High Noon: Gary Cooper’s Oscar winning performance towers over this seminal Western classic

High Noon(1952), written by Carl Foreman, produced by Stanley Kramer and directed by Fred Zinnemann is the first of the McCarthy era Westerns, that probed the divisions existing within the American society at the height of the red scare. The film won 4 academy Awards, including a richly deserved best actor trophy for Gary Cooper for his majestic performance in the central role of Marshall Will Kane

“In the fifth century BC the citizens of Athens, having suffered grievously under a tyrant, managed to depose and banish him. However, when he returned some years later with an army of mercenaries, those same citizens not only opened the gates for him but stood by while he executed members of the legal government. A similar thing happened about eight years ago in a town called Indian Falls.”

When Director Fred Zinnemann , writer\co-producer Carl Foreman and producer Stanley Kramer set out to make High Noon, they wanted to make a very different kind of Western. The 1950s is considered the golden age of westerns; not only for the fact that it became the pre-eminent movie genre, but also the decade when Westerns finally grew up. They became more adult, and started tackling more serious issues. Obviously High Noon had a big hand in this development, though Anthony Mann’s Winchester 73 is considered to be the pioneering film to set off this trend. But the fact is that John Ford had already made a very serious Western with Fort Apache(1948), which took the Western beyond its cowboys and Indians premise that Ford himself had made upmarket with the great Stagecoach in 1939. When Zinnemann  set out to make a Western, the obvious question was : What does an Austrian Jew know about the American West?. As it turns out, Zinnemann didn’t want to make a typical western. He was always appalled by the blatant sentimentality and the hero worship that pervaded the Westerns, and he set out to make a stark, realistic film inspired by the neo-realistic works of masters like Rossellini and De Sica that was becoming popular in Europe. He was aided by the great cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who modeled the visuals on  Civil War photographs of Mathew Brady, and achieved the look Zinnemann wanted: by not filtering the sky and having the prints made a few points lighter than normal. So this film lacks the glossy look and beautiful cloudy skies that was a permanent fixture of the studio made westerns of the time. The plot of the film is very simple: a taciturn lawman must confront the ruthless killer he sent to prison years ago. This is as simplistic a Western as it gets, but the film is not simplistic. Within its simple plot, it probes deep issues about modern civilization: courage, honor, duty, cowardice, hypocrisy and community. The community the marshal wants to protect and thought he could rely on suddenly turns its back on him, which gives the film the dimensions of a social drama. As the opening quote taken from the film indicates, the film is mainly concerned with the duplicity and hypocrisy inherent in modern civilized society: How it is quick to abandon good men in the face of tyranny. To keep the film as realistic as possible, The entire script was designed by Foreman and Zinnemann to take place in the exact screening time of the film, less than ninety minutes, with frequent inserts of clocks showing the time passed. Dimitri Tiomkin’s Oscar winning score (and song) also helps in setting the mood of the film

The plot of the film goes something like this: It’s a hot Sunday morning in Hadleyville, a small town in New Mexico Territory (circa 1870’s). It’s the day Will Kane(Gary Cooper) is retiring as town Marshall. It’s also the day when he is getting married to his sweetheart Amy Fowler(Grace Kelly), a devout Quaker and pacifist. Kane and Amy are married in a simple church ceremony, with all the main townsfolk in attendance. After the wedding, they all retire to Kane’s office, where Kane takes off his tin star and hangs on the wall. He is officially retired now, and he is leaving town with his wife; they are moving to another town to run a store, and hopefully, raise a family. Suddenly, news arrives that dreaded criminal Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), whom Kane had put behind bars some years ago, has been pardoned and released from jail, and is on his way to the town on the noon train. Miller’s gang, comprising of his younger brother Ben (Sheb Wooley), Jack Colby (Lee Van Cleef), and Jim Pierce (Robert J. Wilke), await his arrival at the train station; it is clear that Miller intends to exact revenge. The townsfolk looks concerned for Kane’s life and they forcefully put him on a wagon along with Amy and (literally) run him out of town, before Kane can say anything. As Kane is riding out with Amy, he appears to be thinking deeply and he stops the wagon a few miles out of town. He is overcome by his sense of duty and honor. The new Marshall will arrive only the next day, and he believes that it’s up to him to defend the town. He also realizes that even if he runs out now, the gang will never stop chasing him until they have killed him. So it’s better to confront them right now, in town with a posse behind him. Kane decides to go back to town, in spite of  Amy’s strong disapproval. There’s just an hour left for the train to arrive, and Kane goes about raising a posse . But he is met with resistance all around. The cowardice, hypocrisy and the hidden agendas of the townsfolk come to the fore, as each of them turn down Kane’s request for help, citing one reason or the other. To top it all, his wife is also planning to abandon him, as Amy prepares to leave town on the Noon train.

