My Week with Westerns – High Noon

Here’s the first part of the series that celebrates Westerns and the recent Django Unchained release.

Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon is full of tropes, dialogues and yes, of course the shootouts that define westerns but the order in which we see these elements makes it all the more special.

The film deals with Hadleyville Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper, his name being ‘Will’ is a nice touch) on the last day of his job. Or actually the first day of marriage. You see Will was such a fine Marshal that he transformed his town from a criminal hotbed into a crime-free place. While he was at it, he also won the heart of Amy Fowler (the lovely Grace Kelly); a dame who so strongly despises violence that she has Will give up his badge on their wedding day.

All’s well until news comes along that a twisted outlaw Frank Miller, who was caught by Will has been pardoned by a higher court and is now coming back to town on the High Noon (12 o’ clock) train to seek his revenge. What’s more, three of Miller’s cronies are already in town, waiting for him. Sensing the danger at hand, Will runs.

See if this were a less honest picture Will would have never left to begin with. But, Will is no caricature from the old West. He is a real character, with fight-or-flight instincts. So he runs off. And, then like a good Western character, who believes in honour and never running away, he comes back too.

It would be logical to go into hiding. So does Amy.  To which he responds:

‘I’m not trying to be a hero.

If you think I like this, you’re crazy.’

And he means it. Cooper simmers uneasily when he says this and that’s the perfect note for this film. He’s angry but never over the edge. He’s grief-stricken but never in despair. It’s little surprise he bagged an Oscar for this role. What’s even more remarkable is the honest dialogue which the film is rife with unlike Westerns where every word uttered only elevates a character’s machismo.

To all this Amy offers her own set of words and hard logic. She threatens to leave him if he decides to go back. And she even stays true to her word for most part. Kudos to the writer for showing a strong female character in a Western, where women usually are just enablers.

So wifeless and short on time, Will heads back to town. He’s fairly certain that his old townsfolk will help him fight the posse. Now this is where things get interesting. The film turns into an efficient exercise in making your blood boil.

The townsfolk admire Will, but are upset that he came back. They’d rather see him run. Mind you, this is the man who risked his skin everyday for these people. And all they have to offer is their deepest condolences.

The old judge who passed the verdict on Frank tells Will before fleeing,

 ‘Look, this is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere.

 Nothing that happens here is really important. Now get out.’

At this point you sort of agree with him. That’s another beauty of High Noon. It packs a lot in its 90 min but still lets you reflect on what would you do if you were in Will’s shoes. Surely your manly machismo will have you believe you would stay. On closer inspection, your logic will intercede and have you pack your bags. And while you make up your mind, let’s get back to the movie, shall we?

Will then moves to the Church to ask the locals for help. A lad from the town committee then reasons that Miller has a bone to pick with Will, not the rest of the town. So the rest of them are safe. Making it unnecessary and unsafe to wage a war for their old Marshal.

Throughout this entire scene, Gary Cooper doesn’t even wink. He portrays Will as a man both resigned to his fate and willing to fight against it. Tall, lean and sinewy Gary Cooper always looked the part of the Western lead. Although here he looks really worn out. His pain is so visceral it almost seems real.  And it was indeed real. Cooper was ill during the entire shoot and the crew even used minimum makeup so as to highlight the real weariness on his face.

There are more masterstrokes here. Zinnemann fills the movie with shots of Will walking in empty deserted streets, highlighting how easily Will was abandoned by the same people he protected.

It also leads to this heartbreaking shot taken from Amy’s point of view, as she drives away from Will.

He frequently uses long shots and crane shots to make Will seem miniscule in front of the conflict at hand. He even riddles the town with clocks showing Will how his time’s running out. Another impressive feat is that the entirety of this film is in real time, from Will’s marriage around 10 to the inevitable shootout around 12. Making this possibly the first film whose narrative unfolds in real time.

Gary Cooper all alone in his big bad town.
It's hard out there for a lone gunslinger.

The shootout that follows is well-rehearsed and well shot, but High Noon like most westerns is about the preamble to this shootout. If I have to tell you what happens to Will, you probably missed the whole bit about this being a western.

On the downside, there’s little chemistry between Amy and Will. The 3 decade gap between the actor’s ages clear shows. There are some unnecessary subplots involving Helen Ramirez, the town beauty and the jealous deputy Marshal.

Additionally, High Noon is also a clever allegory for the blacklisting of Hollywood artists. For those not aware of this, time for a short history lesson. Around the Cold War, the bigoted Senator McCarthy started ‘blacklisting’ pro-communist artists and ensured they were out of work. Among the blacklisted were famous director Elia Kazan and even High Noon’s screenwriter Carl Foreman. The townspeople’s abandoning their Marshal mirrors the rest of Hollywood abandoning their old colleagues. Quite a good lesson for upcoming filmmakers on how to make a point without getting one’s film banned. Here’s to you, Fred Zinemann for making a damn good western while showing McCarthy the finger.

I look forward to the wonderful cinematography usually seen in Westerns. Here are a few of the shots that caught my eye.


High Noon Black and white cinematography classic
The ominous opening shot.


High Noon posse, brilliant shot
You can only cram these many bad guys in a single frame.



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