This being a review in a month-long exploration of the Western genre.
Early period westerns aren’t exactly the most realistic of films, nor are they known to be among the most original either, and with good reason. Pre-1960s Westerns often follow suit with their fore-bearers, seemingly content to present the story of the nameless drifter or the fastidious and courageous lawmen who saves the damsel in distress from villains that fall somewhere between Snidely Whiplash and Genghis Khan. There’s bound to be a shootout or two, and chances are good that one may feature the characters suddenly rushing to fit into place on the cue of a clock striking…ahem…high noon. Thank you, thank you. Many of these films also happen to be masterpieces of fable-like proportions, playing less like nuanced reality than a collective dream of a time long-gone. They work like bed-time stories we tell ourselves to ward away the evil spirits of icky things, which, unfortunately, included progress and modernity to those who often watched the films.
One aspect of the Western that is most indicative of the genre’s early stages is a hyper-realized, cartoonish sense of old-school notions of honor, respect, and a good, clean, wholesome attitude concerning life in the west. People were good or bad, plain and simple. Another key aspect of the Western: the sense that it reflected America’s desire for life during the time period of the Western’s heyday, the early to mid-1900s. Many Westerns sought to champion good or evil, and violence over pacifism, as a commentary on then-modern society – they were popular precisely because they reflected the American dreams of a mid-20th century society struggling to accept the need for progress and busy feeling sorry for itself. They were, without a doubt, beacons of conservative dreams emerging as a counterpoint to the nightmare of a future society.
In this light, High Noon plays like an American nightmare. The film is famous, above all, for its lead character, played by Gary Cooper in an Oscar-winning performance, who asks and asks for help to defend his town from incoming bandits to no avail. The film plays out desperately, filmed in almost real-time, with him racing against the clock to find anyone at all to aid him. And the public is anything but valiant, his quest frowned upon and felt with nervy unease. The film undoubtedly bears connections to its writer, Carl Forman, a man who was blacklisted around this time and increasingly felt the iron grip of American anti-Communism squeezing around his neck. The sheriff, perhaps standing in for Forman, is depicted sympathetically, with the townspeople as an America caught between a sense of moral duty to each other and what Forman presumed as cowardice in the face of a bully, Senator McCarthy, and his invasions into the private lives of Hollywood leftists. If the film is often read as a critique of Westerns then, this theory holds water. The film, in its stark desperation and sense of cynicism, doesn’t bear out like an American dream. It certainly doesn’t uphold the simple belief in fundamentally good or bad people, but instead deals in people caught in the crossfires and having to make choices about their livelihood, all with a man at the center who faces the most difficult choice of all: to run or to fight alone.
There is more to the film though, much of which complicates rather than codifies our too-easy conception of its implicit leftism. The film was released a few years before The Searchers, after the heyday of the classic Western and before the rise of the revisionist Western. We like to easily see High Noon as a masterwork of subversive Western anti-populism, but there’s a greater tension in the film. After all, and as those involved in the film have been wont to argue, the film is more generally about the triumph of the individual over community. This is ironic considering the film’s supposed, and likely real, anti-McCarthyism underpinnings. This reminds that, for all its radicalism, the film does uphold the value of individualism, perhaps the most American and most Western theme – it is, rather simply, about an unabashedly moral man who defends against evil and a populace whose chief feature is its cowardice.
It reminds as such that many anti-McCarthyites were themselves anti-Communist as well– they saw McCarthy as a danger to American values as much as Communism itself. And if they saw society squeezing potential leftists unfairly, they also felt an undeniable appeal for American conceptions of individual rights. If the film is “anti-Western” then, it also upholds the central features of the Western as a genre of American dreams, and American myth. It provides a central hero who, if he comes to doubt his morality and righteous actions, does ultimately make the decision the film, and America, sees as “moral”. Elsewhere, the film ends with something of a critique of Pacifism – as a clear-cut pacifist comes to realize, in this filmic world, violence, in the face of clear cut villains, remains the answer. Whatever this sounds like, radical is not it.
This tension is even more telling in light of Howard Hawks’ later Rio Bravo, a filmic response to High Noon (a film Hawks hated for its anti-Westernism). Rio Bravo plays far more conventionally as a rule, with unimpeachable heroes defeating unimpeachable villains, all defined by a guiding light of moral certainty. But it is also perhaps more subversive to the spirit of the “Old West” in its own way for featuring a quiet, contemplative thinker of a sheriff and a sense of community, with men and women coming to the aid of the sheriff when he needs it – it is not, in the way many other Westerns were, individualist in the sense that it lacks an individual hero standing-in for community. In turn, the famous “traditional” Western is in some ways the more subversive piece of the two, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, while High Noon is in many ways more traditional than we might expect.
