Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado
Rated PG for Some Western Violence and Smoking
"High Noon" was unlike any Western that audiences at the time had ever seen. There are no over-the-top stunts, tumbleweeds, or Mexican standoffs. Instead, the violence is quick, violent and brutal (relatively speaking, of course). "High Noon" is to Westerns for the 50s as what "Saving Private Ryan" is to war movies.
Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) is getting married to Amy Fowler (Kelly). Since she is a Quaker, that means hanging up the gun and the shield for a life as a shopkeeper. That all changes when Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) is released from prison. Miller and his gang used to run the town, but Will cleaned it up and sent him to prison. Now released, Miller is intent on revenge. His friends urge him to flee, which Will would love to do, except for the fact that the new Marshal doesn't arrive until tomorrow and he knows that Miller would pursue him. Will reluctantly takes up the badge and looks for volunteers to defend the town, but his friends refuse.
This film belongs to Gary Cooper, who is present in almost every scene. It's not a great performance, but it gets the job done. We feel his anger and his desperation, but there are times when he feels more like an angst-ridden teenager on something like "Twilight" rather than a reluctant man going into a gunfight he knows he will probably lose. The script is mostly at fault here, since it plays up this angle too much.
His co-stars are just as important, particularly his wife, Amy. Played by the luminous Grace Kelly (one of Hitchcock's favorites), she is devoted to non-violence and begs him to leave, but eventually she will have to make a choice: her philosophy or her man. Lloyd Bridges plays Harvey Pell, Frank's deputy. With Will gone, it would have made him Marshal, if only for a day, and that causes enough resentment to make him abandon Will completely (which causes him great regret). Also present is Helen Ramirez (Jurado), who is and old flame of both Will and Frank. She's getting out of town, but not before calling out the others on their choices.
The most successful aspect of this film is its pacing. Shot essentially in real time (the constantly moving clock inches closer towards Frank's arrival), director Frank Zinneman and his editors Elmo Williams and Harry W. Gerstad have created a film that can only be described as relentless. You can feel the impending violence from early on and the suspense only grows. In fact, there are periodic shots of the train tracks that remind us of what's coming. Numerous movies such as "Nick of Time," "88 Minutes" (partially) and "16 Blocks" have taken this "real time" approach, but none has done it better.
It is impossible to discuss "High Noon" without mentioning the era in which it was released. In 1952, the witch hunts by the House of Un-American Activities was in its full swing, leading many actors, writers and filmmakers blacklisted from Hollywood. It's impossible not to see a parallel between Will's betrayal and the Blacklist, which caused it to be controversial (John Wayne called the film "un-American").
Aside from that, "High Noon" is best enjoyed for what it is: an expertly crafted thriller. I often point out that many old movies have not aged well, but like "Casablanca" and "Psycho," "High Noon" is just as suspenseful as it was when it was released.