Wednesday, June 29, 2016

AFI Top 100: #27 "High Noon"

Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952)

It's rare that a movie is able to make the promise of a compelling climax right in its very own title. In AFI's #27 film, the short and sweet High Noon, that's exactly what we get: the anticipation of a climax rounding out about noon, by the clock's estimation. All it has to do is deliver. Unassuming in its simplicity, this experimental western aims to, in real time, build tension around a determined protagonist who stands alone against a threat to his town—and his life.

Writer Carl Foreman made no secret of his film's true message, an allegory for his own fight against allegations of communist sympathies and his gray-listing in Hollywood by the House Un-American Committee. So while the hero's plight may well be obvious, it doesn't help that he all but drowns in his own self-righteousness.

Hadleyville is a small, dusty town in New Mexico, protected by long-time Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper). On the day of Kane's marriage to his youthful bride, Amy (Grace Kelly), he confidently hangs up his gun and his badge, handing the safety of the town over to his only deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), until the new Sheriff takes over. He and Amy have barely left the town limit before hearing news that a dangerous local criminal, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), has just been released from prison, and is on his way to Hadleyville to seek revenge on Kane, who put him behind bars—and he's set to arrive on the noon train. Unwilling to let the town fall victim to Miller, Kane hightails it back to town to deputize as many men as he can to stand with him against Frank and his gang. But when the townsfolk turn a blind eye, cowardly refusing to fight, Kane realizes that he must enter this showdown alone, or risk sleeping with one eye open for the rest of his life.

The film's structure is framed around the real-time run of events, playing out on screen in a steady build to its promise. And it does deliver. The sounding of the train whistle, the rising of coal smoke from the distance, as the clock strikes noon, does exactly what it's supposed to do. We experience the heightened nervousness that Kane does, and nearly all of the credit should be given to director Fred Zinnemann. Not only did he understand how to direct Cooper in such a gripping performance, but he knew to weave the building uncertainty about whether this was a fight worth fighting throughout the film from the very start. The consistent presence of the clocks, the visualization of time ticking away, effectively drive our attention towards the end game—it's simply a bonus that we get there so quickly, in under 90 minutes.

Gary Cooper's worn and ready demeanor suits Kane almost too perfectly. His creased face is tired and smudged with the dust of many years' worth of struggles to keep this lawless land lawful. And from the looks of it, he's been more or less successful, and his relief during the wedding ceremony is evident: he's alive, he's about to marry a woman way too young and good for him, and he's proud of everything he's accomplished. And when he hears the name "Frank Miller," watching all of that happiness drain away in an instance is crippling.

Cooper as Kane is ostracized, belittled, and emasculated. In a very un-Western way, he's a man with plenty of fear. Cooper is far older (50) than Kane was originally meant to be at 30 years old, but it's a common Hollywood oversight that ends up benefiting the film. The worry that nearly cripples Kane didn't build up overnight. The years he's witnessed injustice, murders, and vengeful criminals are evident on his face, as are the blood, sweat, and tears he's put into making something of this one tavern town. When all of that is threatened, there is no question that he'd turn around to defend it, even if it cost him his life.

The weight of obligation he feels, strangely, doesn't fall on anyone else. Even his new bride, Amy, can't bring herself to care much for the only home she's ever known. This is where the movie starts to falter. Kane's passion and dedication is evident, but the ambivalence (or fear, whatever you want to call it) of the rest of the town, who are unwilling to take beside him, is nonsensical. As Kane goes from man to man (to man to man to man), only to be met with derision, a brush-off, an assertion that "It's not his problem anymore"... it leaves us scratching our head in a curious Huh?? Writer Foreman does a feeble job giving anyone other than Kane a leg to stand on (much less a backbone), so as worthy a hero as he might be, there is no balance of side characters to keep him from devolving into a self-righteous, stubborn loner. No one will help him, so why should he stick his neck out for them? Well, because the script says so, and no one is more convincingly good than Gary Cooper.

In keeping with the continual theme of risk-taking Western favorites, it wouldn't be half as exciting if this film wasn't so controversial. Hated by a ream of folks who quite literally built the genre (John Wayne, John Ford), the lack of a flashy hero is only compounded by the so clearly defined battle of good vs. evil. The stakes are high, but there is something hollow about Hadleyville and those who inhabit it. Cooper's ability to keep us with him makes up for a lot, but the underlying metaphor of the underdog is hardly subtle. Add onto that the arguably underutilized side characters, particularly Kelly and Bridges despite how good they are, and you're looking at a divisive film.

But in the world of the AFI, what fun would it be to have a controversy-free movie on this countdown? The more to praise or deride, the more delight we all get in talking about them. High Noon is no different, and it's the team-up of Cooper and Zinnemann that lean this review towards the praise column.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © United Artists]

Check back next time for #26 on the list, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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