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Monday, May 25, 2015

Fred Zimmerman's High Noon

The classic western but with a distinct difference.
Stanley Kramer, 1955, producer
Although I grew up watching movies and TV shows about the "old West," and I'm something of a history buff, the entire genre of western movies has never appealed to me. I suppose one reason is that there's such a sameness to the look, feel, and plots of so many films of that type. I do have a couple favorites though. I've always enjoyed watching the 1963 Cinerama classic How the West Was Won, starring...well, just about everyone in Hollywood at the time (24 major stars). Directed by John Ford and a couple others, this multi-generational tale sought to be the ultimate western. And though it had it's faults, it more or less succeeded in that goal. It should have, it cost $14.4-million 1963 dollars to make. Another favorite western is the classic, Stanley Kramer-Fred Zimmerman-Carl Foreman collaboration, High Noon. It cost a mere $730,000 1952 dollars to make. Yet the budget is the least of their differences. High Noon stands apart as the diametric opposite of How the West Was Won. Though only eleven years separate the two films, the former told the broad story of western development spread over roughly eighty-five years of dynamic American history, while the latter dealt with a very narrow focus, some eighty-five minutes in the static history of a single town, Hadleyville, New Mexico.
Grace Kelly as Amy Fowler
Kane, his newly-wed wife.
Gary Cooper as
Sheriff Will Kane
High Noon at Hadleyville
High Noon is the story of one man, one woman, and the people of one town, told in real time as the film runs out the ever-present ticking clock. In a nutshell, the sheriff, played by Gary Cooper, gets married, to a very lovely Quaker pacifist played by the great film beauty, Grace Kelly (only her second film role). The plot thickens as the town learns that an outlaw the sheriff sent to prison has been released, and is returning on the noon train with two henchmen to seek revenge. The whole town and the sheriff's new wife urges him to leave as planned to start a new life elsewhere as a storekeeper. He does, then begins feeling like a coward and returns only to find that no one in the town will stand with him in defending it. The clock ticks away, there's an iconic gunfight at high noon, with an ironic ending.
Eighty-five minutes of frustrating suspense.
High Noon posters
Though High Noon bears the oft-recurring elements of traditional western movies, this one is different. It has only one fist-fight, only one gun-fight, only one hero, confronting a complete cast of cowering cowards concerned only with their own self-interests. He pleads for help. They plead for him to again leave town. John Wayne hated the movie so much he and director Howard Hawks made the movie Rio Bravo in direct response to High Noon. Yet others have loved the film, including Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton (to name only a few presidents). Clinton screened the film seventeen times while in the White House. Conservatives disliked the negative symbolic portrait it painted of a complacent American society unwilling to risk their peaceful lifestyle in defense of their "homeland." However Reagan, though a conservative, liked the film because "...the main character had a strong dedication to duty, law, and the well-being of the town despite the refusal of the townspeople to help."

Some of the townspeople of Hadleyville following the wedding scene early in the film.
Gary Cooper, Fred Zimmermann, and
Grace Kelly on the set of High Noon.
If political leanings had an impact upon the film's reception, they were relatively minor insofar as he public was concerned. The film took in $3.4-million in its initial North American release and since then has grossed more than $12-million worldwide. However, the conception and making of High Noon took place in the political maelstrom of the McCarthy era of the early 1950s. Senator Joe McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was besieging the entertainment industry with it's infamous "blacklist" in search of those who would not answer, "no" to the question, "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party?" The screenwriter and co-producer of High Noon, Carl Foreman, was one of those blacklisted, though his association with the party had been some ten years earlier. Stanley Kramer, Foreman's co-producer was so alarmed he tried to force Foreman to sell his share of their company until director, Fred Zimmerman, and Gary Cooper intervened on Foreman's behalf. Nonetheless Foreman's role as screenwriter and co-producer is uncredited and he was forced to move to England. He never worked on this side of the Atlantic again.

High Noon was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. It won an Oscar for Gary Cooper as Best Actor as well as awards for Best Film Editing and Best Film Score for the Russian composer, Dimitri Tiomkin, and Ned Washington for the theme song, "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin' ", sung by Tex Ritter (above). The story of High Noon takes place in the Old West, but that's almost incidental to the fact that it is really a story about a man's conflict of conscience. It was a conflict played out in front of the camera, behind the camera, as well as on the larger political stage of a tense, paranoid nation as a whole.

Look carefully, you might recognize some of the supporting cast.


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