Kane’s young deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), who is bitter that Kane did not recommend him as his successor, says he will stand with Kane only if Kane would recommend his name now as his successor. Kane needs Pell’s help desperately , but again his honor intervenes; he will not be bought and right away rejects Pell’s offer. An incensed Pell turns in his badge. There is also the case that Pell is now involved with Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), who was Kane’s girl before (and before that she was Miller’s girl), and Helen still seems to have feelings for Kane.  Kane is completely out of allies now: his predecessor, Marshal Howe (Lon Chaney Jr.) is old and arthritic; Judge Percy Mettrick (Otto Kruger), who sentenced Miller, flees on horseback, and urges Kane to do the same; Herb Baker (James Millican) agrees to be deputized, but backs out when he realizes he is the only volunteer; Sam Fuller (Harry Morgan) hides in his house, sending his wife (Eve McVeagh) to the door to tell Kane he is not home. Jimmy (William Newell) is a good person and genuinely offers to help Will, but he is vision impaired, drunk and likely to get himself killed; Kane sends him home for his own safety. The other offer of aid comes from a fourteen-year-old boy; Kane admires his courage but rejects it as well. The writing on the wall is clear: Kane will have to face the vicious foursome all by himself. Kane, by his own admission,  is no hero and is scared as hell, but, again his honor, duty and above all the safety of his wife is paramount to him. He knows if he fails to stop them here, his and his wife’s life is never going to be safe. So abandoned by everybody, with more than a few townsfolk ardently looking forward to seeing him go down, Kane prepares to face off the foursome. He first returns to his office to write out his will, and then goes into the street to face Miller and his gang alone, as we hear the sound of the incoming train.

As he walks out of his office, Kane notices the two women in his life – Amy and Helen – ride off to the station to catch the train. And as he looks longingly at them, he walks through the deserted streets of the town for the final confrontation. Miller is greeted warmly by his gang members at the train station, while Amy and Helen board the train. The foursome heads directly to the Sheriff’s office to extract their revenge, and the gunfight begins.  The sound of the gunshots reaches Amy, just as the train is about to pull out of the station. She cannot hold herself back; she loves her husband more than her religious beliefs, and she runs back to town to help Kane. Kane manages to gun down both Ben and Colby, but is wounded in the course of the fight  and is now trapped by the rest of the two. And just as Pierce is about take a clear shot at Kane, Amy picks up the handgun hanging inside Kane’s office and shoots Pierce from behind, leaving only Frank Miller to face off against Kane. But Miller chooses to use Amy as a shield to draw out Kane. and as Kane walks out and is about to be gun down by Miller, Amy once again springs into action; clawing Miler’s face and separating herself from Miller’s clutches, thus giving Kane  a clear shot at Miller. Kane shoots Miller dead; then helps Amy to her feet; and as they embrace, the townspeople emerge and cluster around him; while the boy, who offered him help, brings his wagon around. Kane, without saying a word, throws his marshal’s star in the dirt; thanks the boy and departs with Amy on their wagon.

The basic theme of High Noon is summed up by director Fred Zinnemann in one of the most iconic shots in movie history. It’s at the beginning of the film’s climax: Gary Cooper’s Will Kane is going out to confront Miller and his gang; a long crane shot pulls back from Gary Cooper’s face, as he starts walking the dusty, deserted streets of the desolate town; the camera goes higher and higher as we see Cooper reduced to a small dot in this vast expense, walking all alone , with nothing else but his courage and honor by his side. Kane, who was a highly revered and admired man in his community at the beginning of the film, is reduced to nothing by the end of it, as he goes out to fight the battle of his life. For many, It was a metaphor to what was happening to a lot of people in Hollywood as well as in America at the time. High Noon, released at the height of the red scare, is first foremast a terrific movie yarn and i am sure that the makers of the film  were genuinely interested in making a very entertaining western, but the subtexts that abound in the film does not seem accidental. Carl Foreman, who wrote the script, was called in to testify for his communist links during the making of this film, and soon he would be blacklisted for being an unfriendly witness.  After Foreman came back to the film’s set, post the hearings, he supposedly rewrote  lot of the scenes in the film  to mirror the witch-hunt, and attacking America’s (and Hollywood’s) reluctance to stand up to HUAC’s bullying tactics. But the film doesn’t contain any communist themes, on the contrary, the film celebrates the American values of individualism and courage in the face of danger. All through the film, Kane tries to be the most Un-Western (and  Un-American ) of heroes; going around begging for help, and hoping that the ‘collective’ power of the town would help him stand against the rampaging criminals.  But he fails miserably, and after returning to his office and breaking down into tears – an absolutely unpardonable sin for a western hero – he gathers himself up and walks out to fight off the outlaws himself and succeeds in doing so as well. So, is the film celebrating individualism over collectivism?, was the Anti-western stance of the film and the hero just a build up to re-establish the classical western myths about the archetypal lone hero who depends on no one else to get the job done?. Kane never gives a satisfying answer to what’s exactly driving him. He is a man of strong morals; He also has a personal stake in what’s unfolding, because he knows that even if he runs, his (and his wife’s life) would continue to be in danger. I guess in the end, It’s like what Randolph Scott said in one of is iconic westerns “There are some things a man can’t ride around“.

