I did not grow up watching many Western films. Westerns were mostly passé by the ‘90s with only a few major films coming out each year. Instead, I tended to watch more action and science fiction movies with my father due to the excitement of seeing the latest special effects. So, it was not until college that I remember watching a bunch of Westerns when I started to get more into classic movies. One of the first Western films I do remember watching and really enjoying was High Noon as it reminded me of some of the action films of my youth and was an interesting character study with reflections on society.
High Noon has a fairly typical Western premise; revenge by a criminal on the man who put him away. Specifically, it is about Sheriff Kane who has just gotten married to Amy, a Quaker and pacifist. Out of respect for her beliefs, he decides to retire to settle down with her, until he hears that Frank Miller, a vicious criminal he put away years ago, was recently pardoned. Frank’s brother and two other members of his gang await his arrival on the noon train so they can take their revenge on Sheriff Kane. Instead of leaving with his bride, Kane stays to make a stand against Miller and his gang. Throughout the film, Kane tries to enlist help from the rest of the townsfolk, but everyone has one reason or another not to fight, leaving Kane to fight alone.
The plot is a basic Western premise with a core simplistic moral message: “Do you go with the crowd and avoid what you know is wrong, or do you face it alone regardless of what others say and do?” Much of the drama in the movie is Kane attempting to get support to face the quintessential Western villain, an outlaw that does not care for the town or anyone else. The character archetypes are critical to draw this line between good and bad in the movie, and more importantly between the hero (Kane) and common person (townsfolk). The genre conventions of the Western give the audience a sense of comfort and expectations, thus providing for the focus to be on the moral question. The film foregoes a lengthy build of the conflict and characters, instead relying on the audience to recognize the tropes. In addition, the compactness of the story provides urgency in deciding. There is not time to stand around and access the situation fully. Action must be taken. The audience is thrown into the plot right away and has to be aware of the environment by knowing the Western conventions.
Why was this an important moral question at time? In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s America, the McCarthy hearings were going on. During the hearings, which took place during the post-World War II “red scare” hysteria over communism, people, especially famous people, had their loyalty to the United States questioned. No industry was hit as hard by the hearings as Hollywood, as many actors, directors, and crew members were blacklisted in the process. Many people in the industry cowered to the government and provided names of former communist party members. Few opposed the hearings even though the hearings themselves were against the U.S. constitution and many disagreed with them. Any opposition in the media against the McCarthy hearings had to be veiled morality plays, generally in the perceived pulp genres of sci-fi (think The Twilight Zone types of stories). Unfortunately, history tends to repeat itself and these same issues of loyalty and supposed anti-Americanism would become important again and again, e.g., post 9/11 America and Vietnam protests, solidifying the continued relevance and endurance of the film over time. The perseverance of the film is illustrated by how many presidents on both sides of political spectrum, including Clinton, Reagan, and Eisenhower, have put it on their favorite films list.
The moral nature of the film and the urgency of picking a side is heighted by one of the unique elements of the film, the real time effect. Roughly every minute of film is represented as one minute in the plot, emphasized by the repeated shots of ticking clocks. While not the first film to use this method of storytelling, it is one of the most famous early examples. The real time method provides the tension in the film giving added weight to the moral dilemma presented. The two sided question has no time for indecision—action is necessary, either by facing the enemy, or running away from him. In the movie, if Kane waits too long, Frank Miller will find him unprepared and he will have zero chance of living through the ordeal. This is much in keeping with the moral stance of the film, where indecision can lead to having no choice but the worst possible outcome. In the case of McCarthyism, the U.S. government was becoming a tyrannical state, having stripped all rights of individual citizens.
The crane shot of retired Marshal Will Kane getting ready to face Frank Miller and his gang at the titular high noon depicts the character isolation in the town. Retrieved from High Noon (Zinnemann, F., 1952, United Artists), Scene at 01:14:09.
Another standout element of the film is its soundtrack with the “High Noon” theme (also known as “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling” from the opening line) that echoes throughout the movie. The movie starts with an old-style Western “campfire” song by then-notable Western singer Tex Ritter (father of actor John Ritter and grandfather of actor Jason Ritter) that plays over the credits while Miller’s men gather. No campfire scene starts the film, but the style of the song is reminiscent of the singing cowboy Westerns of ‘20s and ‘30s. The melody from the ballad is continued throughout the film in instrumental form. It becomes a haunting tune as more and more citizens turn their back on Kane. It also foreshadows the eventual end of the film, which I will not spoil. While the idea of a theme song at the beginning of the film being carried over through the rest of the film as an instrumental is nothing new, High Noon revitalized this use of music for, not only later Westerns of the ‘50s into the ‘60s, but also movies in general. It is a great example of the various ways music can be used in a film to convey changing moods and tones. Much like the real time effect, the music is what most people remember from the film besides the basic plot.
Favorite Scene: The scene that sticks out the most with me is the scene right before the climatic gunfight. Everything in the film leads to the ultimate gun fight, but it is the penultimate scene of Kane left alone in the street that is memorable. Kane walks out on the street and sees his wife and former girlfriend leave town as Frank Miller and his gang approach. A crane shot moves the camera up, depicting Kane all alone in the street getting ready to face death from any direction. The scene is foreboding as it is unclear where the danger is going to come from, but a sense exists that it will eventually come for Kane.
As the audience, we don’t see Kane and Miller’s men in the same shot, amplifying the uncertainty of their relationship to each other and where the threat is coming from. Near the end of the scene is a long panning shot shows the spatial relationship of Miller’s gang to Kane thus providing the audience with a sense of the confrontation about to occur but is not quite there yet. The building of the volume in the background music throughout heightens the tension until one of Frank Miller’s men breaks a shop window, thus stopping the music and alerting Kane to their presence. Like the music, the tone of the scene shifts from the confrontation to the gunfight.
While Kane looks worried throughout the scene, he never backs down and is ready for anything, making him a realistic hero. A hero with emotions and fears, but can put them aside to get the required duty accomplished. The audience can relate to Kane’s feelings and if given the opportunity, hope to be a hero that is able to face the insurmountable odds against them. The realistic and relatable nature of Kane is ultimately what makes the scene work to build the tension and sense of foreboding as the audience can imagine themselves in Kane’s place, or at least wish they can.
I understand Western films are not everyone’s favorite, but High Noon is worth the watch. There are many elements of the film that make it stand out as one of the best Westerns of all time, including timelessness of the moral dilemma, the real-time plot device, and the soundtrack. The movie has a lot to say about the time it was made and still resonates in our current times. Who knows, you might be like me, and it could change your mind about Westerns. Or it will at least make you re-evaluate what it means to be brave and a hero.
I end this review like always with a movie quote. This time it comes from another Western, The Wild Bunch, and talks about the end of the Western era, “We’ve got to start thinkin’ beyond our guns. Those days are closin’ fast.”