Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Forty-Two

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#42 — High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952)
Beware the film critic who has stumbled upon a thesis. This isn’t automatically a problem, but it does lead to an overvaluing of certain films over others, sometimes for fairly questionable reasons. For example, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which we will get to before this feature has run its course (although more quickly than most writers about film would consider prudent), has been elevated to the consensus pinnacle among The Master’s works perhaps as much because of how neatly it fits into pre-existing narratives of the his predilections and obsession than of any exhibited expertise captured on film. There’s value to the deep explications to be sure, either because the scratch at the filmmakers explicit (or even unconscious) intent, or because they expose the emotional underpinnings that make one movie reach viewers in a deeper, surprising way that surpasses the next title on the shelf. Certainly, the evaluation can often adhere to a integral part of the backstory, which doesn’t automatically lend credence to whatever theory has been put forth, but does often break open the unspoken or even unrealized intent of the creators.

There’s little doubt that the abomination of the House Un-American Activities Committee fed into the creation of High Noon. Screenwriter Carl Foreman was called to testify before that repugnant governmental kangaroo court, eventually given the damning label “uncooperative witness” when he refused to acquiesce to their witch hunt ways. He’s noted the ways in which that experience explicitly informed his work in crafting the story of an Old West sheriff who seeks help from his fellow citizenry when a vengeful outlaw is making his way toward their little frontier town. He expects his fellow man to rise to his defense, stirred by the shared strictures of justice and law. Instead, he finds himself alone, walking down the dusty streets of town with the vastness of isolation surrounding him. Even without Foreman’s prompting, it’s hard not to view the film as a chastising drumbeat delivered by those who refused to acquiesce to a decidedly callous and in fact anti-American process of damning individuals for their constitutionally-protected political beliefs. As the sheriff is greeted by every expected ally with increasingly tepid refusals of support, the vast class of ostracized creative personnel in Hollywood shimmer to ghostly life on the screen. There was just cause for outrage, and Foreman and director Fred Zinnemann realize it in shrewd, compelling fashion.

A major part of what makes the film land as resounding drama rather than defensive screed is the performance of Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane. There was arguably never a better showcase for Cooper’s trademark clipped indignation than this. With an uneasy nobility, Kane expects that his fellow townspeople will match him in resolve and honorability, an inspirational conviction that by the end of the cynical tale becomes the height of foolishness. Camaraderies and altruism are traits reserved for those with nothing to risk, the film argues. When genuine danger is afoot, those who can shuffle away to safety likely will do just that, leave nothing by empty thoroughfares. That’s the underlying message of High Noon, but the filmmakers are smart enough to avoid didactic, stacked arguments, implying that perhaps Kane never quite earned the loyalty of those he served. Their group reticence to defend him may not be pure cowardice, but instead its own principled stand. Life is rarely a procession of easy choices. For the best filmmakers, drama isn’t either.

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