High Noon (1952): Breakdown by The Hestinator (Brandon)
A Wild West marshal must assemble a posse when he learns of a gang of outlaws coming into town to kill him on his retirement day at noon.
[THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THEIR BADASSITUDE]
Gary Cooper as Will Kane
Will Kane is the man who wouldn’t run. This character is retiring and getting married on the same day, which just so happens to be the date that his former rival has plotted to assassinate him. Citizen Kane is a man of integrity, though, and he isn’t cowardly slinking away from a fight with that rapscallion. Gary Cooper, one of the all-time great cinema tough guys and action stars, is pitch-perfect as Will Kane, a role that would earn him his second Academy Award for Best Actor (his first was for portraying Alvin C. York in Sergeant York , another masterpiece). In 2003, the American Film Institute named Will Kane as the number five greatest hero in an American-made film as part of their AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains retrospective.
Grace Kelly as Amy Fowler Kane
This was Grace Kelly’s breakout role and she plays Will Kane’s brand, spanking new wife, Amy Fowler Kane. After seeing her father and brother being gunned down, Amy turned into a Quaker pacifist. She’s troubled by her new husband’s decision to stay in town and face the outlaws, and thinks it would be a good idea to run off without Will.
THE BAD GUYS:
Ian MacDonald as Frank Miller
Notorious desperado and Batman comic book author, Frank Miller used to run Hadleyville, the town that High Noon is set in. Eventually, Will Kane caught up with him and he was sent to prison, only to be pardoned by those craven politicians. It’s Miller time, with that mad dog returning to Hadleyville to join up with his old gang to finish off Kane once and for all. Frank Miller’s character sometimes receives some flak from viewers for not being as intimidating as he’s built up to be. Eh, I don’t really have a beef with his role, and I’ve heard it suggested that he was intentionally underwhelming to show that the inhabitants of the town are scared shitless of somebody that they really shouldn’t be terrified by.
Lee Van Cleef, Robert J. Wilke, and Sheb Wooley
as Jack Colby, Jim Pierce, and Ben Miller
The main villain’s three henchmen are Lee Van Cleef’s Jack Colby (what a cheesy name!), Robert J. Wilke’s Jim Pierce, and Sheb Wooley’s Ben Miller. Of course, the standout of these three roles is Van Cleef’s (in his film debut). The dude doesn’t even get any lines and he’s scary as Hell. Many say he should’ve been cast as the primary baddie, Frank Miller. Jim Pierce and Ben Miller (the latter being Frank’s brother) are effective. Robert J. Wilke would later play the railroad bully who receives a thrown knife from James Coburn in The Magnificent Seven (1960), while Sheb Wooley would later sing “The Purple People Eater” (no, I’m not joking). Wooley is also believed to be the original Wilhelm screamer (once again, this is not a joke).
[THE SEX AND VIOLENCE]
DUDESWEAT AND MACHISMO:
There’s not much homoeroticism here, although there is a nice close-up of Gary Cooper’s ass as he approaches the Hadleyville church. I mean, that camera practically started up Coop’s bunghole.
EXPLOITATION AND MISOGYNY:
Grace Kelly really isn’t given much to do here other than pout and act irrational for most of the runtime. Her pacifism’s pretty intense (and will be put to the test), but I don’t think her plan of just running away, possibly unarmed, from Frank Miller’s wild bunch is a realistic one. All of that being said, she does redeem herself at the end, at the cost of everything she ever believed in.
MURDER BY NUMBERS: [ 4 ]
Only four souls end up being fitted for pine pajamas in High Noon, all meeting their maker during the final shootout. First, Ben Miller loses a quick-draw competition to Will Kane. Then, Jack Colby gets blasted while storming a stable/barn that Kane’s holed up in. Next, Jim Pierce gets popped in the back by – could it be? – Amy Fowler Kane. Frank Miller is the last scumbag to go, being clawed in the face by Amy and then shot twice by Kane. The slaughter is all very tame, always mild blood can be seen on Cooper’s face and knuckles after a fist fight and on his upper arm after he gets nicked by a bullet during the finale.
MOST SATISFYING ASS-KICKING AND/OR DEATH:
Before the grand finale, Will Kane gets into a scrap with his deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges, father of Beau and Jeff Bridges). Harvey’s a bitter sleazebag who wishes that Kane would just leave, so he can be the new marshal, presumably under Frank Miller’s dictatorial regime. In a livery stable, the two punch it out with each other. It’s not a long battle, but it’s filmed with intensity and seeing Old Man Cooper best some young punk in a fist fight is awesome.
[THE BEST OF THE REST]
The clock is ticking, with three bandits waiting at the train depot for Frank Miller to arrive, so they can do away with Will Kane and retake the town of Hadleyville. Amy’s leaving town, and Kane must face the criminals alone. Tipped off by the sound of Ben Miller being a dump-ass and breaking a window to steal a lady’s hat from a store, our hero sneaks up behind the gang and opens fire. The ensuing shootout is marvelous. While not wholly realistic, it has a grounded quality to it that works wonders, as the baddies chase Kane through town. A stable even gets lit on fire at one point.
