Saturday, April 27, 2013


I have to admit -here we are, four entries into our monthly Saturday Matinee feature, and I am really surprised no one has talked about High Noon yet. But on the other hand, that's a good thing, because it means I can.

High Noon isn't just my favorite western, it's my favorite movie, period. (That list would be rounded out by Casablanca, The Godfather, It's a Wonderful Life, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Then Apocalypse Now, and then The Searchers... and so on and so forth.)

And I wouldn't be alone. The American Film Institute has ranked it #27 on its list of greatest movies, #2 in their list of westerns, and Will Kane as #5 on their list of greatest cinema heroes. Bill Clinton has proclaimed it his favorite movie of all time, and screened it in the White House 17 times. Eisenhower and Reagan loved it, too.

The film was released in 1952: directed by George Zinneman, produced by Stanley Kubrick and Carl Foreman (who wrote the screenplay), featuring an Academy Award winning classic theme song ("Do Not Forsake Me") and winning Gary Cooper his second Oscar. Katy Jurado won a Golden Globe for her role as Helen Ramirez.

Most of you have seen it, I'm sure, multiple time. Gary Cooper is Will Kane, marshal of a small town called Hadleyville. It is his wedding day -he is marrying a Quaker girl, played by Grace Kelly, and has promised her to hang up his guns once they are married and become a storekeeper.

But then word arrives that Frank Miller is coming in on the train at high noon. Miller had been arrested by Kane and sentenced to hang, but got off on a technicality and is now returning to Hadleyville for his revenge. His gang is already at the depot, waiting for him to disembark.

Kane decides he has to remain in town and do his job -running would only delay the inevitable. Plus, the town might suffer in his place if he ran. The minutes toward the crucial showdown click by in painfully real time. Kane's anxiety, and fear, grow with each passing minute. No one is willing to stand and help him defend the town, not even his deputy. His wife abandons him for being prepared to resort to violence. His friends in town hide from him when he comes looking for assistance, or make up excuses.

He will be standing alone, and will have virtually no chance to survive.

The emotion written on Gary Cooper's face earned him that Oscar. He is desperate; he is quietly terrified; he is betrayed and abandoned and grieved. At one point a little boy catches him with his face in his hands, crying.

John Wayne was a better actor than a lot of people gave him credit for -but in my opinion he could never have pulled a role like this off. He could never have convinced the audience he was desperate and terrified. He would have gone out and faced the bad guys because he was John Wayne and that's what he did, and there would never be any doubt of the outcome.

Gary Cooper looked like a man who knew he was going to die, and didn't want to. But who bit that all back and went out to do what he knew was right, even if no one helped him, even if he knew he would almost surely die.

Of course -spoiler alert -he didn't die. He managed to wipe out the Miller gang -with some unexpected help from his Quaker wife, who came back to help him when no one else did, even taking a life. When it's over his "friends" come out of the woodwork, congratulating him, saying they knew he could do it all along. He gives them a piercing stare of righteous contempt and throws his badge into the dust, then rides away with his bride. Who, ultimately, did not forsake him after all.

I've always suspected that the town's name, Hadleyville, was deliberately chosen to evoke Mark Twain's short story "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg", about a town full of self-righteous people who are exposed as hypocrites and frauds.

When I was a kid, I didn't have a male authority figure in my life to give me moral guidance. I sort of hobbled together, from popular culture, several different things to help me figure out what it meant to be a man. When I first saw this movie, at the age of 8, it indelibly impressed on me just what a man is, and should be. Not the tough guy who always wins -but the guy who does what he knows is right, despite the odds and despite the cost, and even when it's scary, and does not waver. Will Kane, Atticus Finch, and George Bailey became my role models -and still are.

Or, as Katy Jurado says to Lloyd Bridges: "You're a good looking boy. You have big, broad shoulders. But he is a man. It takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man."

I was grown before I learned the fascinating story behind the story of High Noon.

Carl Foreman, the writer and co-producer, had drawn up an outline for a screenplay that would be about a small-town western marshal, and unfold in real time (long before Kiefer Sutherland and 24!) When someone pointed out that the plot was similar to the John W. Cunningham short story "The Tin Star," Foreman bought the film rights to the story (if you've read the story, you'll know it's not exactly High Noon.) Then Foreman started working on the screenplay.

During that process, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Commission to testify. It was the height of the Red Scare, after all, and Joesph McCarthy had already claimed that the State Department was riddled with Communist spies. Like many liberals, artists, and academics, Carl Foreman had been associated with the Communist Party in the 1930s. He had left the party after a short time, a decade before his testimony was called for. However, he refused to "name names" in what he considered a witch hunt, and was branded an uncooperative witness. He was eventually blacklisted, and had to move to England to get work.

