Today’s entry in “Screening Classic Hollywood” is High Noon, widely considered one of the best westerns ever made. Starring Gary Cooper as Will Kane, a recently married marshal who attempts to gather his townspeople’s support to confront a recently pardoned criminal who threatens to bring the town back to its period of lawlessness and chaos. However, both his wife (Grace Kelly) and the rest of the townspeople resist his efforts and, while the former repents of her decision, the latter do not. Ultimately, Will does succeed in overcoming the outlaw and his band, but he casts away his badge and rides of with his wife.
One of the most compelling aspects of this film, however, is its use of time. As is well known, the action of the diegesis takes place in the same amount of running time as the film itself. Indeed, time is never far away in this film; again and again, clocks (sometimes just in the background), serve as reminders of time’s relentless march. Time and again, Will is urged to leave town before it is “too late.” It is to too surprising that this emphasis on time should make its appearance. This was 1952, after all, when a profound anxiety about the possibility of the end of the world via nuclear attack was quite imminent, and so it makes sense that such an anxiety would make its way into this text, in which a man’s destiny always stands on a knife-edge, and where his life, and that of the town as a whole, teeters on the brink of oblivion and profound change.
The film is in many ways a scathing critique of mid-century America. When the judge becomes the first to flee the city in advance of Frank Miller’s arrival, he begins by packing up the American flag, a powerful indicator of the ways in which the town has begun to dissolve and lose its fundamental American identity. Likewise, when Will attempts to drum up a group of deputies in the church, the debate that breaks out borders on the ridiculous, with every possible point of view expressed. The film’s refusal to grant any perspective primacy, paired with the townspeople’s refusal to help Will, grants this critique an extra layer of meaning.
While I have never been Cooper’s biggest fan, he does bring a certain weary dignity to his role as the embattled yet proud marshal. Cooper’s performance always has a certain bewildered innocence about it, almost as if his characters are uncertain about their role in the drama in which they find themselves. One can see this, for example, in York’s earlier work in Sergeant York (1941) and even in this film, in which he is 10 years older, he still manages to pull off that particular blend of innocence and stoicism. Yet one can also see, in his increasingly creased features, the marks of time’s inexorable passage.
If Kelly’s performance is unpleasantly simpering at times (this is definitely not one of her strongest roles), Katy Jurado is magnificent. Exuding some of the exotic sort of grace that characterized the best performances of Marlene Dietrich, she remains something of an enigma throughout the film. When she finally leaves the small town that she has called her home, we are left with a number of puzzling and unanswered questions: where is she going? What is she doing? For that matter, what exactly is the nature of her relationship with both Bill and Frank (the film alludes to both, but it never goes into enough detail to help us know what happened among the three of them). Her enigmatic personality stands out as one of the most compelling and enjoyable parts of the film.
At the formal level, the film displays a remarkable virtuosity, with compelling editing and cinematography frequently drawing attention to the emotional toll Frank Miller’s impending arrival has on the townspeople. The score, likewise, combines both a haunting refrain of the film’s main song with a rhythm uncannily akin to the ticking of a fateful clock, underlining the menace of passing time and the encroaching destiny that threatens to overcome both the hero and the town. The film never lets us lose sight of the fact that this is a pivotal moment for this small town and, by extension, for the America that it represents.
The film has clearly had a profound impact on subsequent filmmaking, and I’ll close with a bit of a comparison that may be intentional (or it might not). In one particularly resonant scene, Will visits with his predecessor (memorably portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr.). The older man is even more world-weary than his successor, and I am reminded of a similar scene between Ed Tom and his uncle Ellis in No Country for Old Men. In both, we see two generations of lawmen contending with the violent realities of the world they live in, and both films seem to betray a profound ambivalence, perhaps even a fatalism, about the fate of the America they represent.
As such, High Noon certainly deserves its vaunted place in the film canon, standing as a work of art that truly struggles to come to terms with the world in which it was produced. And if its vision of the world is not nearly so sanguine as some would like well, I think that is all to the good.