Oscar Vault Monday – High Noon, 1952 (dir. Fred Zinnemann)

So I hadn’t seen this movie until yesterday, despite having heard nothing but great things about it for years. I cannot believe I waited so long to watch it. I guess it was because the film is classified as a “Western,” but it’s about as much a typical Western as The Thin Red Line is a typical War film. Another great aspect of the film is that it’s filmed in real time; it’s 84 minutes to be exact. The first hour goes by at a nice languid, yet tense pace; the last twenty minutes cram in as much action and intensity as if it were a whole other hour. Fabulous. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning four: Best Original Song (won), Best Original Score (won), Best Film Editing (won), Best Screenplay, Best Actor (won), Best Director and Best Picture. The other nominees for Best Picture that year were: Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge, The Quiet Man and winner The Greatest Show On Earth. Side note: The Greatest Show On Earth is probably one of the most mediocre films to even be nominated for Best Picture, let alone win.

A few things: 1. Even if you don’t like Westerns, you should check this film out. 2. Don’t continue reading if you don’t want a few spoilers about the end of the film.

So, I was blown away from the very first show of the film. It’s definitely not what I expected from a Western. It’s this exquisitely framed shot of Lee Van Cleef playing the harmonica, that slowly zooms into his face as he waits for his companions. I don’t even think anyone speaks for a good five or ten minutes.

Lee Van Cleef doesn’t have a very large role in this film, but I wanted to mention him partly because I love his cheekbones and partly because he’s Angel Eyes from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Which brings us to the lead of the film, Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Kane. The American Film Institute ranked the character as the #5 Hero of all time. So true. What’s so great about the character is that he stands with his own sense of morality, even if it could mean his death. He had every chance to leave before pardoned killer Frank Miller arrives on the noon train. In fact, he did leave, but his morality gets the best of him and he returns to face the villain. Even when the whole town, the town that he made safe, refuses to help him, he prepares to face his fate. Cooper won his second Academy Award for his performance in this film. Cooper is always kind of subtle; I once read someone describe him as the romantic answer to Buster Keaton (though, I’d say Keaton is pretty romantic himself). But this has got to be his most subtle performance. It’s one of those perfect players for the perfect part.

I usually don’t like Grace Kelly, but she was wonderful in this film. I think Amy Folwer Kane, the marshall’s new bride, would have been a hard character to play. She’s not very likable throughout most of the film, but she goes through this wonderfully organic transformation as the film progresses. I thought the last five minutes or so of the film, when she aids her husband when no one else will, were some of the most romantic moments I’d ever seen on film.

Katy Jurado is sublime as Katy Ramirez, who was once the lover of Frank Miller, then of Will Kane and currently of his deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges). She is her own woman, she owns a store and she does as she pleases. She’s one of the most independent women I’ve ever seen in a film from this era. Jurado has several confrontational scenes, with Bridges, Cooper and eventually Kelly and each time she manages to steal the scene. She’s got some of the most expressive eyes to ever grace the silver screen.

Lloyd Bridges is great as well, as a deputy who wanted to be the new marshall and blames Cooper’s Kane for his inability to rise the ranks. By the end of the film he knows that he’s in the wrong and he should have stood with Kane, but he’s not a big enough a man to do anything about it. If you ask Jurado’s Ramirez, he’s not a man at all, just a boy who still needs to grow up.

Thomas Mitchell plays the mayor of the town, who at the beginning of the film is one of Kane’s best friends, but by the end proves to be just as cowardly and ungrateful as everyone else. I just realized in watching this film yesterday that Mitchell is both Pa O’Hara in Gone With The Wind and Uncle Billy in It’s A Wonderful Life. I mean, I knew he was Uncle Billy, but somehow I never realized he was in GWTW as well. The more you know.

The last performance I wanted to talk about was Lon Chaney, Jr. – sporting some really great age makeup – as retired marshall Martin Howe. He’s the man who got Kane is job, but he’s become bitter and disillusioned with being a peace officer and tells Kane it’s not worth it in the end. The more I see of Chaney, the more I love him.

I wanted to talk about a few aspects of the production that I really loved. For one, there’s this reoccurring shot of the train tracks (on the left) that appears several times throughout the first hour of the film. When the noon train comes in (the last twenty minutes of the film) the shot switches to a slightly angled look at the tracks, with the train billowing black smoke. The whistle blows and the film cuts between shots of the faces of almost every character, from Kane to his wife to Ramirez to all the citizens he tried to get to help him. It’s so intense.

There’s also several shots of clocks throughout the film. Each time it’s a different clock, establishing how much time Kane has left before Miller arrives on the noon train. It adds so perfectly to the tense mood of the film.

I just really love this shot. The shadows and the angles. I don’t know what to say really, other than I love it.

There’s also several really great group shots of Miller’s gang. You can see this shot replicated in so many later Westerns. I haven’t seen enough older Westerns to know how original this is, but it’s framed so perfectly in this film, I can’t imagine any film doing it better.

Lastly, the end of this film pretty much sums up everything Chaney’s Howe said to Kane, in the end all the Marshall’s badge really is, is a tin star.

If you’re interested in purchasing this film, you can do so here.

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About cinemafanatic

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on March 7, 2011, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I remember being inspired to see this movie because of Die Hard. “That was Gary Cooper, asshole.” 🙂

  2. I think this may be one of those perfect movies. Did you notice in the shot you like so much that the shadows show that the sun is directly overhead? And it was filmed outdoors so it had to be done once, and right on time.

    The screenplay for this was in a textbook from grad school that I had and it is wonderfully spare. LOL

    Glad you like the movie.

  3. Great post on a fantastic classic movie.

    Did you know this? (copied from IMDB, but I’ve heard it from other sources):
    “Although John Wayne often complained that the film was “un-American”, when he collected Gary Cooper’s Best Actor Oscar on his behalf at the The 25th Annual Academy Awards (1953) he complained that he wasn’t offered the part himself, so he could have made it more like one of his own westerns. He later teamed up with director Howard Hawks to make Rio Bravo (1959) as a counter-response. “

    • wowza. I hadn’t read that. I did, however, read somewhere that contemporary critics in the Soviet Union criticized the film for “glorifying the individual,” which I kind of agree with. Though I don’t think it’s bad thing, I think if anything it’s part of the “American spirit.” Thanks for sharing.

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