Foreman later claimed that his partner Stanley Kramer tried to get him off the High Noon project because he feared the repercussions of being associated with him; Kramer said their falling out was over other, non-political matters. Foreman was forced to sell his part of the production company, but the film's director George Zinneman and Gary Cooper insisted he still be involved in the film. Cooper, interestingly enough, was politically conservative and a member of the MPA (Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, for which John Wayne was a prominent spokesman)... he had been labeled a "friendly witness" before  HUAC, but had also refused to name names and later spoke out against blacklisting.

Several members of the cast and crew of High Noon were either blacklisted or "graylisted" (Lloyd Bridges fell into that latter category.)

Many people on both sides of the political question believed that High Noon had actually been a parable about blacklisting and the McCarthy era. In a way, the cowardly citizens of Hadleyville "blacklisted" Will Kane, and all his alleged friends were scared to come to his defense. When he persevered, he had nothing but contempt for them (many people who did cooperate freely with HUAC and name names, once the blacklisting era was over, faced much animosity from their professional community and in ensuing decades were virtually blacklisted themselves.)

John Wayne, in particular, hated the movie. In a 1971 interview, he called High Noon "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my life," and said he had no regrets about helping blacklist Foreman. (Nonetheless, he accepted the Oscar on behalf of his friend Gary Cooper, who couldn't attend the ceremonies.) In 1959, Wayne teamed up with director Howard Hawks to make a movie in response to High Noon: Rio Bravo (incidentally, another one of my favorite westerns.) In Rio Bravo, the town rallies around their marshal.

Howard Hawks later said: "I made Rio Bravo because I didn't like High Noon. Neither did Duke. I didn't think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn't my idea of a good Western."

All of that information provides a fascinating look into the 1950s and the Red Scare. That's why I discuss it at length in my American History classes (my students hear about westerns whether they want to or not.) It also makes the movie an interesting view when you look for those alleged hidden messages.

But the true power of High Noon lies in the story and the performances. Will Kane is the most heroic town marshal of the movies -no matter what Howard Hawks thought.

And, by the way, I've always loved John Severin's drawings of, um, Bob Kane...


  1. Severin was a great artist. His Sgt. Fury issues were spectacular.

    There's a lot about HIGH NOON that I admire tremendously, but I've never been able to bring myself to actually like the movie. It's one of those that just doesn't resonate with me, the reason for which probably lies more within me than with the movie itself.

  2. Excellent post Smith.

    Wonderful and it unveiled many. things to me.

    For a western cinema lover like me, i hated the film (when i heard the background story) and didn't watch the film for many years (though i had the DVD of the film). I Though i will never ever watch the film. Let me tell you something, am a True Blue Duke Fan.

    Very recently (During the new year holidays) i was going through the music of Dmitri Tiomkin and had this urge to watch only the opening song alone.

    The You tube videos were helping and hence i've decided to watch only the opening song and then (i thought) i will switch off the DVD.

    Tell you what? after those 4 & half minutes, i couldn't control myself and watched the film. Later on, 3 more times.

    Awesome film.

    BTW, The comics of the film is excellent as well. is there any download link available for the story?

    Thanks in advance.

  3. Troy,
    Like you, I really liked this film because of the vulnerability of the Will Kane character, and the twist of events that allows his Quaker sweetheart to see that sometimes, violence is necessary. I always find myself studying the characters in movies, sometimes more than keeping up with the story. LOL My mom used to sing Do Not Forsake Me --one of the songs she'd sing while she worked around the house--she had a beautiful voice. I love Dmitri Tiomkin's music--he also wrote The Green Leaves of Summer and The Ballad of the Alamo (performed by Marty Robbins, both songs from The Alamo). I had no idea about the background history of the movie, and was very interested in that--thanks for including it! This was a wonderful blog, as always.

  4. Troy--I did not know that High Noon was politicized and some of the characters black-listed during the McCarthy hearings. That just makes me angry.

    I've always held the movie High Noon at the top of My Favorite Westerns. The song--it's going through my head right now, and it always gives me goosebumps. The story, the acting, the characters...blend to make the purest kind of story on film. Nothing is overly dramatized, yet it is very dramatic and riveting. I admit I didn't hold it in the highest esteem when I first saw it as a younger person. In later years, when I watched it on TV...I couldn't take my eyes off the screen.
    Thanks for the wonderful information about High Noon.

  5. Excellent post, as always, Professor. Although the story within HIGH NOON is among my favorites, the story behind the film is what makes it so special for me. (Not a huge Gary Cooper fan. The man had essentially one facial expression.)

    Dmitri Tiomkin's scores still resonate with me -- particularly "The Green Leaves of Summer" (from THE ALAMO [1960], and hauntingly beautiful) and "Do Not Forsake Me."

  6. Dr. Troy D. Smith,

    Immaculately written. Well done!

    Charlie Steel

  7. King Viswa- this was the first page of the parody of the movie in CRACKED magazine, which was once a competitor to MAD and is now a comedy website. As a kid, I always liked CRACKED better for some reason... I think it may have been the John Severin art. For some reason, Severin had both Will Kane and The Blob show up in other movie parodies often, in the most unexpected ways. Unfortunately, though MAD has digitized all their back issues, I have been unable to find old Cracked stuff online other than an occasional page, like this one.

