Sunday, November 5, 2017

High Noon

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Director Fred Zinnemann made films that show individuals fighting against dangerous, sometimes insurmountable challenges to take what they think is the right action. He showed the heroism of men in the midst of the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in From Here to Eternity. In A Man for All Seasons, Zinnemann gave us the story of Sir Thomas More, who had to defy his king in order to stand by his beliefs, and which led to his execution. In Julia, the characters risk their lives to undermine the Nazi government. In High Noon (1952), the director presents possibly his most lonely hero who must fight for the good of the many while others abandon him.
Zinnemann wanted a washed out black and white look for the movie to give it a gritty realism, a quasi-documentary feel. The story unfolds in almost real time, as ticking clocks, which are shown everywhere, build suspense as the countdown to the confrontation between the good guy, Will Kane (Gary Cooper, in an Oscar winning performance) and the bad guys, the gang led by Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), approaches. The emphasis on time takes on an even broader meaning, suggesting that time is running out on the society as a whole to make the right choices, or there will be dire consequences to follow.

The opening cuts contrast for emphasis scenes of impending doom and hopefulness. We see convict Frank Miller’s men, Jack Colby (Lee Van Cleef), Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), and Jim Pierce (Robert Wilke) wait for the noon train that will bring Frank (the town will not be delivered from evil, but instead evil will be delivered to it). The film then shifts to the wedding of Will and Amy (Grace Kelly). We quickly learn that Amy is a Quaker, a religion that believes in pacifism. Will is giving up his job as marshal effective the next day. (Cooper was in two other films that deal with pacifists dealing with the realities of violence: the Quaker  centered movie Friendly Persuasion, and Sergeant York). It is said at the ceremony that the town will be safe until the new marshal shows up (this statement quickly turns into an ironic one, because, as was said, there is no time to waste when the threat is imminent). Will surrenders his gun and his badge (but not his commitment to the law) in deference to his wife’s wishes, and her beliefs. In this act of acquiescence, Will aspires to the ideals of Amy, which point to the hope for an end to violence.
The celebration of the wedding is short-lived as the word comes that Frank and his men will carry out the promise to kill Will for having sent Frank to prison. The townspeople quickly send Will and his bride packing to avoid the confrontation. But, Will is technically still the marshal. He decides to return to the town of Hadleyville to do his duty. It is important to point out that it would seem reasonable to most people that given the fact that this was Will’s last day, he should leave. But, even to abandon his loyalty to upholding the law for one day would be too much of a compromise for this man of principles. He knows that the town will be morally compromised if Frank Miller is able to gain a foothold on Hadleyville, and Will puts his concern for others above his own. He says the problem must be “nipped in the bud.” So, he feels that if the disease isn’t caught early, it will spread out of control.

Will’s resolve (he isn’t called “will” for nothing) comes in conflict with that of Amy, who wants nothing to do with gunfights. She gives her husband an ultimatum: either he goes with her or she will leave by herself. The noon train symbolizes both the coming of the challenge to fight the good fight, or to run away from it. The popular theme song from the movie, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” plays throughout the film and can be seen as a plea by Will to his wife to stay. But it is a more general cry for help to the citizens of the community, and possibly to the citizens of the United States to not abandon their own values, and the people who stand for them. The film has been considered to be an allegory for Hollywood capitulating to the blacklisting of those working in the film industry during the McCarthy years.

The story does seem to be a microcosm for society as a whole. Those who refuse to fight with Will have their reasons, which range from selfish to practical to hopelessness. Judge Mettrick (Otto Kruger), whose name seems to indicate he’s done the math concerning the situation, and who sentenced Frank Miller, sees no plus side in taking a moral stand. He says that back in ancient Greece the citizens would welcome back the tyrant they originally expelled, and would allow him to slaughter his enemies. His argument is that people will do anything out of fear. The judge seems to be saying that the ancient drive for self-preservation has not evolved into anything more noble over the centuries. He tells Will, “This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important.” Based on his comment, does one adhere to ethics based on the size of an area’s population or notoriety?
Deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) wants Will to go because he wants to take his job. So, his interests are selfish. But it goes beyond an immediate promotion. He also is angry at Will for not recommending him for the job. In addition, Harvey has been romantically involved with the Mexican businesswoman, Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), and Harvey is jealous because she was Will’s girlfriend (and it turns out she was also involved with Frank Miller). So, Harvey will not help Will fight Frank Miller.  Helen says that Harvey may be big and strong, but “it takes more than big broad shoulders to make a man.” Helen sees Will as being a real man because he is noble. (It is noteworthy that a woman, and a Mexican one at that, is given a prominent role in the story, a groundbreaking act on the part of the filmmakers. She shows her own strength of will when she slaps Harvey away when he tries to force a kiss on her, saying that she won’t allow someone to touch her unless she gives permission. And, she is not denigrated by a double standard for taking on multiple lovers, which shows she is being depicted as equal to men). Later the sight of Will walking alone to face danger makes Harvey feel ashamed about his lack of nobility. In a moment of weakness, Will goes to the stable and thinks about taking off, and Harvey, who follows Will, tries to make Will leave, so as to lessen his own guilt. Will, though, can’t go, and the two get into a fight, with Harvey ending up physically, and spiritually, beaten.

