High Noon (1952)
Pretty much perfect.
High Noon is about a small-town marshal who gets married to his sweetheart, turns in his badge after five years of turning the place from a crime den into a decent place to raise a family, and gets the wagon ready to head out into the sunset for good. But not 15 minutes after he says “I do,” the marshal gets word that four of the town’s most hardened killers who he helped put away have gotten out of prison are headed back on the 12 o’clock train to get their bloody revenge and turn the town into good ol’ Gomorrah again. Since the new marshal isn’t set to arrive for another day, the old marshal puts his honeymoon on hold, picks up his badge and starts asking everyone in the town that he single-handedly saved to help him fight back.
So I love this movie. When it comes to Westerns, it’s one of the all-time greats and one of a select handful that I’d easily give a 10, but it’s also one that I tend to forget about when the genre comes up in conversation. I guess that’s because this isn’t really what you’d expect from a Western. No cowboys, no Injuns, and if it weren’t for the setting and the big shootout that goes down during the last ten minutes or so, one could probably argue that it isn’t a Western at all. On top of that, apparently John Wayne hated the hell out of this movie, but you know what, Hollywood legend or not, that’s points off for The Duke in my book.
But whatever the requirements, they don’t really matter anyway. Man, if the setting had been switched from New Mexico to Siberia, all the buildings replaced with igloos and all the townspeople turned into with Eskimos, this movie would still be a 10. That’s ’cause it’s not really about any of that stuff for me – even if I do think it’s a Western through and through – this one’s all about marshal Will Kane.
I haven’t come across a whole lot of characters like Will Kane in my time. He’s Atticus Finch, he’s Rorschach, he’s the personification of what it means to do the right thing even if it means you’re the only one doing it, even if it may get you killed on your wedding day. But he’s not a boy scout, he’s not perfect and he falters along the way when the reality of the situation starts to become devastatingly clear to him and everyone else who’d rather save their own skin than risk it for the man who made a living putting his neck on the line for theirs. Although when push comes to shove, he’s always a good man with zero tolerance for evil. He’s not out to be the hero, he’s out to do what his job requires of him even if the only thanks he gets is people taking bets on how fast he’ll get killed, and when his duty’s fulfilled, it’s no surprise that his exit isn’t one of anger, but of speechless disappointment.
Alright, I’m rambling now, but Will Kane is the man. This is the guy you’d want your kids to look up to and whose footsteps you’d hope they’d follow in. It’s a damn shame that I can only think of two other characters who embody that same sense of righteousness, because those are the characters the world needs more of. You root for them not because they’re cool, not because they’re the underdog, and not because they’re likable, you root for them because of what they represent in a world where morality isn’t worth the tin star on your chest.
Then again, this is a work of fiction so it’s easy for me to sit on my couch and say that I’d have Kane’s back even if it was just the two of us. With that being said, I really dig the different shades of gray that color all the reasons Kane ultimately winds up as a one-man army when the clock strikes 12:00. His wife wants no part of it because she doesn’t want to end up a widow on her wedding day, the deputy marshal is a childish coward, and the rest are siding with the killers, hiding under the cover of their families or getting used to the idea of giving their town back to the bad guys. It’s really interesting watching them all go from enthusiastic to tail-between-their-legs and it adds a whole lot of complexity and humanity to an otherwise simple premise. Nevertheless, you can bet your ass I’d have Kane’s back.
And I’m flat-out crazy about the way Fred Zinnemann directed this. The movie clocks in at a deceptively brief 88 minutes, but the thing that makes it works so well is that the actual story takes place over the same amount of time. That’s right, this movie starts at around 10:45 AM and wraps up at around 12:10 PM. Not only is that plain old unusual to find in a movie because it’s hard enough to find a good story that spans the course of years, but it’s a damn hard time frame to write a compelling script around. And a lot of the credit in that regard goes to screenwriter Carl Foreman who jam packs a ton of substance into such a small space and moves it along at a pace that was decades ahead of its time. I know it was made almost 60 years ago, but saying that this movie goes by in a flash is saying it lightly. The only other movie I can think of from the era that moves along at the same utterly compelling speed is Breathless, and even that was made eight years later. It makes the whole thing so freakin’ intense, Zinnemann does an outstanding job of making the audience aware of every wasted minute that goes by, and it’ll have you biting your nails right down the knuckle.
Bonus points for an effing phenomenal little montage around town that takes place at 11:59. Just flawless.
Nor does it hurt that Gary Cooper blows the role right out of the water as Kane. The guy has grit and character to spare and the fact that he never once loses his cool from an emotional standpoint just drives it home that much further. You’ve also got Lloyd Bridges as his deputy marshal, Grace Kelly as his wife, and a mute Lee Van Cleef as one of the killers, but everyone is great here and there’s more to account for than just these four.
Folks, High Noon is a movie that I just excited thinking about let alone watching. It’s Will-effing-Kane, it’s every value that this movie stands for, it’s the timeless, invigorating story that rarely gets told anymore about standing up for right regardless of the overwhelming forces standing up for wrong. I’d like to say that this a very American movie since , but truth be told, this thing is universal on so many levels. This is a movie that makes me want to get up and scream “YES”, this is a movie that’s deserves to be seen because there are times when I genuinely feel like people have lose sight of what it means to stand up for what’s right even if you’re in the minority, this is a movie that’s just flat-out important and flat-out human in ways that most movies never even get close to reaching.
I don’t tend to get this worked up over a movie and I could totally keep going, but the long and short of it is that this is on my short list of required viewings that everyone should see before they die. If you don’t like Westerns, if you’re not a fan of black-and-white movies, I deem those phobias irrelevant, you need to watch this.
Word to your mother.