DVD Review Of High
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/6/10
High Noon is not a great film, although one could argue it’s a great Western, therefore great in some aspects. It is a good example of what might be called Stylized Realism, of the sort that, over a decade later, would lead to the rise of the Spaghetti Western subgenre. Directed by Fred Zinneman, then most notable as a director of artsy films, High Noon resurrected the career of an aging Gary Cooper (who won a Best Actor Oscar as a small town marshal, the second of his career; the first being for Sergeant York), introduced the world to Grace Kelly- in a dowdy role as a Quaker (therefore making her lack of emoting less about her inexperience and more about her character), and also featured notable roles by aging and rising stars (Harry Morgan- who played Col. Potter on the tv version of M*A*S*H, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Lee Van Cleef- future Spaghetti Western superstar, among many others).
The screenplay was partly adapted from a short story called The Tin Star, by John W. Cunningham, by Cunningham and Carl Foreman. There were many differences between the two versions, but the element of the loner against evil, while the apathetic majority looks on, has led the film to be portrayed as both pro- and anti-McCarthyist tracts, especially since it was released in 1952, and Foreman was blacklisted. In fact, since the deeper core issue is what I described above, it obviates the then-current references, since it is still relevant today, and not sealed into its own time period. Oftentimes, critics and art viewers will look at a work of art, and try to forever tag it by its moment of creation and tangential cultural detritus, rather than its more essential and deep criteria; be it with paintings that criticize the Borgias, the Hapsburgs, or an English Dynasty, and miss the import of the work’s continuing relevance in criticizing those in power, regardless, and due to its formal or technical worth, or with the films of someone like a Sergei Eisenstein, which are always scanned against the then dominant Soviet regime, rather than as tracts against all forms of totalitarianism. High Noon, in a similar way, is a scathing indictment of its main subject- not McCarthyism, not totalitarianism, but the sloth of the masses in the face of threat. The only characters willing to stand with Kane, regardless of the circumstances, are the weak- a fourteen year old boy, and old man, and one of the town drunks. As the Lon Chaney, Jr. character states, ‘People gotta talk themselves into law and order.’ But that takes time. And this damnation by the film goes well beyond the political nature of agitprop films, and can be seen today with the rather cavalier attitude so many people have towards solvable problems like overpopulation, global warming, rising energy costs, and how to combat terrorism and the states that support it. Yet, High Noon never gets politically overbearing, even were it more brazen about its time period, because it’s so well paced and economically structured.
The tale is stripped down to its basics, and Zinneman shows a deft touch, right from the get go, as the film’s credit sequence opens with scenes of the bad guys of the film plotting the downfall of Marshal Will Kane (Cooper), of Hadleyville- a former rough town that Kane cleaned up (its specific location and the specific year are never given in the film) when the leader of their gang, Frank Miller (Ian McDonald), returns to town on the noon train, after being pardoned from a death sentence Kane nailed him on five years earlier. The classic song, Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’- sung by Tex Ritter, lyrics by Ned Washington, and music by Dimitri Tiomkin, plays over the credits, and repeats throughout the film, whenever Kane tries to rally the town from its apathy, to deputize volunteers. It acts as an almost internal mantra that Kane uses to bolster himself as his impending doom awaits.
Given that Kane is played by a superstar, and the character is a good guy, no viewer really believes that Kane will die, but the film does an excellent job of getting the viewer to the expected happy denouement by sheer innovation and skill- from setting the film in almost real time (the 85 minutes of the film), the constant shots of clocks ticking away, the scenes where characters large and small reveal their own weakness as they lie to or deride Kane, the cuts to the character’s faces as they react to several provocations in the narrative, etc.
After the bad guys gather at the train station, to wait for the arrival of Miller, we see Kane has just married his wife Amy (Kelly) in front of the local judge. When word comes of Miller’s arrival, the film gets under way. Kane is shuttled out of town, as a new marshal is due the next day, as the townsfolk hope that with Kane gone, Miller will move on. The judge, meanwhile, hightails it out of town, for he’s the one who sentenced Miller. And there is a good scene where, instead of a flashback, we just hear Miller’s voice raised, and the motionless chair seems to move. There are many terrific moments in the film- little looks, asides, symbols, that lift this film up. There is the fact that Kane’s old lover, Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado)- the local bar owner (and Madam?), was also Miller’s lover, and is now lover to Harvey (Lloyd Bridges)- one of Kane’s two deputies. Harvey is young, brash, and envious of Kane’s respect about town. When Kane refuses to agree to make him the new Marshal, Harvey quits, then tries to save Kane by fighting with him, to get him out of town. Helen also has hard feelings about Kane, but even as she eventually leaves, it’s clear she has never gotten over him. Amy is prim and enigmatic, as she learns of her husband’s past and the audience learns of hers.