There are a lot of good, heroism-related lines in High Noon (1952), but my favorite bit of dialogue is this exchange between Will Kane and Johnny (Ralph Reed), some kid:
Will Kane (Gary Cooper): “Johnny, why aren’t you in church?”
Johnny (Ralph Reed): “Why aren’t you?”
High Noon is simply one of the western films ever released. This was a new kind of western at the time of its original theatrical run. Shoot-‘em-up antics are downplayed and the main character, a tough lawman, is scared…very scared. The common people of Hadleyville, the kind of salt-of-the-Earth folks who built White America in the West, are cowards, indifferent non-entities, or potential collaborators with evil. The only help that Gary Cooper gets – from the kid Johnny (Ralph Reed) and the patch-eyed drunk Jimmy (William Newell) – he turns away, because a child-soldier and a dude who can barely stand aren’t going to help him much.
All of this caused western movie icon John Wayne to call High Noon “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” The Duke also probably wasn’t happy with this classic being an allegory for Hollywood filmmakers failing to stand up to the blacklist of suspected communists during the Second Red Scare. Wayne and director Howard Hawks would take matters into their own hands and make a very different western, Rio Bravo (1959), as a response to High Noon. However, Rio Bravo ain’t got a thing on the 1952 Cooper masterwork.
The conservative backlash against High Noon may seem a little odd nowadays. After all, isn’t this motion picture one of the ultimate expressions of individualism? Gary Cooper stands up for what is right, even if everybody around him is telling him to run away. He saves Hadleyville from a second reign of terror by the Miller gang by sticking to his guns and following his conscience. The collective hivemind is proven wrong, and individualism, with a little guts behind it, is vindicated. This may have been too complicated for 1950s right-wingers to comprehend, though.
High Noon contains some bitter pills about the nature of heroism. Heroes are heroes because they do what no one else wants to do. Will Kane may be fearing for his life, but he marches into battle (alone) anyway. Meanwhile, just about everybody else in Hadleyville just sits there. They don’t deserve a marshal like Will Kane, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Martin Howe (Lon Chaney Jr., who does not transform into a werewolf here) puts it best when he says “People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because, deep down, they don’t care. They just don’t care.” Harsh, but this reflects your average human’s complacency and fear of standing up to pure evil.
This may not be an action film, but it is action-adjacent. The physical stuff doesn’t really kick in until the third act, but it’s excellent when it does arrive. The two action scenes – the livery stable fist fight and the final shootout – are staged with feeling. They make every punch thrown and bullet fired matter. Every time a gun is fired, you jump just a little bit.
No review of High Noon would be complete without mentioning the melodic, moody music. Dimitri Tiomkin, one of the very best film score composers of Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” is in top form here. His score rightfully won an Oscar. The theme song, “The Ballad of High Noon,” better known as “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’,” was also written by Tiomkin and was sung by Tex Ritter. It’s a catchy ditty that makes numerous appearances throughout the runtime (this song also won an Oscar).
Believe it or not, this feature actually got a sequel, titled High Noon, Part II: The Return of Will Kane (1980), with Lee Majors in the Kane role. There was also a remake, High Noon (2000), with Tom Skerritt as Kane and Michael Madsen as Frank Miller.
This western, which only runs 85 minutes, is generally very taut in terms of pacing, but the subplot involving Mexican American businesswoman Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado) sticks out like a sore thumb. She’s the former lover of both Will Kane and Frank Miller, and the current squeeze of Harvey Pell, and she decides to pack up shop and leave when violence seems inevitable. She’s a strong female character who gives some good speeches on heroism, but, ultimately, it feels like she could’ve easily been written out of the movie to tighten things up. Sure, the events-take-place-almost-in-real-time shtick would’ve been harder to pull off without her inclusion, but it would be a worthy sacrifice. Still, this is a ten-outta-ten classic, even with the unnecessary Katy Jurado stuff. You can’t call yourself a western film fanatic until you’ve seen it, so watch it now!
[THE MORAL OF THE STORY]
Odds are you won’t be a hero when the bad guys arrive in town… but you can always count on Will Kane to do the right thing.
[THE AOBG ACTION CHECKLIST]
 Athlete(s) Turned “Actor”
[X] Clinging To The Outside Of A Moving Vehicle*
 Crotch Attack
 Dialogue Telling Us How Bad-Ass The Main Character(s) Is/Are
 Ending Featuring An Ambulance, A Blanket, Or A Towel
 Giant Explosions
 Heavy Artillery
 Improvised Weapon(s)
[X] Macho Mode(s) Of Transportation
 Main Character Sports Facial Accessory(s)
 Manly Embrace(s)
 Notorious Stunt-Man Sighting
 Passage(s) Of Time Via Montage
[X] Politically Fueled Plot Point(s)
[X] Senseless Destruction Of Property
[X] Shoot-Out(s) and/or Sword Fight(s)
 Slow-Motion Finishing Move(s)/Death(s)
[X] Stupid Authoritative Figures
[X] Substance Usage and/or Abuse
 Torture Sequence(s)
[X] Unnecessary Sequel
 Vehicle Chase(s)
 Vigilante Justice
* Gary Cooper clings to the outside of running horse.
[TOTAL: 8 outta 25]