This post is part of the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” Blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently, where we write about “gateway films” that might bring non-classic-film lovers into the fold! For all the entries, click here!
If you were to choose a “gateway film” that you might use to introduce older films to someone who lacks an appreciation for the great classics, what film would you choose? Obviously, your choice would need to be tailored to your audience and their particular tastes in movies, but you might go with an epic along the lines of Lawrence of Arabia or The Bridge on the River Kwai, or perhaps one of the great, sweeping romances like Gone with the Wind or Casablanca. Maybe you’d chose one of the timeless comedies in the vein of Some Like it Hot, Duck Soup or Bringing Up Baby. You could give them a lesson on the history of cinema by starting them off with important but problematic movies like Birth of a Nation or The Jazz Singer, before transitioning into some of the most widely revered early examples of the power of the art form such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Citizen Kane. You could go with smaller, more artistic movies like City Lights or Key Largo maybe you want to show them films that are still relevant today, whose messages still resonate or which captured an aspect of humanity that transcends generations like West Side Story, 12 Angry Men, or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. From dramas to comedies to musicals to noir to animation, from masterful directors like Hitchcock, Ford, DeMille, and with familiar faces like Stewart, Hepburn, Cagney, Taylor, Bogart, Bacall, and Chaplin, your choices for great “gateway films” are practically endless! But one film you probably wouldn’t pick is High Noon.
To the classic film fan, the fact that High Noon is a black-and-white Western from the 1950s wouldn’t be bothersome in the slightest. But to those who aren’t accustomed to the classics, it can feel like a perfect storm of every negative stereotype about older movies. Black-and-white is an immediate turn off for those who equate a lack of color with being visually boring. Westerns are almost universally loathed in our modern age, thought of as cheesy, silly, or dull, filled with stereotypes about John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, neither of whom are even in High Noon to give it some familiarity. And the 1950s are thought of as bland compared with other decades in film history, like the gritty, dark noir of the 40s or the experimental, creative 60’s. But High Noon is the antithesis of all of that. It’s a Western without all of the familiar Western trappings: gorgeous vistas, quickdraw showdowns, cowboys, and chases. It’s visually creative and expressive, drawing you into the drama and emotion of the moment despite its lack of color, all while helping to pioneer new and creative filmmaking techniques ahead of its time. And it’s a story with a deep rooting in the politics of the era with a message still relevant today; High Noon was countercultural, protest filmmaking before the 60s made it popular. After all, how could a film that John Wayne famously called “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life” possibly be boring?
High Noon tells the story of Will Kane, a small town marshal on the day of both his wedding and his retirement. Kane is set to marry the beautiful Amy, a devout pacifist Quaker, and he is turning in his badge in order to start fresh as a man of peace, a shopkeeper. As the town celebrates his marriage, they receive news that Frank Miller, a crazy killer Kane sent to prison has been set free on some sort of technicality, and is returning to town on the noon train in order to join up with his gang and get revenge on Kane. The townspeople quickly run Kane and Amy out of town, both wanting to spare him that fate and hoping in his absence Miller will stay out of trouble until the new town marshal arrives the following day. A little way out of town, Kane decides he can’t run and that the town needs him, and turns the wagon around in order to don his tin star once more. He hopes to round up a posse of townsfolk to face off against Miller and force him to stand down, and only has an hour before the train arrives to convince the citizens to take up arms to defend the town.
But this isn’t an ordinary Western, and things are never as simple as they seem. For starters, the film takes place in real time, with the minutes ticking by to high noon and the arrival of Miller’s train in sync with the events of the film, complete with shots of clocks to remind us of Miller’s impending arrival. While not the first film to have events take place in real time, High Noon is perhaps the most famous, and the most effective. This technique gives the film a tension that would be missing from an ordinary film, as we the audience can feel the seconds ticking off as Kane’s chances grow more and more slim and he grows more and more desperate.
His desperation comes from the fact that unlike a typical John Wayne-esque Western, the people of the town unanimously turn Kane down in his plea for help. They all give different reasons, from self-preservation to personal grudges to insisting that it’s not their problem, to a man they all reject Kane, leaving him to stand alone. It’s tense and emotional storytelling, but it’s more than that. High Noon was written by Carl Foreman, a former member of the Communist Party in the US, who was labeled a “hostile witness” by Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. As such, the film as much an allegory for blacklisting in Hollywood as it is the story of one man’s battle against both killers and a stubborn town. Viewed through this lens, every excuse offered by the townspeople sounds like an excuse offered to avoid standing up to the scare-tactics and bullying associated with the HUAC and blacklisting. Arguments like “what will happen to my family?” or “what about my business?” or “it’s not my fight” or “what have you done for me lately?” all become more personal and tragic when this layer of allegory is added to the tale. (John Wayne was a staunch conservative and a supporter of blacklisting, hence the hatred for the film.)
