Not a frame is wasted in this taut, superbly directed, masterfully acted film, the first so-called "adult Western," in which the traditional and predictable elements of action, song and minimal romance give way to a swift, intense unraveling of a situation and complex character development.
HIGH NOON is also the story of a western town, Hadleyville, and its sometimes stouthearted citizenry, the most prominent of whom is the stoic, heroic Will Kane (Gary Cooper), a lawman surrounded by friends and admirers at the start, deserted and doomed at the finish.
Just married, Will and his beautiful blonde Quaker bride, Amy (Grace Kelly), are about to leave town forever, intending to put peacemaking behind them to settle down to ranch life. However, news comes that a fierce killer, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), is about to arrive and take vengeance against
Will and the town for sending him to prison years earlier. Miller's brother (Sheb Wooley) and two gunslingers (Bob Wilke and Lee Van Cleef) are already at the depot, waiting for the train carrying Miller, which is due to arrive at high noon. In a moment of panic, urged on by his friends, Will
races his buckboard and bride out of town and down the road into the open prairie, but he suddenly pulls up. When Amy asks him why he is stopping, Will tells her that he has to go back, that it's his duty to return.
A landmark Western in every sense, HIGH NOON was shot by cinematographer Floyd Crosby in high contrast, an approach director Fred Zinnemann used to bring documentarylike authenticity to the film. Zinnemann's outstanding economical direction is in full force here, every minute pertinent and packed
with suspense. Significantly, the film takes almost as much time to unreel as Will Kane takes in the story to prepare for the gun battle.
For Cooper, this was a tour de force, a film wherein his mere presence overwhelms the viewer and carries a story that is believable only through his actions. He utters no long speeches, yet his expressions and movements are those of a man resolute in his lonely duty and resigned to his own doom.
Every confrontation with the unresponsive townspeople causes him to suffer; in truth, Cooper was in real agony during the production, enduring a bleeding ulcer and an injured hip. After finishing the film, he said, "I'm all acted out." Cooper's exhaustion is evident in his onscreen appearance, but
reportedly an appropriately haggard-looking Will Kane was just what Zinnemann was after, despite Hollywood's proclivity for dashing leading men.
Though Kramer later claimed that the project was entirely his own creation, writer Carl Foreman contended neither Kramer nor his associates had any interest in the film from the outset. Kramer did, however, view the first showing with concern. Believing that it had a lot of dead spots, he ordered
a series of closeups showing the anxiety lining Cooper's face, and included many quick cuts to clocks ticking relentlessly toward the doom of high noon.
To further heighten the tension Kramer asked Dmitri Tiomkin to write a ballad that could be interwoven with the action. Though the composer protested that he only wrote scores, he and Ned Washington produced the wonderful "High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin')", sung by Tex Ritter. The song
has since become a classic, along with Tiomkin's memorable score.
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