Monday, 7 February 2011

High Noon Revisited

Until I was at university the whole genre of ‘the Western’ completely passed me by. And, truth be told, it never really interested me academically. But a whole semester of studying all those great American classics offered me my first opportunity to see heroes like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood on a big screen. I rarely attended the lectures or seminars that term – but I sure as hell went to the screenings.

Recently the Western has enjoyed something of a revival. The magnificently sweary Deadwood was a massive hit for HBO, the unheralded 3:10 To Yuma brought high-class gun-slinging back to the silver screen and the recent re-hashing of True Grit looks set to be garlanded with Oscars and various other awards. So with that in mind I decided to take another look at one of the genre’s all time classics: High Noon.

In a sleepy town outgoing marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) marries his sweetheart Amy (Grace Kelly) and hangs up his gun for the final time. With the new sheriff being sworn in the following day the town is set to be ‘lawless’ for the evening as the happy couple ride into the distance on their honeymoon. But word arrives that the villain Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) is due back in Hadleyville on the noon train – and that he’ll be gunning for the man who imprisoned him: Kane.

It’s a simple premise and one which always looks likely to end in gunshots and bloodshed. But it’s utterly absorbing, filled with symbolism, charismatically acted and startlingly innovative. Almost fifty years before Jack Bauer’s 24 brought us real time action, High Noon introduced the idea. Telling the story (almost exactly) within its own running time adds a real sense of urgency and anticipation as the action unfolds – particularly as almost omnipresent clocks are a constant reminder of the passing of time.

Carrying the whole endeavour is the wonderful Gary Cooper: a typically all American hero. Upright, noble and just, he’s the kind of man born to play characters such as Kane. He’s also the kind of man who most of us would want to be. But when it comes to the crunch the vast majority of the characters in High Noon (and probably in the watching audience) are less straightforward and heroic than Kane.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is that the supporting cast consists of conflicted, multi-faceted individuals. In most other Westerns Kane would simply put together a posse of lawman, ride out to meet Miller and justice would prevail. But here cowardice, self-interest and selfishness are prevalent. Heroism curries little favour with the locals and many even deride Kane for bringing trouble on the community rather than simply running away. It can’t be coincidence that it emerged during fears over McCarthyism – there are parallels which can also be seen in contemporary dramas like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit.

As is often the case in the genre, the cast is mainly male - sadly Grace Kelly offers little as wet blanket Amy. But sultry Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado) bucks the trend as the voice of sanity and reason. It’s heartening to see such a strong character and even more so that she’s Mexican – pretty novel and groundbreaking back in the fifties.

The imagery and iconography (Stetsons, sheriff’s badges and six-shooters) will be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the genre, but the style and pacing is entirely new. Building slowly and steadily to the inevitable climax, High Noon often favours stillness and characterisation to action – and benefits greatly from it. It’s a thinking man’s Western which was way ahead of the game when it was made and remains original and thought-provoking today.

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