Gary Cooper, Lloyd Bridges, Lee Van Cleef, Katy Jurado, Ian MacDonald, Robert J. Wilke, and Sheb Wooley in High Noon (1952)


(director: Fred Zinnemann; screenwriters: Carl Foreman/based on the story “The Tin Star” by John W. Cunningham; cinematographer: Floyd D.Crosby; editors: Elmo Williams/Harry Gerstad; music: Dimitri Tiomkin; cast: Gary Cooper (Marshal Will Kane), Thomas Mitchell (Mayor Jonas Henderson), Lloyd Bridges (Deputy Sheriff Harvey Pell), Katy Jurado (Helen Ramirez), Grace Kelly (Amy (Fowler) Kane), Otto Kruger (Judge Percy Mettrick), Lon Chaney (Martin Howe), Henry Morgan (Sam Fuller), Ian MacDonald (Frank Miller), Lee Van Cleef (Jack Colby), Robert J. Wilke (Pierce), Sheb Wooley (Ben Miller); Runtime: 84; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Stanley Kramer; United Artists; 1952)

“Can be enjoyed simply because it’s so well done.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon is a western classic telling the simple story of the bad guys returning to town to get revenge on the sheriff who had them sent to prison. It’s a Western of mythic proportions, even though its theme has been so duplicated that it now seems trite. The weary sheriff (Gary Cooper) is set to retire because he has recently married a pacifist Quaker wife (Grace Kelly) who wants him to put away his guns, but he feels it’s his duty to finish his job with honor and not cut-and-run. It’s played out as the cowardly townspeople cower before the four gunmen arrive by train and leave the lonesome cowboy to face the men alone. There you have the plot for an ideological western released during the Red Scare that presses liberal producer Stanley Kramer and blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman’s viewpoint across the screen as an antidote to the Cold War paranoid times (Foreman’s blacklisting was temporarily prevented by star Cooper–a conservative). It’s a film that can be celebrated for its attack on America’s growing silent majority during the height of McCarthy’s witch hunt. It is based on the story “The Tin Star” by John W. Cunningham.

Foreman’s screenplay employs the unusual mechanical device of making screen time correspond to real time as a means of heightening the drama. The film makes use of cross-cutting as repeated close-ups of Cooper’s anguished expressions and shots of clocks ticking off the time left before the men arrive are employed throughout, adding to the build-up of tension.

The film has been both overpraised and under-praised over time, as every time I see it over the decades it seems to change its worth accordingly with the prevailing social conditions in society (today it is a reminder of a complacent country standing back while a voluntary military force does all the heroics for Bush 11 and his questionable Iraqi war). Yet it can be enjoyed merely for its laconic depiction of heroism and self-sacrifice, its stark film-making, for Gary Cooper’s stirring portrayal of the beleaguered sheriff, Will Kane, and its psychological undertones and overt political message can either be ignored as too obvious a contrivance or welcomed as a necessary way of delivering a political message; or, the film can be enjoyed simply because it’s so well done.

Howard Hawks’ masterpiece Rio Bravo made in 1959 is in response to High Noon, a civic lesson film he resented for its unreal premise. Yet every time I view High Noon, I come away more amazed by its wise perceptions. When Cooper finishes his job of getting rid of evil, he tosses his star in the dirt out of disgust. Cooper’s lawman isn’t only heroic but he’s depressed and ill-humored at the complacency in Middle America, who out of ignorance and selfishness choose not to see what is inconvenient for them to see.

The black-and-white photographed High Noon won many Oscars including Best Picture, Screenplay, Director. The film is also memorable for Dimitri Tiomkin’s pulsating score and a popular song sung off-screen by Tex Ritter. Supporting stars Thomas Mitchell and Lon Chaney Jr. contribute nicely to the action.