Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Written by Carl Foreman
Classics are the classics for a reason. Even in the face of unrealistic expectations, these films are the ones which are forever revered and yet somehow live up to those lofty expectations, they accomplish the impossible. It’s one thing to be in on the ground floor of such a film, but it’s quite another daunting task to have to go into the film knowing its reputation, knowing that you’re supposed to love it. It’s not an easy feeling, and often I feel when I’m in such a situation I’m overly critical, looking for anything and everything to discredit it. This isn’t always the case, as I am a true film lover, looking for reasons to love something rather than hate it more often than not, but when faced with nowhere to go but down from such a pedestal, sometimes it’s all too easy to be critical. All of this is just a roundabout way of saying that High Noon is a classic, one very worthy of its status.
Town Marshal Kane (Gary Cooper) is getting married to the young and beautiful Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), with plans to retire and move along from a town he worked very hard to turn around from wild west town to a respectable, peaceful town where people could be proud to raise their families. But after their nuptials, it’s learned that notorious outlaw Frank Miller, whom Kane put away as part of his clean-up, has just been released and is scheduled to arrive on the noon train, awaited by his posse (which includes our first look at Lee Van Cleef). Kane is compelled to stay and stand his ground against his nemesis, but struggles to find support from the mayor (Thomas Mitchell), his deputy (Lloyd Bridges), and the other townspeople. With the clock ticking down on his time as Marshal, Kane finds that time may also be ticking on his marriage and even his life.
There are certain elements in filmmaking that, when perfected, come across as nearly unnoticeable, and then there are the ones that stick out like a sore thumb, but instead of being sore, the thumb is actually covered in chocolate and I’m more than happy to lick that deliciousness up. Okay, so that was weird, my apologies. But what I’m trying to say is that Fred Zinnemann, his composer Dimitri Tiomkin, and his editor Elmo Williams have put together a film which should be taught in every film class for its use of percussive pacing, taut storytelling, and suspense and tension building because it’s a master class in all respects. There is an impending doom, a palpable rhythm to this experience which makes it a truly remarkable journey. This film feels lightyears ahead of its time, especially within the genre. Something Leone surely borrowed from.
But that’s not all, the cast is brilliant too, led by Gary Cooper, that up and down performer, that man whose deadpan delivery is either a fit or its not. In this case, it’s a fit for Marshal Kane. He’s exactly the type of wholesome and just Marshal you would expect to have cleaned up the town, exactly the type of man who would have the pride and courage to stick around to defend it one last time. He is the star, the central intrigue, but Gracy Kelly, Lloyd Bridges, and Katy Jurado also give good performances around Cooper as well. Even the town seems a notable star, as the narrative is so taut that it takes place entirely one morning in this town. The geography plays a role, and is masterfully handled by Zinnemann and company.
If I had one qualm with the film, it would be that the climax shootout is nowhere near as exciting as the lead up, and perhaps that’s where the unrealistic expectations I opened this review talking about come into play. This film just builds so much tension and excitement by its character work and pacing, that when it comes time to see the actual shootout, it’s like I expected the most masterfully filmed shootout in film history, but that’s not what this film is, that’s not where its strengths lie. It’s a small film, one which feeds off the unknown, the tension. To release that tension is a little bit to let the air out of the room, which on the surface can appear disappointing, but it has to happen, it’s the logical conclusion to the story. But High Noon is certainly much more about the lead up than the actual climax. That showdown at High Noon is a MacGuffin. That thing which everyone in the film is bracing for. But the film is really all about the leadup, and it’s brilliant for it.