Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Target #191: High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann)

TSPDT placing: #283
Directed by: Fred Zinnemann
Written by: John W. Cunningham (story), Carl Foreman (screenplay)
Starring: Gary Cooper, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Grace Kelly, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney Jr., Harry Morgan, Ian MacDonald, Lee Van Cleef

It's only very recently that I've taken an interest in the American Western genre, and, as far as I've been able to tell, each film falls loosely into two categories. The first group is comprised of the sort of films for which John Ford is renowned – Technicolor epics which involve the American frontier, magnificent countryside and tenacious tribes of Native Americans. The second group I have delicately termed "small Westerns," usually low-budget, black-and-white stories – typically occurring over a small period of time – in which an ordinary man must summon all his courage to confront a gang of crazy and unpredictable cowboys. High Noon (1952), directed by Hollywood stalwart Fred Zinnemann, falls snugly into the latter category, and succeeds relatively well in being a tense and atmospheric suspense Western. An aging Gary Cooper stars as Will Kane, the retiring Marshal of a small American town, who is forced to single-handedly confront an old enemy, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), who is set to arrive on the noon train. As Will scrambles frantically about town to secure assistance, his pleads are rebuffed at every turn, by friends and enemies alike.

Cooper, aged 51 at the time of the film's release, won his second Oscar for his portrayal of Kane, an aging hero who finds that he simply can't run away from a confrontation, not so much because he wants to be heroic, but because he knows that he'll never be able to live with himself. As he marches across the dry, dusty roads of the small town – abandoned by those he considered his friends – Kane's ravaged features exhibit a sad loneliness, the pain of rejection and betrayal all too tragically evident on his face {Cooper was suffering from stomach ulcers and back pain at the time of filming, which presumably assisted the actor in demonstrating such pained emotions}. Also starring is the lovely Grace Kelly in only her second film role, and, though she isn't really given much to do, her mere presence is enough to add some warmth to the picture. The story itself unfolds almost in real-time {105 story minutes compared to 85 minutes of running time}, and Zinnemann exploits this to heighten the tension. The camera frequently cuts to a shot of the nearest clock, which steadily and inevitably ticks away towards noon, every second bringing Kane ever-so-closer to his moment of judgement.

High Noon proved one of the most influential Westerns of its time, and films such as Delmer Dave's 3:10 to Yuma (1957) surely could not have existed if not for its inspiration. However, and I suspect I'll be alone in this assessment, I consider the latter to be the superior picture, not because its better acted or directed, but simply because I felt that Dave did a finer job of drawing the odds against the film's hero. Both pictures achieve excellent suspense by continually keeping one eye fixated on the nearest time-piece, but High Noon lacks an intimidating villain for the audience to fear. Indeed, most of the running-time builds up towards Frank Miller's arrival, but MacDonald unfortunately fails to live up to our worst expectations. High Noon was Carl Foreman's final film before he was affected by the Hollywood blacklist, and many critics view the story as an allegory for the McCarthy era witch-hunts: Kane obviously represents the solitary, stoic American citizen who is unfairly abandoned by his friends and colleagues, and leaves the town as a lonely, embittered soul, disillusioned by the cold, dishonourable community that he had once called home.

Currently my #4 film of 1952:
1) Limelight (Charles Chaplin)
2) Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica)
3) Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly)
4) High Noon (Fred Zinnemann)

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