Ranking: #69/111

Director: Fred Zinneman (Austria/USA)   

Genre: Western

High Noon is an uncompromising Film Noir Western which has stood the test of time. It still has a vividness and immediacy which seven decades haven’t erased. It’s underpinned by a tight, disciplined narrative structure. To create its palpable sense of urgency and crisis, its action occurs in real time, in the sense that the duration of the movie is roughly equivalent to the time covered in the story.

It’s as if Time is the main character in the movie. From the title of the movie until the close, the action and the characters are all subject to the imperious demands of Time. The clocks on the wall remind us of how long it is before the noon train brings to the town the pardoned outlaw Frank Miller. He’s out for revenge after being sent to prison by the town’s Marshal, Will Kane. Even the church bells seem to be reminders, too.

Kane is played with a subdued intensity and nervousness by Gary Cooper in an iconic performance. He conveys a subconscious anxiety he can only just control. The combination of steely temperament (“I’ve never run from anyone in my life”) and nervousness (“You know there will be trouble”) in Cooper’s characterisation is finely nuanced.

The plot of the movie is tightly structured and the economical direction by Fred Zinneman reinforces the growing suspense as noon approaches. The complex ethical dilemma faced by Kane arises from the fact that he’s been virtually forced into a shoot-out on the day on his wedding, which also happens to be his last day on the job. Where do his true loyalties lie? The crises deepens when no one volunteers to be his deputies. His efforts to raise a posse fail. He is on his own (“I couldn’t get anyone”). His courage, integrity and loyalty are about to be tested to the full.

The Oxford History of World Cinema highlights the political overtones of this 1952 American classic, describing High Noon as follows: “…its story of a sheriff who has to stand alone against the bad guys when those who should support him prove cowards was generally read as a commentary on the McCarthyism that was laying waste Hollywood.” (Nowell-Smith, G, The Oxford History of World Cinema, p. 291).

It’s not the implicit critique of McCarthyism that made the movie great, however. Rather, its universal elements have all been artistically interwoven into a memorable cinematic tapestry. While narrating a gritty story in stark black-and-white, as befitting the Film Noir genre, Zinneman provides a social portrait of how destructive groupthink can be in any situation of moral complexity.

In a town of cowards, it is noteworthy that it is his wife who helps him, in the end, to defeat the last two of the antagonistic gang of outlaws, even though she is a Quaker sworn to non-violent, peaceful behaviour. Again, her ethical dilemma echoes the one faced earlier by her husband.

A great story with great themes, enlivened by evocative photography, a suspenseful atmosphere and first-rate acting: what more does a movie need?