Indeed, High Noon has always been one of the most ambiguous westerns ever. It’s a favorite of, and criticized by, both the right and the left. It must have to be a really strange film for it to be a favorite of Ronald Reagan , Eisenhower and Bill Clinton and to be despised by the ultimate Western icon John ‘Duke’ Wayne. It is also worth mentioning that during the Cold War era, the film resonated very differently with folks living in USSR and other communist countries. Kane was seen as a promoter of the strength of American individualism and his stance was interpreted as a denouncement of the concept of collectivism  that has swept (and kept) the communists in power.  So in this case the film turned out to be quite effective as a pro-American piece, so why was Duke, the ultimate American, against such a film?. It must be one of those strangest coincidences when Duke and his much hated ‘Commies’ were on the same side in denouncement of a film. By the way, there are conflicting versions about Duke’s involvement with this film. Supposedly Duke was offered the film first, but he turned it down because he noticed the anti-blacklist theme of the film. But while accepting Gary Cooper’s Oscar for best actor – in an ironic twist, cooper, who was filming in Europe deputed Duke to pick up his Oscar – Duke complained that he didn’t know why he wasn’t offered the film. But Duke, who floated an Anti-communist alliance for the film industry against Communist infiltration, was at the forefront of blacklisting and chasing out Carl Foreman, who left for England to start afresh as a writer\producer. Duke continued to rail against the film, even as late as 1971, when he gave that highly controversial Playboy interview, where he said he was proud of chasing Foreman out of Hollywood. Duke would team up with director Howard Hawks to make Rio Bravo(1959), which is widely considered a counter to High Noon. Hawks had issues  with High Noon for different reasons; he though that it was a bad western, because a Western hero should not go around asking for help from others. Zinnemann was appalled by  Hawk’s criticism, and countered that there are various forms of heroes and heroism, and it just so happens that the hero of High Noon is a conflicted character. The theme of High Noon fits perfectly into Zinnemann’s cinematic cannon. Though he was fastidious in never working in the same genre twice, he returned to the theme of a man holding on to his honor and convictions in face of tyranny in several other films; most famously in the Oscar winning The Man for all Seasons, in which Paul Schofield’s Sir Thomas More was very much a hero like Will Kane.

Gary Cooper was a close friend of John Wayne, and a conservative. But he was against the blacklist. He did appear as a witness in front of the HUAC, but he didn’t name any names. Cooper was at the lowest ebb of his career when he started work on High Noon. After being one of the top box office stars in America for almost 20 years, Cooper had a series of box office flops that knocked him out of the list of most popular stars. Cooper was not the initial choice for the role of Will Kane. Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift were considered for the part. Cooper, at 51, was considered too old for the part – the character was originally 30 in the script.  There was also a huge age gap between him and Grace Kelly, then 21, who played his wife. But in the end, all that didn’t matter. Cooper’s performance in High Noon is regarded by many as the finest performance of his astonishingly long and varied career, and it not only won him an Academy Award, it placed him back at the top of the list of stars at the box office. His portrayal of the beleaguered but defiant Marshall is undeniably the epitome of screen acting, which is very different from the highly theatrical stage acting. Cooper was not a trained actor, and developed his technique purely based on his intuition. And like all great movie actors, Cooper was a ‘reactor’ rather than an actor. He believed in doing less, to the extend that, while shooting, it always came across as that that he wasn’t doing any acting at all, but the nuances will be visible only when seen on the screen. Kane is a role that demands a lot from the actor. Will Kane ranges from foolish naivety, to passively quiet, to reluctant acceptance, and finally emerging a triumphant hero. The triumphant hero part is something Cooper is born to play; he is everybody’s favorite all American hero, and the film benefits immensely having him play the part. The final transformation to hero is most convincing on account of his presence. But his best moments are in the earlier portions of the film. The scene were he begs for help in the church is a masterpiece of subtle cinematic acting. Watch his reaction as Thomas Mitchell, playing his close friend, refuses to help him, citing that a gunfight in town is bad for business.  It’s a thin line Cooper has to walk – between fear and cowardice. He is obviously scared, but he is not a coward and it is hard to portray that on screen. Kane is obviously a flawed hero; he blindly trusted the wrong people, and Cooper plays him as such; you could see his strong character unraveling bit by bit as he is abandoned by his friends one after another. His Oscar win for this performance is richly deserved.  There might be ambiguity about what the film represents and which side of the political divide the film belongs to, but there’s no ambiguity about the quality of Cooper’s performances: it’s one of the greatest screen performances ever, and though he wasn’t the first choice, and though the film was made basically to break the existing Western conventions of heroism, It’s Gary Cooper’s majestic presence and performance that towers over the controversies, ambiguities and merits of this great film.


3 thoughts on “High Noon: Gary Cooper’s Oscar winning performance towers over this seminal Western classic

  1. This is a good article. John Wayne didn’t want the part of Will Kane. He did recommend his close friend Gary Cooper take the part.


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