This is another one of those movies where the behind-the-scenes story is just as good as what you see on the screen. But High Noon is included in this list because it’s a great movie, so let’s start there.
Marshall Will Kane (Cooper) is quitting his post after marrying his Quaker wife (Kelly). On his last day of the job, he learns that the infamous Frank Miller (Ian McDonald) has been pardoned for a crime that Kane sent him away for some time ago. Miller is back in town, and he definitely means to make trouble. Instead of letting the town deal with it on its own, he decides that the right thing to do is round up a posse and go after Miller before anything terrible happens. Miller’s gang is waiting for him at the train station; his train is supposed to arrive promptly at noon.
Rounding up a posse is much easier said than done. Everyone in town has their own reasons for turning down Kane’s request, but it all amounts to the same thing. As noon fast approaches, Kane finds himself with ever-dwindling support while simply trying to do the right thing. We spend quite a bit of the movie watching Peck’s increasing, quiet desperation as he’s turned down time and again by his friends and neighbors. We learn quite a bit about the town — and Kane’s relationships to its inhabitants — in the meantime.
The film is a model of efficiency, playing out in nearly real time. Every one of Kane’s potential cohorts plays his or her history with him right on their sleeve, and the reasons they give for their refusal are believable, if frequently disappointing. It builds to the inevitable confrontation, of course, and I won’t breathe a word of what happens. It’s quite a surprise!
High Noon was written as an allegory for the Hollywood blacklisting that was running rampant at the time; McCarthy and his posse were coming for various people in the industry and no one would stand up to him. They all had their reasons, of course, but it all amounted to the same thing. They stood by while the lives of their friends and neighbors were dismantled and ruined.
In fact, writer Carl Foreman was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee and blacklisted. He was forced to live in England for the rest of his days. One of the people leading the charge in Hollywood? None other than the Duke himself, John Wayne, who was a very strong proponent of what McCarthy was doing at the time. Twenty years later, in an interview with Playboy, he said he didn’t regret his actions. He also said a few other things that I cannot believe were said by a national treasure.
Far from being angry about it, I find it kind of exhilarating. John Wayne was every bit the double-edged sword of the American ideal at the time. While upholding the virtues of the national mood, he also embodied a lot of its vices; a sort of hysterical cruelty about ‘the other’ viewed as a threat, an uncompromising, regretless arrogance that made it impossible to learn from mistakes. Foreman attempted to warn us about what was happening in the 50s, about the excuses we would use to shroud us from responsibility to do something about what was happening. And he was targeted and brought down for his trouble.
At least he went out with a fine movie to his credit. The film is populated with great characters and memorable interactions, and even though so much of it is characters unpacking their history together to display it for our benefit it never feels wordy or slow. The confrontation at noon looms large over every scene, driving the dialogue with weight and purpose. At the end of every exchange is a decision that can’t be rescinded. There’s a finality there that makes it wonderfully taut.
Kane travels through this small town to the steady drumbeats of the film’s signature song, Tex Ritter’s “High Noon”. It reminds us of the inevitability of Kane’s duel, and suffuses the film with a melancholy that can’t be shaken. The film looks bright and hot, the sun beating down on saint and sinner alike. It’s an indelible film, the kind that you catch yourself thinking about for weeks afterward. It has the spare beauty of the best cowboy poetry.
High Noon reminds us of the importance of our own individual morality, and of how that can guide a community into something better than it would be otherwise. Sometimes our fears can be conquered just by watching someone else rise above their own. Then again, sometimes it can’t. I found myself checking my gut at the end of this movie, wondering what I would do. We all think we would have the courage to stand with Marshall Kane, to turn back the outlaws no one else would do anything about. But the many rejections in town give us pause. Would we be like the man who tells his wife to answer the door and let Kane know he’s not home? Would we secretly gloat about Kane’s downfall because his sanctimoniousness rubbed us the wrong way? What High Noon teaches us is that there’s always a reason to do the right thing, but there are always many reasons to do the wrong one.