High Noon

Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, Lloyd Bridges

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Released: 1952

Mood: If you’re always helping friends when they need rides or have to move but then when you need help they’re like nope, and you want to wallow with a classic movie that REALLY captures how shitty people can be.

I seriously think I was born in the wrong decade. 

Don’t get me wrong, the ‘80s were great: side ponytails, bangles, synth-pop, and neon as far as the eye could see. I still rock a side pony, and I wear Lip Smackers every single day. 

But oh, the 1950s… No car in the last six decades is as sexy as the models of ‘56 and ‘57. The fashion and hairstyles were off the hook for both men (Greasers!) and women. Rockabilly was born. And Westerns were literally f*cking everywhere! There were at least 137 Western TV shows in the ‘50s, and so many Western movies that Wikipedia has to split the decade into two lists.

Plus, Disneyland was invented. What a time to be alive. 

I ordered a copy of High Noon from the library because it’s one of those Westerns you’re supposed to see. It’s like Citizen Kane or Breakfast at Tiffany’severyone’s heard of it, and it’s constantly referenced. You can’t NOT see it

Now I can say I’ve seen High Noon. And goddamn. It’s SO good. (I still haven’t seen Citizen Kane or Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but also don’t care.)

movie poster for High Noon

The plot is relatively simple: Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is about to retire, because he’s marrying a sweet Quaker pacifist, Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). But as the ceremony ends, Kane gets word that a man he sent up for murder has been pardoned, and is headed his way. 

The sinister Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) and his small posse plan to kill Kane before boarding the noon train. Amy begs him to leave town before Miller arrives, giving him an ultimatum that she’s leaving whether he comes or not – but Kane knows that Miller would follow him on, and needs to be faced.

Revenge Westerns had already been done into the ground when High Noon was made. It’s a hugely common storyline. It’s probably also the reason for like 50% of the actual shootings during that period. 

High Noon’s story is unique in two key ways: 

  • Revenge isn’t the primary theme; at times I forgot WHY Miller was even coming to town, because I was so caught up in how shitty everyone was acting toward Kane
  • Kane seeks help from friends and citizens of the town to defend against Miller, and shows immense vulnerability as everyone refuses; normally movie lawmen are macho, and happy to fly solo in the face of danger

Apparently audiences, critics, and even the film’s producer took issue with Cooper’s utter ordinariness as Kane. He wasn’t manly enough. There also weren’t enough horseback chases or shootouts. Everyone felt it was un-Western.

Yet it picked up seven Oscar nominations and four wins. And it’s SO F*CKING DESERVING (though I wish it had won best screenplay). It’s a gorgeous movie, especially compared to standard ‘50s Western fare

It was shot in black and white because of budget constraints, but I think it worked perfectly for the somber story. They didn’t blot the actors faces while working under the hot SoCal sun, and seeing the gleam of sweat trickling down their foreheads only adds to the rising tension. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

It’s also empowering for women, which is shocking since the bras of the ‘50s still looked like torture devices. 

Kane’s ex-lover Helen Ramírez is played brilliantly by Katy Jurado – one of the first Mexican actresses to be cast in a Western. A real WOC played a WOC, in a time when segregation was still a thing. And her role is great. She gets to put both Kane and Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) in place, while being a smart and sensible businesswoman. 

Kane also gets unexpected help from his young bride, which again simply wasn’t done. Women didn’t get strong storylines in Westerns. And this was one of Grace Kelly’s first (and only) movies before she became a muthaf*cking princess. 

And then there’s the controversy. OMG. If you don’t know the backstory of High Noon, go read this amazing Vanity Fair article right now. The making of High Noon is a story as good as the script itself. 

What you should know:

  • Screenplay writer Carl Foreman was a former American Communist Party member
  • High Noon was filmed during a Red Scare, and Hollywood was blacklisting anyone associated with Communists or Communism – even on suspicion and with no evidence 
  • Foreman was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a group that was going around making accusations and holding trials
  • Once accused, Foreman’s friends and peers abandoned him for fear of tainting their own work and careers; he realized he was living Will Kane’s story
  • He ended up rewriting High Noon as an allegory for blacklisting, using situations and actual conversations with his own colleagues and friends as everyone hung him out to dry
  • He refused to snitch, so he was blacklisted – he was immediately cut out of High Noon, which was currently being filmed, and he was not only the writer but an associate producer and shareholder who had handled casting and was on set every single day
  • Foreman and his family had to move to Europe, as he was never going to get work in the US again
  • BUT HIS SCREENPLAY EARNED A F*CKING OSCAR NOM
illustration of a fancy moustache

John Wayne also supposedly turned down the lead role because he was super conservative and read the allegory in the script. He went on record calling High Noon “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen”. Gary Cooper’s career was fading, and he was getting offered crap parts. He loved the script, and even tried to stick up for Foreman. 

I could go on, but honestly that Vanity Fair piece is the best thing I’ve read on the subject and I bow before it

Go watch High Noon, because it’s a beautiful movie, and read as much as you can about the making-of because the Red Scare is not so different from current social media bullshit that ruins lives. 

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