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Thursday, September 22, 2016
Hoo boy, is this movie ever harder than a greased pig to get a critical grasp on. On one hand, producer Stanley Kramer's HIGH NOON (1952, Olive Signature) is a widely-recognized classic that deserves its place in film history for a number of reasons. And yet, for the most part, I really, really don't like it very much.
This is just the second time I've seen it--I rented it way back in the 80s expecting to be blown away due to its reputation, only to find myself reacting to it with the same cool indifference its protagonist, Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper), encounters while attempting to enlist the help of his fellow citizens to fight the trio of outlaws waiting to get revenge on him as soon as their leader, Frank Miller, whom Kane previously sent to prison, arrives on the noon train.
I was hoping this new viewing would make all the film's wonderfulness clear to me at last, and yet my appreciation of it remains as jumbled as a bag of trail mix. Cooper, of course, is a joy to watch as the aging lawman (Coop himself, no longer a "pretty boy", was maturing nicely), retired and set to leave town right after his wedding to young Quaker girl Amy (Grace Kelly) when the news of his old nemesis' impending arrival throws a monkey wrench into their plans.
Kane's first impulse, at his wedding guests' urging, is to hustle his new bride into their buckboard and hightail it out of town. While he thinks better of it a few miles down the road and returns, this still isn't a very good sign. His change of heart causes his brand new pacifist wife to abandon him and buy a ticket out of town on the very train that her husband's prospective killer is coming in on, also not something which I found endearing.
As she waits for the train along with everyone else, Kane then undertakes the hopeless task of drafting various men in town as deputies, men who are, quite understandably, keenly reticent to wade into a blazing gun battle against hardened kill-crazy psychos with a score to settle.
This series of disheartening encounters (the film is deeply pessimistic) portrays everyone Kane comes into contact with--former deputy Harvey (young Lloyd Bridges playing a dislikable rat as only he could), members of the local church, officious town officials--as self-centered cowards and hypocrites ready to sell him out when the chips are down.
Here we get a lot of screenwriter and former communist Carl Foreman's hashing out of his troubles with the House Un-American Activities Committee in fictional form as the story's downtrodden hero embodies his own embattled nobility and feelings of abandonment on the screen.
My main misgivings with the film involve Kane himself, a man hired to protect the town and yet gradually crumbling into a tearful mess when faced with the prospect of doing it alone as he galumphs up one barren street and down the next. The image of him being reduced to barging into a church during Sunday service to beg for help from a bunch of men who are hardly capable of facing down blazing six-shooters borders on the pathetic. As he passes a group of children playing outside on his way out, we almost expect him to hit them up for help as a last resort.
It's no wonder that John Wayne and Howard Hawks had such a negative reaction to HIGH NOON that it prompted them to answer it seven years later with RIO BRAVO, about a lawman facing a similar predicament but refusing to endanger the lives of unqualified civilians by involving them in a dangerous situation which he considers his own responsibility. (Wayne did accept an absent Gary Cooper's "Best Actor" statuette for his performance as Will Kane at that year's Academy Awards.)
Still, HIGH NOON is a classic that's been revered by millions since its release, so obviously a lot of fans fully sympathize with Will Kane's plight and are riveted to the screen during the suspenseful real-time buildup (several clocks can be seen onscreen keeping an accurate countdown to noon) to the final showdown we know is coming. As, truth be told, I am as well.
Skillful editing of director Fred Zinneman's exquisite black-and-white images along with a fine score by Dimitri Tiompkin (both editing and score won Oscars) also heighten the ever-present tension which keeps viewers on the edge of their seats despite the fact that, save for some punches thrown here and there, much of the film is devoid of the usual western action.
Taking its place for much of the screen time is pure old-fashioned drama, much of it involving Kane's old flame Helen Ramírez (the exotic Katy Jurado), formerly a woman of ill-repute now involved in legitimate business. Helen's previous associations with Kane as well as his craven deputy Harve and even the dreaded outlaw Frank Miller himself make her a dramatic epicenter of the story. It is Helen who will eventually help mixed-up Amy face her doubts about her new husband, which will then land her right in the middle of things when Kane and the bad guys finally clash.
The cast is studded with several other familiar faces including the great Lon Chaney, Jr. as the town's aging former marshal, a briefly-seen young Jack Elam, Thomas Mitchell, Harry Morgan ("Dragnet"), Otto Kruger, Harry Shannon, Ian McDonald as Miller, Lee Aaker (HONDO), Virginia Christine, and John Doucette. Miller's men, who spend much of their time waiting at the train station a la Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, are played by Robert Wilke, Sheb Wooley, and future Leone star Lee Van Cleef.
The DVD from Olive Films' "Olive Signature" label (also available in Blu-ray) has a 1.37:1 aspect ratio with mono sound and is mastered from a new 4K restoration. Subtitles are in English. In addition to the trailer, extras include the featurettes "A Ticking Clock" (editing), "A Stanley Kramer Production", "Imitation of Life: The Hollywood Blacklist and 'High Noon'", "Oscars and Ulcers: The Production History of 'High Noon'" (narrated by the late Anton Yelchin), and the text essay "Uncitizend Kane" by "Sight & Sound" editor Nick James which is also included as a handsome illustrated booklet insert.
One of the main reasons I wanted to love HIGH NOON is because it opens with a beautiful shot of a young, steely-eyed Lee Van Cleef--long before his breakout stardom in Italy--just leaning against a fencepost under a tree in the middle of a field, in beautiful black-and-white. Wow. The rest of the film looks terrific too, and, despite my reasons for not being all that crazy about it, some other things about it are also pretty terrific. At least, that is, enough to warrant the occasional viewing and perhaps, over time, a growing appreciation.
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