Following up on my thoughts on Silverado, a 1980s film dripping with nostalgia for Westerns and serials the filmmakers watched in their Boomer youth, I decided I wanted to watch an ur-Western, preferably something without The Duke1 A palate cleanser, if you will; a film to set my understanding of the genre in the right direction. I chose High Noon from my Amazon Prime queue. Many reviewers on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes called this movie “the greatest Western of all time.”
The epithet is certainly a bit of hyperbole. Perhaps modern reviewers have warm and fuzzy memories of watching it as children, and it has won a bunch of awards, but there are certainly more nuanced Western films. Reading about the production, many see the film as an allegory for the Hollywood blacklist: a man, with his life and livelihood at risk, standing up for what is “right,” is abandoned by the community that he helped to build.2 Helping him in a time of need, they believe, will end their good lives. That theme resonates today.
It’s Marshall Will Kane’s last day on the job and he’s getting ready to settle into family life. In the morning Kane (Gary Cooper) is getting married to Amy Fowler, a pious young Quaker, played by Grace Kelly (who I just saw in in Color in To Catch a Thief). By the afternoon they’ll be on their way to their new home in an old buckboard. Amy doesn’t believe in violence and Kane’s more than ready to give up being a lawman and to wear the apron of a general store proprietor. He wants a life of peace.
There’s a hitch, of course: Frank Miller, the baddie. He’s just been paroled and he’s gunning for Kane. Why? Kane put him away and stole his girl… Scandalously, that girl is not the saintly Amy, but rather the proprietor of the saloon, Helen Ramirez, played by Mexican actress Katy Jurado3 and now it’s payback time. His brother and two other outlaws wait at the station for Miller’s train, arriving at High Noon. The four of them are going to gun the Marshall down and anyone who stands in their way.
Marshall Kane and Frank Miller are traditional Western binaries: White Hat/Black Hat. Miller is portrayed as little more than an animal, or a killing machine, wound up and set free to murder. Kane has sacrificed his youth and a family life4 to fight for Justice and Fairness. There’s no nuance to these characters. They are what they are. The residents of Hadleyville, unfortunately, have been pretending to be something they are not…
Hadleyville was the last in a long line of towns Kane had spent his life defending from the evil men do. His justice was violent and bloody, but fair, as far as the West was concerned. Kane was righteous, a Death Eater, doing what was necessary to make the wild frontier civilized for “decent” people.
SAWYER Well, I say this: We've been paying good money for a marshal and deputies. The first time there's any trouble, we're supposed to take care of it ourselves. What have we been paying for all this time? We're not peace officers, and this ain't our job! I've been saying right along, we ought to have more deputies. If we did, we wouldn't be facing this now.
Kane can’t leave it to someone else. Yes, keeping the peace is his job, but it is core to his identity. He’s a White Hat. If Kane doesn’t stop him, Miller will pursue relentlessly. And after he murders Kane and Amy, Miller will head back to Hadleyville and reintroduce chaos. He can’t do it alone, though. He has one deputy, Harvey, played by Lloyd Bridges, so he needs the help of the towns residents, to pull together to find a solution to a problem that will quickly become theirs if something is not done. Kane believes that people should pull together, to step out of their rigid roles, to make sure that a community can hold together. It is not sufficient for civilization to place all of the burden of making it work on a handful of people. That is when the whole thing collapses.
KANE You've been my friend all my life. You got me this job. You made them send for me. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be like you, Mart. You've been a law man all your life. HOWE Yeah, all my life. It's a great life. You risk your skin catching killers, and the juries turn them loose, so they can come back and shoot at you again. If you're honest, you're poor your whole life. In the end you wind up dying all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothing. For a tin star.
The town, however, gives Kane no choice. Amy abandons him. Harvey abandons him. The previous marshal abandons him. And the town makes the case over and over that they’ve done their bit for civilization. Miller is somebody else’s problem. They have no desire to get involved.
