seems jealous of Will’s bravery; and well-to-do Mexican American businesswoman Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), who is romantically linked to Will, Frank Miller, and Harvey Pell (although she dumps the latter early on in the film). Then there’s Martin Howe (Lon Chaney Jr.), a retired lawman who Will looks up to, but he doesn’t seem too keen on taking up the fight.
All of these characters have various motivations that are touched on, revealing parts of both the town’s history and the film’s backstory. One of the most intriguing threads throughout its one-hour, 25-minute runtime is how most of the town’s inhabitants want Will to leave. For instance, Harvey Pell seems to want Will to leave so that he doesn’t have to live in his shadow anymore, while Helen implies that she simply wants him to enjoy a new life with Amy.
As the clock ticks closer to noon, the slow-burn pacing of the film begins to pick up. All of the stellar cast is able to convey the gradual ratcheting up of tension as the minutes tick by, and there’s even a traitorous (no spoilers) person who chooses a pretty inopportune time to backstab our hero, Will.
Can Will keep up his resolve even though many of the townsfolk don’t necessarily appreciate his selflessness? Or will he break down and leave them to their own devices, since he can’t even seem to round up a single man to deputize?
A Subtle Western
Frankly, I’d assumed that the film would have plenty of gunfights leading up to its inevitable climax. However, most of the action takes place on the faces of Hadleyville’s residents as they carry out their individual motives and machinations, and it’s a real pleasure to watch things unfold.
Cooper is excellent as a steadfast lawman who stands up for what’s right, and Kelly is equally fun to watch as his conflicted wife. (Her character became a nonviolent Quaker after her brother and father were killed in a gunfight earlier in her life.)
Among the baddies, Ian MacDonald doesn’t appear until the end of the film, although he makes for a pretty dangerous-looking dude. Van Cleef stands out as a comparably menacing henchman despite not having a single line of dialogue. It was one of the actor’s first roles.
“High Noon” is a slow-burn classic Western that initially seems to have a simple setup. However, its complex characters and their various relationships to one another offer plenty of fascinating story arcs packed within its relatively short runtime.
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell
Running Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Release Date: July 30, 1952 (USA)
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5
Ian Kane is a filmmaker and author based out of Los Angeles. To learn more, visit DreamFlightEnt.com