100 Days, 100 Movies: High Noon (1952)

(This post is part of my mission to watch and review 100+ of the movies on the AFI Top 100 American films of all time.)

#33 on the 1998 list. #27 on the 2007 list.

If you want to play along and see what I’m talking about, High Noon is out now on Blu-Ray:
High Noon: 60th Anniversary Edition [Blu-ray]

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High Noon tells the story of Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper). Will Kane is a great lawman about to hang up his badge and retire in peace with his child bride Amy (Grace Kelly). But on his wedding day (and his last day as Marshall of his town) he gets word that the most notorious outlaw he ever put behind bars has not only been paroled, he’s on the noon train. And he’s planning to kill Will in revenge. Will’s peace-loving, pacifist, newly converted Quaker wife wants him to run away. The town fathers want Will to run. But Will, for his honor and his own sense of justice, knows he has to meet the noon train or “die a coward in his grave” to quote this film’s famous theme song.

OK, this is it, the blog post where I finally admit what I suspect most of you have known for quite awhile: when it comes to movies I’ve got sort of plebian taste.

When I go to the movies, I want the action to move, I want my heroes to make choices (good, bad, awful). I want the love interests to be active. In other words, if I have a choice how to spend my movie watching time…I’d really rather watch Speed or Die Hard than something like High Noon.

*pauses to give people time to gather their pitch forks*

OK, whew, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk High Noon. Why didn’t it work for me?

My biggest problems are mostly with the story. Will Kane is so damn passive. Watching him run around trying to gather allies felt at times like watching a hamster spin in his wheel. He has basically one strategy for the whole movie: find people to help him. He asks his friends, he asks his enemies, he walks around town for two damn hours looking for someone who’ll back him up against the outlaw gang. And he never changes that strategy. He never thinks outside that narrow box.

Why does he have to face the outlaw today? At noon? It seems like the outlaw has no plans to lay low since he basically announced to the whole damn town he’s coming in on the noon train. Presumably, Will could find the outlaw again at his leisure when he has been able to gather more men, when his other deputies return or maybe when everyone in town stops being douchebags.

blog 2(Will walking through town. By himself. Which he does for at least half the freaking movie!!! Walk. Through town. By himself.)

Which is my other problem: there’s kind of a tension in the narrative between why Will says he needs to kill Miller and why he actually is. Will says he’s staying to face Frank Miller so he doesn’t have to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. But the narrative of the film seems to make the argument that he’s doing this for the town, and the town itself seems to feel this to.

If Will is staying to save himself then that sort of works for me, but if he’s staying to help the town (which is what it felt like) then I really just don’t care because they are all assholes. Like hard core assholes. At one point, one of Will’s closest friends makes his wife tell Will he’s not home so Will can’t even ask him to help. Asshole.

blog 4(“Sorry, Will, can’t help ya. I have to wash my hair…”)

ALSO, this movie was an allegory for the screenwriter’s own troubles with the blacklist and how he felt abandoned by his friends during the darkest moments of his life. This totally comes through in the story–to the detriment of the story. I seriously felt like I was being beaten with an allegory stick for large portions of this movie. “OK, I get it! I see what you did there, can we get back to the story?!”

Another failing in the movie was the romance with Grace Kelly. Kelly’s cool sophistication became her signature in her later roles as the ultimate cool Hitchcock blonde, but I really feel like she was miscast in this. I didn’t feel any love or chemistry between her character and Will Kane (which is ironic, because apparently Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly had a torrid affair offscreen). And her signature cool reserve just made her come off as spoiled and unfeeling.

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I also hated that they spend all this time establishing that she’s a Quaker, she hates guns but then, in the resolution, it doesn’t seem to take too much for her to shoot a man in the back. This felt disrespectful to Quakers to me. If her religion means that much to her then I don’t think you as a storyteller get to throw it aside for what felt like, at best, an allegorical moment or, at worse, narrative convenience.

So, that’s all the stuff that didn’t work. (Not much, right? ;P) What did work?

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The cinematography was amazing, the stark washed out black and white. Also, the use of clocks and the ticking down of time and the train whistle. The direction in this film by Fred Zinnemann made me feel anxious even when the plot couldn’t. The train felt ominous in a way that the gang of three criminals didn’t.

I also LOVED Katy Jurado as Helen Ramirez, the Hispanic businesswoman/Will’s old lover.

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We don’t have minority female characters that well nuanced and interesting in today’s movies so finding one from the 1950s was awesome. She’s unapologetic about using men for what she wants, she’s a savvy businesswoman and, at the end of the day, a kind woman. I loved her. I wanted more of her.

What did I learn from this movie? Your protagonist needs to have multiple strategies and not just keep circling the town hoping for a different answer until the clock runs out. Oof.

Can I see why this movie has become a classic? It’s beautiful to look at, the story does interesting experiments (such as the plot unfolding in almost real-time). I can see why, I guess, although I personally wouldn’t put it on my list.

Favorite part(s)? When Helen Ramirez puts the smack down on Grace Kelly’s character:

Helen: I don’t understand you. No matter what you say. If Kane was my man, I’d never leave him like this. I’d get a gun. I’d fight.

Amy: Why don’t you?

Helen: He is not my man. He’s yours.

Overall rating: ** (I didn’t like it)

September 1, 2013
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