HENDERSON All right, I'll say this. What this town owes Will Kane, it can never pay with money. Don't forget it. He's the best marshal we've ever had, and maybe the best we'll ever have. So if Miller comes back here today, it's our problem, not his. It's our problem because this is our town. We made it with our own hands, out of nothing. If we want to keep it decent we gotta think mighty clear today. We gotta have the courage to do what is right, no matter how hard it is. All right! There's gonna be fighting when Kane and Miller meet. And somebody's going to get hurt, that's for sure. Now… People up north are thinking about this town. Thinking about sending money down here, to put up stores and factories. It would mean a lot to this town, an awful lot, but if they'll read about shooting in the streets, what are they going to think? I'll tell you. They'll think this is just another wide-open town, and everything we worked for will be wiped out. In one day, this town will be sat back five years, and I don't think we can let that happen. Mind you, you all know how I feel about this man. He's a mighty brave man, a good man. He didn't have to come back today. And for his sake, and a sake of this town, I wish he hadn't. Because if he's not here when Miller comes, my hunch is, there won't be any trouble, not one bit. Tomorrow we'll have a new marshal and if we offer him our services, I think we can handle anything that comes along. To me that makes sense. To me that's the only way out of this. Will, I think you better go while there's still time. It's better for you and…it's better for us
(If you’re interested, you can find a copy of the shooting script here.)
The person who sees this most clearly is Helen. She knows that the town will do nothing to help Kane and she knows that is bad for her as well. They’ll happily let Miller do as he pleases. She’s under no illusions; he’s a woman and Mexican on the US side of the border. Helen is also incredibly smart and wealthy. She is a silent partner in the dry goods store and she sells her share at a loss and on credit, in order to make a hasty exist. Without Kane, Helen has to leave. Even if Miller doesn’t killer, the people of Hadleyville have revealed themselves for what they are. She can make opportunity somewhere else.
Side note on Helen: may of the reviews I’ve read about the film refer to Helen as a “fiery Latin type.” Which, besides being racist, it is also inaccurate. Helen is clear-eyed and reasonable. Unlike Harvey and the rest of the town, she honestly acknowledges we all play. She’s the opposite if “fiery.”
The film is told in real time. That is, when the action starts, the clock starts. Kane and Amy are married just after 10:30AM and . And although it’s a Hollywood studio film and you know, without a doubt, that the bad guy will not make it, you can feel Kane’s anxiety ratchet up as the minute hands tick by and he hears “No” after “No” from the people he protected and served for so many years. It’s all over Cooper’s face and he’s pretty effective.
I do really like the final showdown with Miller and his gang. The gun fight is intense, and Amy carves out a niche in her morality to save the man she loves.
At the end of the film, Kane, surrounded by the townspeople, disgusted by their self interest, pulls off his marshal’s badge one last time and tosses it into the dirt.
Later, John Wayne (a raging anti-communist, supporter of McCarthy and HUAC) raged against the movie’s message in generally and specifically about this scene. He insisted that Cooper stepped on the badge as he left town, insulting Hollywood, law enforcement, the purity of the Old West, White Hats, ‘Merica… you name it. Like the filmmakers had drawn a big ol’dick on Lady Liberty. “He once called High Noon ‘the most un-American thing I’ve seen in my whole life.’”567
Of course, that didn’t stop him from accepting the Gary Cooper’s Oscar for his role as Kane:
Gallery of Movie Posters
- John Wayne made a good movie or two in his time. He was also rabidly racist and an arch conservative. His film, The Searchers, is a about a man who spends years trying to find his niece, who’s been “captured” by the Apache. Not to return her to her family, of course, but to murder her. She’s been defiled by a savage, he says. ↩
- the writer, Carl Foreman, was run out of Hollywood and the United States after production wrapped after refusing to name names to the HUAC ↩
- She spoke her lines phonetically and was still more human than most of the other actors ↩
- Making up for lost time with a 20 year old woman, naturally. ↩
- https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/02/high-noons-secret-backstory ↩
- https://emanuellevy.com/review/high-noon-why-john-wayne-hated-the-film-9/ ↩
- https://www.denofgeek.com/culture/was-john-wayne-high-noon-s-biggest-villain/ ↩