  8. Kathleen- I think it was that "one facial expression" that won him a couple of Oscars; as in High Noon, when the intense emotion flitted ever so briefly and subtly over that single expression, making it seem somehow more real than a more overblown performance. It's kind of like Gunsmoke, where you have to see at least a hundred episodes to be able to see all that's going on between the lines with Matt and Miss Kitty.

  9. I agree, Troy. Nobody could have played Will Kane better than Gary Cooper, simply because he always wore the same hangdog expression, The subtlety was so important in that role. :-)

  10. Wonderful post. As a movie fan, I knew about McCarthy and the havoc it had created in Hollywood and the American Film industry and appreciate you telling the story so others are familiar with it. Cooper and similarly Duvall don't waste energy trying to act, they just simply become their character and let the minutia take care of itself. High Noon may not be my favorite Western, but it is a damn good movie with great performances throughout. Doris

  11. It's A Wonderful Life? On the same list as The Godfather?


  12. I didn't like High Noon when I was a kid. Now I know why--I did have a male role model and I was absolutely positive Will Kane would do the right thing. And it would kill him. Only when I saw this movie as an adult did I appreciate it.

    My dad, the very reason I was scared out of my wits for Will Kane, didn't like High Noon--said it was a girlie movie. Not sure if he actually didn't like it or if he was just tweaking Mom, which he enjoyed doing to no end. (They teased each other unmercifully! It was great fun.)

    The background information is fascinating. I hope we never forget the injustice and hysteria of the McCarthy Era.

  13. Very interesting. High Noon is a bit like Hamlet for me in that I knew so many references to it before actually seeing the movie.

    I can see why John Wayne wouldn't have liked it. He wouldn't stand for the implied criticism of the American people.

    I can understand why Forman wanted make the movie, especially given the political climate of the time.

    Very interesting and thought provoking post.

  14. I never knew about the blacklisting around High Noon and I also didn't know that John Wayne despised it. I did find it sad that the men of the town disappeared when trouble arrived. Definitely not my favorite western.
    Rio Bravo was more to my taste. Friends standing shoulder to shoulder against a mountain of trouble was more to my liking.
    My favorite western was Tombstone with Kirt Russel and Val Kimmer. If I had to choose only one movie to watch for the rest of my life, it would be Tombstone. I liked the steadfast loyalty of friends and brothers against a band of gangsters.
    Great blog, Troy.

  15. Cooper makes the movie for me. That's it. Otherwise I'm in the Rio Bravo camp.

    (Though how many folks today would stand with their peacekeeper, right? They would expect him to do the job alone.)

  16. I always liked High Noon - but it's not my fave. I do think Coop was THE ONLY actor who could play the part. Kelly was also good, and I loved the ticking clock element. I think that cowardice can definitely happen - another movie that reminds me of Bad Day at Black Rock. Great plots, both! And I just saw Rio Bravo recently, and wasn't all that impressed. Cliche. So ... touche! ;-D

  17. Still have to say The Wild Bunch is my favorite Western, and overall favorite movie.

  18. Fascinating post, Troy. I had no idea about the politics behind the scenes.

    I think that the Godfather was a very special movie.

  19. Never knew the story behind the movie before. But I guess they all have them. I'm old enough to have seen High Noon the first time round, and therefore other great Westerns. (Even though I live in Australia where our West wasn't quite as habitable!)

    The others? "Shane" with Alan Ladd, Van Heflin and Jean Arthur.

    "The Searchers" with John Wayne (!) Jeffrey Hunter and Natalie Wood. Not something you'd expect from the Duke.

    "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" with John Wayne and Joanne Dru. And of course all those fun movies old John made with Maureen O'Hara.

  20. Thanks for the post, Troy. And for eliciting all those comments. Wow.

    I'm the only western writer in the world who's favorite western is a made-for-TV flick staring Tom Selleck and based on an Elmore Leonard story--Last Stand at Sabre River.

    Rio Bravo? I'm always astounded that Wayne and crew can shoot down baddies at will but none of them shoot any of Wayne's good guys. Their worst punishment is a gun barrel across the head.

    As a kid, my favorite western movie was Broken Arrow.

    Again, thanks, Troy.

  21. Chuck- Broken Arrow is a great one. I showed an excerpt from it in my American Indian History class a few weeks ago, arguing it was a turning point in how Indians were portrayed in Hollywood, ringing in an era of more sympathetic portrayals (although there had been sympathetic portrayals before 1950, they were just few and far between.)

    Basically it seemed to work like this:

    pre-1950: the Indians are always the bad guys

    1950 through the 1960s: more nuance and shades of gray. For example, in Broken Arrow both sides are shown committing atrocities on each other.

    1970s- the cavalry are always the bad guys