High Noon is a gorgeously shot film, and expertly edited in order to sync the timing of events to the timing of the film. But it’s in no way traditional for a Western of the period. In addition to being in black-and-white, there’s no beautiful landscapes in the film, no shots of the open plains or sprawling farms, not herds of cattle or cowboys riding in line as the heroic music plays. Instead, High Noon is shot in a way that builds the tension already inherent in the story. It is a film that wears its drama on the faces of its actors, rather than explicitly stated through dialogue, and as such it’s filled with close-ups that allow us to feel the emotion of the moment. We watch as Kane grows weary of trying to make his case to the townsfolk, and the lines of concern and fear in his face grow as the panic starts to set in. We can see the sweat start to form on his brow as the clock ticks on and Frank Miller’s train grows ever closer. And then, in the final moments before the dramatic showdown, comes one of my favorite shots in all of cinema. Starting from a closeup of Kane’s face, now resigned to his fate, and slowly pulls back, rising on a crane to show the empty street as Kane heads down the street to face Miller, completely alone. It’s visual storytelling at his finest, using the unique imagery of film to express the emotion of the scene in a way you only find in the movies.
Of course, High Noon rests squarely on the shoulders of its leading man, Gary Cooper. Cooper, then 50 years old. Cooper gives Kane a weariness both with the nature of his job and the town he protects, but also with himself and his very nature. When his reply of “I’ve got to” when asked why he’s staying to face Miller, there’s more than a little self-loathing in his answer. It’s a self-loathing matched in the second half of the film when he briefly considers running for it, knowing he could never live with himself if he could. He’s a man who knows exactly the cost of every decision he makes, yet he makes them all the same. But Cooper is matched by Grace Kelly, 29 years his junior, who plays his new wife Amy. Kelly, one of the most beautiful women in the world, who would go on to bigger fame in her work with Alfred Hitchcock, shows a fierceness in her first major film role. Her Amy is a woman perpetually in conflict, torn between her deeply-rooted pacifist beliefs and the possibility of watching the man she loves die. The film is rounded out with a stellar supporting cast, including Lloyd Bridges as Kane’s former deputy, who carries a resentment for his old boss. Katy Jurado shines as the former lover of both Kane and Miller, and the current lover of Lloyd Bridges’ Harvey, a Mexican woman struggling to deal with racism and sexism in a small town where she has to hide her business dealings in order to get around her unsavory reputation. Familiar faces like Harry Morgan, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Lee Van Cleef pop up throughout the town, lending an authenticity to even smaller roles.
But at the heart of the film is the relationship between Will and Amy Kane. High Noon begins with the song “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin,” performed by Tex Ritter, which sets the stakes for their relationship, and the song winds its way throughout the film as an integral part of the Oscar-winning score by Dimitri Tiomkin. (High Noon won four Oscars: Best Actor for Cooper, Best Editing, Best Music, and Best Song.) In addition to being a haunting melody capable of both building tension and underscoring the sadness and potential tragedy facing the characters, it also highlights the true conflict in the film between the newlyweds. The story is one of principles, of when you have to stand on them no matter the cost and when they must be set aside. Kane’s principles tell him he has to stay and defend the town from Miller, even at the cost of his marriage and his life. Amy’s principles tell her she must abandon her new husband in his time of need because of his choice to return to a life of violence for one more day because it’s what he feels is right. Throughout the film, the question of whether Kane will be able to drum up a posse drives the plot, but the question of whether this event will tear apart this new marriage before its even really begun drives the emotion of the story. Will the martial set his guns aside and flee with his wife, even if it means leaving the town he swore to protect defenseless? Will the young bride leave on the very same noon train that brings Frank Miller, or will she stay and support her husband, even if it means picking up a gun despite knowing first-hand the true cost of violence?
If your goal is to convert someone into a classic film lover, you have to make things personal. You have to know your audience and tailor your choice to what will be most likely to grab their attention. Everyone has different tastes in film, and while there are many classics that are great choices when it comes to serving as an introduction to the world of great, older cinema, but you can’t just pick one of the fantastic films from this Blogathon and go with that. You have to know not only how it will be received, but how you’ll need to present it so that it can have its full impact. Sometimes that means knowing the context of the film, or what it’s trying to say. Sometimes the film’s production is as important as its story. And sometimes you just have to know that this one film is going to hit your target in just the right spot, with a particular moment, character, or theme that is of personal importance to that person. But you can do much worse than High Noon. It’s a timeless tale of knowing when to stand up for your beliefs despite the consequences, and when to set those beliefs aside to do the right thing. It’s an allegory for speaking up to defend those unfairly attacked, regardless of our own fears. It’s a tense and thrilling story that breaks the mold of its genre and its time period, anchored by stellar acting and a meticulous and beautiful production. But it’s also a film with heart, filled with emotion, whose core transcends its setting and its era. High Noon may not be the right film to convert every classic film doubter, but it’s definitely worth consideration.