[Culture Your Ass] “High Noon”

Written by Joey Simpson December 15, 2011

When High Noon was released to the United States in 1952, it was met with a divided audience reaction. Audiences couldn’t help but to divide the film on political lines, and were equally split on its defiance of classic Hollywood standards of the Western. The film became synonymous with McCarythyism of the 1940’s and 50’s, and has been identified ever since with blacklisted Hollywood alumni, anti-McCarthyists, and even former American presidents Ronald Reagan and BIll Clinton. The film is a Western, like John Ford’s The Searchers, that re-examines the morality of the Western hero as well as contemporary society. Unlike Ford, however, director Fred Zinnemann and writer Carl Foremann (a blacklisted Communist) did not hide their criticism through subtlety; they instead made their message unabashedly clear.

Frank Miller (Ian Macdonald), a hardered outlaw, has recently been paroled after being sentenced to death and heads back to Hadleyville, New Mexico with his gang to find Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the marshall who put him behind bars. Kane, recently married and semi-retired, decides to take one last job and get rid of Miller for good. However when he enlists help from the town, none of its residents take up arms despite Kane’s years of valued service to them. As Miller and his gang draws nearer, Kane finds himself deserted by his friends, ex-lover, and recent Quaker bride Amy (Grace Kelly), and finds it harder and harder to stick to his own principles.

This film is noteworthy because it broke so many conventions of the commercial Hollywood Western. For one thing, the hero is an aging, frail man and not a John Wayne-esque gunslinger. As well, while most Westerns would have the law or an outlaw standing up against injustice, High Noon shows men and women who simply let lawlessness happen out of fear and cowardice.

At the time, Hollywood was gripped with tension as Senator Joseph McCarthy pursued a vigorous campaign to rid the U.S. of Communist sympathizers and possible spies. This resulted in many Hollywood writers and actors being “blacklisted” and practically isolated from their established community. High Noon can be seen as a response to this since the audience sympathizes with the dejected hero in his isolation, as many blacklisted Hollywood alumni were.

The film almost plays like an Americanized Sartre or Camus story. We see societal bonds thrown by the wayside and mass individualism overtaking the town’s inhabitants, leaving Kane as the film’s tragic hero; a man who is flawed by his trust in others to pursue a moral principle. It is a complex and gripping Western that re-envisions the genre as brutal and remorseless; a fore-runner to future Westerns like The Wild Bunch, The Dollars Trilogy, and Unforgiven.

A deep and thought-provoking, yet riveting, picture, High Noon is the Classic Hollywood Western turned on its head that modern cinema lovers owe to themselves to watch.

Fun Fact: This is first on-screen appearence of Spaghetti Western icon, Lee Van Cleef. He plays one of Miller’s gang.

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