The Western one of the most enduring and adaptable of Hollywood’s genres, from the epic plains of The Searchers to the lone gunman of A Fistful of Dollars, from the horror of Bone Tomahawk to the transposition of the wild frontier to outer space in Outland, from the weird west of The Wind to the tradition of How the West Was Won, director Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 release High Noon is one of the most successful and critically acclaimed, winning four Academy Awards.
Now released as a 4K restoration as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series, despite the period it was released in, the golden age of the Western, two years after John Wayne had starred in John Ford’s Rio Grande and with the first two years of that decade having already seen over two hundred Western films released, High Noon is in fact atypical of both the age and the genre, subtly breaking as many rules as it adheres to.
Already a major star since The Virginian in 1929, Gary Cooper’s name was synonymous with the Western, but as Marshal Will Kane of Hadleyville in the New Mexico Territory he is not a heroic figure but a man preparing to give up his life upholding the law to begin a new life with his new bride Amy Fowler, the starlet Grace Kelly in only her second role before she became a muse to the demanding eye of Alfred Hitchcock.
The replacement marshal not due to arrive until the following day, their plans to leave Hadleyville are derailed when news arrives that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) who had been sentenced to hang after arrest by Kane five years before has instead been released from jail and is on his way back to reunite with his posse; due to arrive on the midday train, there is little doubt that Miller will want bloody revenge.
Shot by Floyd Crosby, despite colour cinema having been available since the late thirties Zinneman opted to shoot High Noon in monochrome, the shades of grey emphasising the ambiguity and bleakness of the situation, the action confined to the township and the immediate surrounds, offering no grand landscapes or magnificent skylines of red-tinged sunsets, the dusty main street of Hadleyville the totality of the characters’ lives and reality.
The film lasting eighty-five minutes, it is depicted more or less in real time, opening with Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), Jack Colby (Lee Van Cleef) and Jim Pierce (Robert J Wilke) waiting by the railroad for the return of Frank and the warning arriving with Marshal Kane, the ticking clock a repeating image as it counts down towards the confrontation which can only be avoided by him abandoning his duty and the town he has worked to clean up.
Yet despite his achievement, Kane’s presumption that the townsfolk will unswervingly support him is erroneous and he finds that his efforts have engendered as much resentment as admiration, with even his own deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) handing in his badge and gun over an argument about Kane’s failure to back him as his successor.
A frustratingly stilted film despite the apparent urgency of the situation, Cooper underplays the role, tight-lipped and reserved, and crucially the relationship between Kane and Amy, almost thirty years his junior, does not convince, the only character with whom it is essential that he shows warmth kept at arm’s length as much as the others; far more interesting is native businesswoman Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado) whose history involves both Kane and Miller.
A selfless man whose actions have made him unpopular confronted with the indifference of those he has served, the most powerful scene is Kane’s confrontation with the townsfolk congregated in the church as he asks them for help, a torrent of voices and opinions, diverse and compact, and ultimately disappointing to Kane, a man who continues to stubbornly do what he considers to be right despite his disillusionment.
Unsurprisingly, Eureka’s new edition of High Noon is packed with supporting features, with essays and the original trailer, two commentaries, an interview with film historian Neil Sinyard on the career of Zinneman, an archival audio interview with screenwriter Carl Foreman and three documentaries on the film of varying insight, quality and vintage.