High Noon is not resolutely progressive or conservative; it is instead fascinatingly confused. It plays out like a companion piece to the Searchers in spirit, if not in form (in form the long-winded The Searchers is much closer to the epic Rio Bravo than this film’s tight proto-neo-realism). In spirit, however, both reflect genre pieces coming to terms with themselves. They both see a time where the conventional Western had died out and filmmakers were setting out to explore new avenues for the genre, only to find themselves pushing against the walls of that genre and their own constructed mental realities. These films reflect a genre dealing uneasily with itself and with the tensions in its moral structures, with its unreality and its dangerous traditionalism. They both attempt to construct something more “realistic” and distant from the conservative mores of the Western genre, and they both see a time realizing somewhat that the Westerns of old, as well as the conservative dreams they predicate their lives on, are lies. But they do not know what to do with this knowledge, or whether they can truly escape from such a view of the world.
Stylistically, the film is also resolutely tense and difficult to make heads or tails of. On the surface, the style is quite revolutionary, a stunning neo-realist parable that stylistically trades in sweeping vistas for the quiet obsession of clocks and railroads, machinery, something seemingly antithetical to the Old West but very much a part of its history. The film is rigorous in its cuts to both of the aforementioned objects as markers of doom to come, implicitly connecting technological progress with the sheriff’s fate and the dangers of the future. It’s scarily effective and undeniably uneasy, with the thought of our dreamy hero rendered moot by his townsfolk who are supposed to rally behind him. This is subversive in a way, as is the film’s steadfast cynicism and push away from the notion of the dreamlike nature of the West rendered as a beautiful by-gone era. Instead we have the mundane rendered obsessive by the camera’s cuts back to the clock and the pure focus on the sheriff simply trying to survive another 90 minutes.
But in all this, doesn’t a visual connection between technology and doom breed an adamantly pro-Western traditionalism? The film, as with conservative America, seems afraid of the future, and that’s as much a conservative statement as any supposed Leftist one. It’s perhaps more telling that the film emphasizes obsessive, static shots of this technology, not moving the camera, where-as many Westerns staked their claim on the pure fluid movement of nature and wide panning shots to convey beauty. The static nature of the shots is unnerving, but it also conveys perhaps a critique of technology – that we, for our futurism and industry, aren’t really moving anywhere morally (remaining stagnant like the frames).
So what is High Noon about then? It’s about tension, above all. The tension of an endless ticking clock, sure. But it’s more-so about the tension of people trying to uphold moral principles in the face of their own livelihood. The film, befitting its own tense realities, has a conflicted view of these people. Some who don’t come to the sheriff’s aid are treated sympathetically, such as a preacher who refuses to send his public out to die and commit violence. Others however bear the unmistakable mark of cowardice, and it’s hard not to see the hero as just that – a hero. The film bends our dreams but it doesn’t break them. Ultimately, it provides a critique of McCarthyism, but one which does so only to uphold McCarthy as anti-American, which is to say the enemy of traditional American values, and thus to uphold that Americanism. The film could even be used as an allegory for McCarthy himself, finding his personhood shunned by the Hollywood he looks to expose and remaining giddy to paint, as many conservatives have done in American history, himself as the “victim” to a society ganging up on him with their pesky moral progress.
But it isn’t just about 1950s-by-way-of-1800s America. The themes of the film are broader and strike a chord with larger questions America stakes its worth on, namely oppression and the individual, a notoriously vague theme adaptable to most any cause. It’s good then that the film succeeds on another undeniable level, and a much more timeless one. It is a masterwork of pure craftsmanship, and it’s entirely, eternally effective and affecting as a pure and simple work of filmmaking economy driven for a single-minded purpose. It has the lean energy and menace of a panther ready to strike. And it could pounce on us, but it chooses instead to slowly and surely wind itself up, stalking us, before exploding with ferocious anger.
It is ruthless in the pure skill of visual and aural composition rendered for pure suspense, fear, and tension, eschewing wide, verdant Western vistas for oppressive close-ups. As a “thriller” it’s uncommonly strong and anxious, and one of the most pure in its alley-cat menace and tooth-and-nail desperation, as well as one of the best edited (Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad taking duties for director Fred Zinneman and cinematographer Floyd Crosby, all of whom work in perfect unison to construct something with pure consternation conjured in every image). And it undeniably works because it taps into something deeper than any particular political cause: the fear of eternal human loneliness and having no one to turn to when we need them most.
But don’t mistake a clarification of craft for excusing the film’s politics. The ever-present human fear of loneliness manifests in political ways depending on application, and a film by a Leftist writer occupying the form of a conservative-parable of American individualism has some ‘splaining to do. For what purpose does the film use its skill? I’m not sure it actually knows. Perhaps that is its fascination. For all its supposed radicalism within traditional values, it avoids, as does The Searchers, the more important and uneasy questions about the dangers of those very traditional values in the first place, the individualism which this film sees as an unmistakable good in the midst of the profound tragedy of society. It’s afraid to say that, deep down, McCarthyism may fit snugly into America’s history of individualism, and indeed that it may be one of the most American things of all. In upholding classical Western values, it does not question the values America built itself on with any more veracity than a garden-variety liberal – it refuses to tackle the real dangers of American individualism and the Western genre as a whole. High Noon may, more than any other Western, reflect a conflicted America, torn not between mechanical progress and moral traditionalism as the film wants, but between trying to progress morally and eschew individualist discrimination and only succeeding partially. The film may be right that a tension exists, but, unfortunately, I’m not as sure it’s the one the film thinks it is.