Fred Zinnemann: High Noon

In an interview included in the 60th Anniversary edition of High Noon, Fred Zinnemann says that the film is about “a man in desperate trouble asking for help” who nobody will help “all for good personal reasons.”

That interpretation may be surprising to those unfamiliar with film history who might only know of the film by reputation or through Tony Soprano’s rantish homily to the strong, silent hero who does what must be done:

In retrospect, High Noon‘s resistance to interpretation is both surprising and not. Its hero may be laudable, but its vision of the American society he champions is both cynical and pessimistic. Unlike epic heroes who represent and champion their society, Will Kane indicts his culture. His presence neither inspires nor reassures his fellow citizens. The only citizen in the town who (eventually) joins him in armed resistance is his pacifist Quaker wife!

High Noon 1Does the film’s opacity result from its mythopoeic simplicity or its uncomfortable implications? Certainly the idea of a lone protector saving an unwilling and unworthy society is not one that is confined to Westerns. In 1981, Sean Connery and Peter Hyams took the film’s basic premise and set it in outer space (Outland). Cop movies such as Dirty Harry rely heavily on this trope, as does the modern, cynical superhero genre (The Dark Knight). In his autobiography, Zinnemann dismisses attempts to allegorize High Noon, in turn denying that its central conflict is mean to suggest the Korean War or the blacklisting of the McCarthy era.

Might the reluctance to see political tenors for the movie’s vehicle be in part due to some regret about how he survived the blacklist era? Zinnemann does emphasize that he was one of 57 members of the Director’s Guild who abstained from voting on the establishment of a loyalty oath for that organization. But he goes on to say that when the bylaw passed (547-14), “we took the loyalty oath in a group which included George Stevens, John Huston and other illustrious directors, fully aware that the less well established and therefore more expendable directors among us were putting our own careers on the line.” His language suggests points of psychological connection with both Will Kane (putting his own life on the line) and the scared, everyday citizens of the town.

High Noon earned Oscars for star Gary Cooper and a nomination for Zinnemann. Carl Foreman also received a nomination for the writing, Although it earned Elmo Williams and Harry W. Gerstad honors for Film Editing, the film itself lost out for Best Picture to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. It also featured Grace Kelly in her first role of note, linking her with Marlon Brando (The Men) and Montgomery Clift as stars who made their debuts in Zinnemann films.

Zinnemann’s Technique

High Noon 2The director says of the film’s signature “spectacular shot” which starts close in on Will Kane and retreats to a bird’s-eye view of the deserted street that it was “one of the few moving shots in the picture.” Having just revisited From Here to Eternity, I found this comment a little surprising because I was more conscious of the camera movement here. Perhaps the movements were less frequent but (as a result) more noticeable? Or perhaps here too Zinnemann was self-conscious and possibly less objective. He relates John Ford telling him, “You could be a pretty good director if you would stop moving the goddam camera all the the time.” Criticism always puts us on the alert for more criticism.

High Noon Clock 1

If the autobiography left me with some uncertainty about the relative frequency of tracking and zooming shots, it pleasantly confirmed that some of the film’s best visual touches were intentional rather than accidental. (Zinnemann relates that due to budget and tight schedules he was used to making the movie in his head before committing them to screen, thus minimizing the number of takes. Somehow he never gets as much credit for this as Alfred Hitchcock.) The moment Kane hears that Frank Miller is on the noon train, he turns his head to look at the clock. Rather than cutting to the clock face, Zinnemann turns the camera to it, deftly reinforcing that we are following the character’s gaze.  The clocks get bigger as time passes.  The movement of Kane and the citizens is continually juxtaposed against the empty railroad track. Territorial space and camera proxemics reinforce Kane’s isolation. He is often shot moving away from the camera or fellow actors, and there are a number of shots of action in the street observed through windows, psychologically linking the viewer to the townspeople who are observing rather than (vicariously) participating.