Amy waits in the hotel lobby until the noon train arrives. The clerk there is a sleazy fellow who says he wouldn’t leave town since there will be “a sight” to witness when Frank Miller comes back to go after Will. He represents those who are just passive spectators that watch others put themselves in peril for their entertainment. He also is selfish because Frank Miller would generate business as people used to cme to witness his outlaw brand of running things. He also makes a lewd comment about Will not having trouble finding Helen’s room when the Marshal comes to warn her about Miller returning. The clerk says this remark in front of Amy, which makes the reference even more inappropriate.

Will keeps searching for volunteers to help him, but although there is acknowledgement that he is brave and cleaned up the town, they are not willing to stick their necks out for someone else (they sound like Rick from Casablanca until he regains his morality). One of them, Sam Fuller (Harry Morgan), hides behind his wife’s reluctant lie that he isn’t home when Will visits. In response to her judgmental look, he asks her if she would rather be a widow by having him joining up with Will. The movie puts us in the shoes of these people, and, if we are honest, we probably can admit to ourselves that we might have reservations about taking a stand against the evildoers.
When Ben Miller gets tired of waiting for the train, he goes to the saloon, and the men their welcome him like he is a hero. The fickle nature of the masses is shown here, as their inconstant loyalty has them switch allegiance to whomever currently seems to have the upper hand. When Will goes to the saloon to solicit help, he hears one man saying Frank Miller will kill the marshal as soon as he gets off of the train. In a moment of weakness, Will lets his anger get the better of him, and he punches the guy out. But, he quickly apologizes, showing his mistakes are only temporary ones, as he agrees that he shouldn’t hide behind his badge for committing wrong behavior. The camera shoots upward at Will, implying that he is the man we should look up to ethically.

We see townspeople in church singing the lines“the grapes of wrath,” but they do not have the courage to fight. When Will arrives there to ask for volunteers, some immediately are ready to stand with Will. But, other voices prevail. One says that they are not trained as law enforcers. It is the fault of the government that there are not enough permanent deputies. Another says that they don’t want the state government to view Hadleyville as a town with troubles, so Will should leave to avoid violence. Then, more funding will flow to the town. It’s as if the people are looking for an after-the-fact governmental bailout when they should have not allowed a bad situation to occur in the first place. So, there is a a bit of an anti-government sentiment here, since the institutions do not appear to be places to rely on, and justice should be handled by the individuals. Even the town parson is wishy-washy when it comes to providing sound moral advice to his flock. When Will exits the church alone, there are children playing, reminding us of how the inaction of the adults shows them to be poor role models. We even see one boy with a toy gun pretending to be Frank Miller shooting Will, which stresses the point of how the parents can influence the next generation in a negative way.
When Will visits the former marshal, Martin Howe (Lon Chaney, Jr.), we get more of the nihilism that was expressed by the judge. Howe says that as marshal, he put bad men away, and then the politicians released them. If a lawman was honest, he led an impoverished life until someone eventually gunned him down. He says that people just don’t care and all attempts at doing good are “all for nothing.” Another man says he “has no stake in this” fight, as he bails on Will, showing the man’s shortsighted vision about the implications of not taking a stand. The fact that the only people who are willing to help Will are a one-eyed drunk and a fourteen-year-old boy, which although admirable, shows how pathetic the rest of the townspeople are.
Amy visits Helen to try to have her persuade Will to leave. Helen, who said she is leaving because the town will die (probably in a spiritual sense once Frank Miller takes over), tells Amy that she should stand by her man because she, not Helen, is his wife, and it is Amy’s job to fight for her husband. She says maybe Amy is just not used to hearing gunfire. But, Amy says that she knows about it all too well, as both her father and brother were shot even though they were on the side of what was right. That is why Amy decided to become a Quaker, because “there’s got to be some better way for people to live.” Amy’s ideals are admirable, but, unfortunately, not practical given Will’s situation.

Frank Miller does arrive and he and his three men strap on their guns and go looking for Will, who has written up his last will and testament as he prepares to put his life on the line. We see his aloneness emphasized by his standing in the middle of the deserted main street. The camera pulls away upward to stress Will’s smallness in the face of the immensity of his task. He is able to surprise the men, and kills two of them. After hearing gunshots, Amy leaves Helen on the train and goes to Will’s office. Her duty to the immediate needs of her husband outweighs her religious commitment in the moment and she uses a gun found in the office to shoot one of the men. Frank grabs Amy as a hostage and threatens to kill her unless Will puts down his gun. Amy, showing her resolve, turns and claws at his face, allowing Will the time to shoot Frank.

The movie ends with all of the townspeople now pouring out into the street, reaping the rewards of the courage of the one hero whom they were not strong and unselfish enough to help. Before riding off with his wife in his wagon, Will surveys the crowd with disdain, and tosses his badge onto the ground. Even though doing the right thing may help those who do not deserve one’s sacrifice, for the honorable and moral person, it is the only choice.

The next film is The Enemy Below.


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