High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952)

by Douglas Buck December 15, 2021 7 minutes (1514 words) 16mm Cinéma du Musée, Le Cinéclub/The Film Society

Another cinema classic at the Montreal Cinéclub, with the shows relocated now from its long-standing previous home at McGill U over to the (I’d argue preferred) Cinéma du Musée, with I presume the new theater rules of disallowing the long-standing tradition of the mid-movie intermission between reels having both bad points (no more Cinéclub brownies) and good (no more momentum-killing stoppages of the film!).

I’ve seen High Noon only once before, and that was twenty plus years ago (okay, I’m likely low-balling that figure… it’s likely more like… gulp… over thirty plus years ago). I believe it was at the Film Forum (on 35mm, back in those halcyon days of celluloid only, unlike the numerous DCPs they throw at us today, which admittedly can look pretty, pretty, pretty good), and – other than remembering the sense of real-time tension created — with the presence of ticking clocks in every saloon, at the train station and everywhere else ratcheting up the arrival on the noon train of just-released-from-prison vicious gangster Frank Miller for vengeance against Gary Cooper’s small town Marshal – I can’t say I remembered it having all that great an impact on me.

Seeing it again definitely raised my admiration level on a number of fronts; how I missed the graceful power and striking presence of Mexican actress (and future muse of many an understandably smitten Hollywood figure, including Tyrone Power and Marlon Brando) Katy Jurado as the extremely practical and survival-minded Helen Ramirez, town saloon owner, and former lover of both the Marshal and the villain Miller, eager to skip the hell out of town before the fighting breaks out and she’s caught in the middle, is anyone’s guess. It was also enjoyable seeing some familiar faces (on their way to Hollywood vet status) like Harry Morgan and Otto Kruger as important town political figures (both who wimp out come fight time), as well as up-and-coming Lloyd Bridges as the immature, impulsive and over-confident deputy (contrasting against Cooper’s stoic and even-keeled aging Marshal) and, of course, eventual Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western icon, Lee Van Cleef (with director Zinneman already recognizing the menacing power in that hawk-like face, using him as one of the first faces we see in the film, as one of Miller’s henchman waiting for that train to arrive).

Speaking of Leone, the three henchmen waiting for the arrival of that mid-day train kept specifically reminding me of the opening of what I think of as the very greatest, icon-overflowing and indulgently fetishistic (in all the right obsessive and lingering ways) Leone film of all, Once Upon a Time in the West, with the added touch of one of those Leone henchman, the cockeyed Jack Elam, actually having a small cameo in High Noon as the town drunk that Cooper’s Marshal frees from the local jail after likely his latest bender as a final tidying up before the shoot-out he knows is coming, as well as overall reminding me of just how much the iconography of the cinematic Western throughout the decades repeats.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Lon Chaney Jr, that greatest of all wolfmen, a tragic hulking brute of an actor whose film career, post-Universal-monster immortality, is defined by mostly bit Hollywood parts and eventual appearances in super low-budget horror pictures, who wonderfully delivers in High Noon a scene of world-weary tiredness and cynicism, playing the former Marshal of the town, now retired, that Cooper’s Marshal once looked up to, but is left realizing will not help him. While I’ve always been more than partial towards Chaney Jr (come on, the The Wolf Man and mute henchman Groton in Al Adamson’s brilliant surrealistic oddity Dracula vs. Frankenstein!), his limitations as an actor, in both temperament and physicality, are pretty apparent… but in this beautifully delivered speech, sitting in his chair at home, retired, still retaining a level of dignity as he informs the Marshal that he is come to the conclusion that surviving is more important, that he is done risking his life for an ultimately unappreciative town, has to be his shining moment, presenting a maturity and resonance in performance I didn’t know was even in him.

While the film remains simple-minded in its moral perspectives (though with a few dashes of philosophical complexity in the film… while filmmakers like Zinnemann and Ford might have been willing to toy with the black-and-white Old West mythos a bit to create more interesting dramatic conflict, it would be up to the aforementioned 60’s Spaghetti versions, and then those rebellious Hollywood filmmakers moving into the 70’s like Peckinpah and Altman to really properly muck up the waters) – with it ultimately being a celebration of a man’s duty and honor (while at least touching – if ever so slightly — on the idea that perhaps a bit of ego-wrapped destructive stubbornness might be playing a part in the Marshal’s actions as well), while relegating the pacifism of the Marshal’s young Quaker bride as tantamount not to courage, but cowardice (while she decides to stay at the last moment, she ends up saving the Marshal by shooting one of the henchman – in the back, naturally, an act that would never be allowed Cooper’s Marshal in a film of this heroic male ilk).

Interestingly, in real life at the time, the deeply conservative Cooper (and director Zinneman as well) was thrust into his own moral stand while in production on the film, put under extraordinary pressure (and likely feeling a very similar sense of abandonment as his character in High Noon, with his Hollywood peers scattering like flies to save their own hides), with the threat of being blacklisted out of Hollywood from the likes of fascistic bullies like John Wayne and Ronald Reagan and the loss of his passport by the government hanging over him unless he immediately quit making the movie as well as condemned the film’s screenwriter (and his friend) Carl Foreman, who was being subpoenaed by the red-baiting Cold War monstrosity known as the House Un-American Activities Committee for communist leanings. As in the reel life of the movie, Cooper didn’t cave, so you can hand him that, with an awareness of these events not only allowing a deepening of the perspective of the film’s uncompromising Marshal but also making the film’s central concern much more relevant to today’s time, in which the unvaccinated are today’s commies, ones which the Langian-like mob has been convinced are the latest unclean group that needs to be exposed and cast out for society to be saved.

Kelly is rather meek in her first starring role (Hitchcock would soon take care of that problem, casting her in his own films, and while he’d usually make her character rich and somewhat petulant, he’d physically elevate her to that rarified ‘Wow!’ status of radiant cinematic objectification, a level that you could rely on the roly-poly one to obsessively manipulate all his beautiful blonde female muses to), and, like many a Hollywood films of the day, is nearly thirty years younger than her male love interest in the film (ah, all those aging male stars of yesteryear… how come they got all the benefits of a male-driven society!? Not fair!).

As common practice with a Le Cinéclub/The Film Society night, a wealth of post-feature cinematic aperitifs were part of the night’s full-meal celluloid course, with the society’s goal being to replicate a sense of that ol’ time movie-going experience. Included was a most entertaining episode of the Commando Cody serial (Radar Men from the Moon – Chapter 4: Flight to Destruction) which was as absurd and clunky as you could imagine, yet delightfully loaded with a surprising amount of exciting chase sequences (both by foot, car and plane), often relying on the kind of heavy use of miniatures that always appeals to my nostalgic side and ending on a cliffhanger of a plane crash there is no way our hero and his damsel could possibly have survived (yet, you can be sure, Chapter 5 will manage to provide the cockamamy explanation of how they did!).

Also included was the indulgent naughty ol’ time pleasures of a wildly sexual Tex Avery cartoon (I mean, when not creating the Looney Tunes’ characters, the legendary animator certainly loved drawing up those roundly-figured showgirls, dancing suggestively up there on stage doing half-stripteases, with an attentively howling wolf audience barely able to hold back from storming the stage… and somehow he got away with selling it as family entertainment!) and a 1941 black and white music performance clip of the all-black gospel group The Deep River Boys singing “Shadrack”, a video piece that falls into the same category as the Avery cartoon (ie, ‘you’d never see that made today’) with the band and their entourage performing in quasi-arcane African get-up and providing lots of over-sized gesturing along with the obvious good singing going on.

High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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