Zinnemann also makes much of the fact that Hollywood audiences of the day were not used to hearing songs play over the opening credits. Full orchestral fanfares were expected, but here as with the visuals, the director rightly intuited that simplicity of the story called for a commensurate simplicity in its audio and visual style. Few films in history are more closely associated with their title song than this one is with Tex Ritter’s mournful, driving, and pared down rendition that begins, “Do not forsake me, oh my darling…”

 Themes in the Work

High Noon does not explain itself nor its hero. One suspects that what Tony Soprano really identified with in Will Kane was his reticence. In today’s political landscape, Kane’s insistence on taking up his gun even after he had officially resigned his position might well be questioned. Neither his wife’s arguments for pacifism nor the town’s pleas for pragmatism are clearly and effectively rebutted. Kane represents an emotional rather than intellectual (or political) argument. The way things are is stipulated, not explained. A man has to do what a man has to do. What that thing is that he must do can only be understood, not explained.

High Noon prizeWhile there is a back story explaining the connection of Kane to Helen Ramirez, the relationship between Will and Amy is joined en medias res. Why Amy does not appear to know anyone in the town–or that Will and Helen were connected–raises the question of how they met and what sort of courtship, if any, the couple with a startling age difference had. (Cooper was twenty-eight years older than Kelly.) Honestly, Amy works better as a plot device than a fully realized character. Zinnemann says the age difference worried him but that Kelly’s relative inexperience served the character well. He said she seemed “inhibited and tense” in her casting interview, but beautiful “in a prim sort of way.” An ill-conceived television remake with Tom Skerritt and Susanna Thompson added a chunk of expository dialogue on Amy’s side, claiming that there had been a more overt turning away from violence prior to the wedding than is ever intimated at in the more celebrated script of its antecedent.

Paradoxically, it is the film’s lack of detail that contributes to its enduring power. The conflict between “love and duty” is so broad that its manifestation here can be a distant mirror for many others. And since our own cultural valuations of love and duty change, we ought not be surprised at Zinnemann’s claim that its popularity “waxes and wanes.” Duty to what, though? His bride? The town? The law? His own conscience? Zinnemann doth protest too much, methinks, when he attempts to explain away speculation that Kane’s dropping of his law badge at the film’s conclusion is some sort of political statement:

The Marshal’s action was simply a gesture of contempt for the craven community. The nervousness about subversion was perhaps not even political, but rather a subconscious worry that the classic myth of the fearless Western hero, the always victorious superman, was in danger of being subverted. The Marshal was not fearless, he was scared, he was not a mythical figure — he was human.

High Noon StarIronically, Zinnemann says of his own society that “ripe conditions” can “push an entire population into the most primitive and savage responses.” The community in the film (facing Frank Miller’s gang) is simply “craven,” the community that received the film (facing McCarthy’s red scare) is pushed by ripe conditions. For someone who claims the film is not about McCarthyism, the director spends a fair amount of time talking about it!

Do I mean to argue that the film is best read (or can only be read) within the historical context of the blacklist? No, not at all. But I do think removing it from that context and looking at it from a modern perspective makes Will’s self-appointment problematic. Is Will that different from Frank Miller? The town reminds him that he is not Marshal any longer, asks him to let the official representatives of the law (arriving within a day) handle the situation, and in so doing, avoid shooting in the streets. Miller’s act of taking Amy hostage makes any deconstructive readings of High Noon suspect, but is it really fair to say, as producer Stanley Kramer reportedly did, that the town died “because no one there had the guts to defend it?”

What would have happened if Will had not turned the carriage around? We are told repeatedly that the town was an unfit place to live in before Will took over the duties, so the implication is that all progress would be lost. Leaving aside questions about the rules of engagement for a gun fight, the question of whether the consequences of Will’s leaving would have been more than loss of face are not quite as clear-cut for me as they once were. Yes, this film was made in 1952, with the end of World War II less than a decade in the rear view mirror. Today, too, we wrestle with questions of how to meet threats of anarchic violence from outside our communities while continuing to maintain our commitment to laws and procedures.

9/11 is a bit (but only a bit) more distant to us than World War II was to the original audiences that watched High Noon. But in the face of that (and many other attacks), we seem committed to the notion that any response to threats that doesn’t use violence to eradicate that threat before it can act is akin to appeasement. The archetype of the dutiful warrior who reluctantly stands up to the irrational, implacable, relentless evil has been internalized on an international level.

And maybe it is true. We are all of us at one end of a track with danger on its way and little time to coordinate our response. But whether we are talking about Global Warming or the ticking bomb scenarios that would justify torture, the argument that there is no time to think or reason, only to forcibly impose our will to meet the present exceptional circumstances never really goes away.

High Noon Tracks


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