Then, after all the cowardice (nicely displayed in a dozen or more varieties), Miller arrives, and leads his three banditos, Jack Colby (Van Cleef), Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), and Pierce (Robert Wilke), into town, to kill Kane. Here is the biggest flaw of the film. One could still argue the film has greatness in its predictable narrative tropes, because those tropes are shot and set up in quite bravura fashion, and that they are able to be read in a number of ways, thus making the seemingly trite trope just that, seemingly trite. However, in the last ten minutes of the film, Kane proves so adept and smart, in counterpoint to his dumb and clueless pursuers, and kills them with such ease, that it makes the buildup to the final confrontation seem utterly cheap. After all, why would these incompetent idiots be so feared? By Kane or the townsfolk? And, if they knew how overblown the reputations of these men were, why would they not rally to stop them? After all, we see that the town likely has a population of two or three hundred, and the bad guys number four. Even were they as fearsome as the buildup suggests (and the film wonderfully give no idea of Miller’s countenance until a few scenes into the film- he is initially shot from behind or below the face to build wonder), they could be easily stopped and dispatched. Even the very end, where Amy breaks how pacifist vow, and shoots one of Miller’s men as he reloads a gun (a nice bit of realism, as opposed to most Westerns), and his taken hostage by Miller, to lure Kane out, is rent of intrigue, as a simple fuss by Amy allows Kane to plug his final enemy. Naturally, these moments are where the suspension of disbelief comes in, and High Noon provides enough quality moments to the viewer to make overlooking such a flaw not that onerous a task. At that, the creepily yellow townsfolk emerge, Kane tosses away his badge, and rides off abruptly. While the ending tanks, it does not do so to the degree that a greater film like Rashomon’s ending does.
Critically, the film was innovative in its structure (avoiding most real Western ‘action’ until the end of the film), and avoided a number of stereotypes popularized by higher profile filmmakers like John Ford and Howard Hawks, and Western icon John Wayne, derided it as un-American, as well as worse things. That is has become so lauded, even as it was a low budget project, with almost no great nor spectacular battle scenes, is another reason so many of the classic Western film lovers have railed at it. Cinematographer Floyd Crosby does a good, if not spectacular, job. There is one infamous goof that he and film editors committed, and that is in a crane shot, late in the film, where the camera pulls back and up to reveal the town deserted and Kane alone. Unfortunately, in the upper left hand corner of the film, telephone poles and wires are clearly visible. Crosby’s mot notable touch was in not fetishizing the Western tableaux, instead not filtering the light reflected from the surroundings, which led to a blanched, dessicated look to the black and white cinematography; along the lines of then contemporary documentary films.
The DVD, put out by Lionsgate, comes with two disks. Disk one is in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and the transfer is spotless. The remastering of the film is superb. It scintillates with clarity. It also includes an audio commentary by the progeny of many of the people involved- the late actor, John Ritter, Carl Foreman’s son, Jonathan, Fred Zinneman’s son, Tim, and Gary Cooper’s daughter, Maria Cooper-Janis. As in most commentaries featuring non-experts, this one quickly descends into meaningless banter and anecdotes, and many, ‘Gee, whiz, wasn’t dad great’ moments. The only comment of any worth comes when it’s mentioned that, before he kills the first of the desperadoes, Kane calls out Miller’s name, and shorts the man, therefore not plugging him in the back. The comment states this displays Kane’s personal code of ethics, and while this is true, it is also one of the weaker moments in the film, because it goes against many of the other realistic moments (as does the plethora of 1950s-speak: Gollys and Gee whizzes abound)- a fact unmentioned in the commentary. But, good observations as this are rare on the track. Given the film’s stature as a Western classic, one would have hoped for at least one expert commentary, by a noted historian of cinema. The second disk features a 50 minute making of film, Inside High Noon, and a shorter making of featurette. There is a featurette on singer Tex Ritter; a clip of Ritter singing the Oscar winning song Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’ on the Jimmy Dean tv show, a featurette called Behind High Noon, and a radio broadcast featuring Ritter. All of these features are useful, but none is really standout, nor top of the line, compared to the best DVD features. The real killer, as mentioned, is no expert commentary track.
High Noon is certainly a classic, and with a few better decisions scriptwise and characterwise, and with a few better decisions technically, it would truly have been a great film. Greatness and classicality, however, are unrelated beasts. This film is classic melodrama stripped to its naked rot, and plays out almost like an episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. Its narrative bears down upon the viewer like the train that carries Frank Miller. It has moments of poignancy (see the looks between Kane and Helen), black humor (see when the hotel clerk asks Kane if he can find Helen’s room when the marshal ascends the stairs), and mythos (scan the characters’ names and personal traits for counterparts in assorted mythologies); as well as an ability to amplify these characteristics (note how every shot of the clocks, which visually builds tension, is accompanied by a slightly strumming sound). Technically, the film is top notch, but its fundamentals sag a bit. If only the bulk of films today could display such vices and virtues, what a wonderfully mortal art the masses could wallow in.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Cinescene website.]
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