High Noon: a subversive masterpiece

For a film that has inspired so many rip-offs and re-imaginings in the past 70 years — with a title that has become synonymous with the Western genre itself — High Noon (1952) stands alone as a remarkably offbeat work of Western cinema. Yet it is largely forgotten by today’s moviegoers, who can be forgiven for assuming that once you’ve seen a John Wayne picture or “Bonanza,” you’ve seen it all.

The title does the film no favors today; it recalls the gunslinging showdowns we can see in a thousand other films. But the genius of this film is not in its (single) shootout, nor in any macho bravado from its protagonist, an aging town marshal on the cusp of retirement with his new bride. Instead, the film subverts the old “team up” formula that sees the first two acts dedicated to assembling and getting to know a posse that will ultimately take down the bad guys. In High Noon, Gary Cooper’s marshal Kane starts with a room full of friends and admirers — gathered to celebrate his wedding to an alarmingly young Grace Kelly — and sees them abandon him one by one in his quite literal hour of need.

Kane’s troubles begin when a gang of outlaws rides into town, led by the murderous — but freshly pardoned — Frank Miller. Kane had put Miller away five years prior, and there is little doubt his gang is out for bloodshed.

So far so predictable, right? Well, from the opening credit shots of the outlaws gathering on the outskirts of town, we know this is no ordinary film. These shots, otherwise silent, are accompanied by a quietly haunting theme that establishes the soft-but-persistent percussion beat that will continue to appear throughout the film. As the music fades, we get a lingering, almost silent shot of the three outlaws riding side-by-side, their faces hard and unmoved, as if chiseled from stone. We don’t who they are yet, but the cumulative effect of the soundtrack and the cinematography tells us that something is wrong.

The film opens on the always-menacing Lee Van Cleef in his first film role. He doesn’t have a single line in the film.

Things only get more non-traditional from here. Instead of riding into town with torches lit and guns blazing, the outlaws head straight for the local railroad station, where their leader is due to arrive on the noon train. This gives Kane about an hour to assemble a posse, an hour that passes in real time in the film.

As I’ve already let on, the posse doesn’t materialize. One early betrayal comes from Kane’s deputy (Lloyd Bridges), a younger, dumber, and more macho lawman who quits after Kane refuses to promise him the marshal job after retirement. The deputy is a satirized version of the more traditional Western hero who speaks brashly, kisses women without their consent, and substitutes muscle for brains. He is even branded with what would have been a damning insult for a man at the time of the film’s 1952 release, when a woman tells him his broad shoulders don’t make him a man.

With his deputy gone, Kane turns to the townspeople, who earlier in the day seemed so appreciative of the work he had done to make the town safe. Now, everyone has a reason to leave Kane out in the cold. Some, like the proprietors of the bar and hotel, remember the prosperity they enjoyed when Miller and his band of carousers had frequented their establishments. One friend hides rather than admit he’s afraid to die, while others say it’s just not their problem.

But not everyone’s excuse can be so easily dismissed as selfish or cowardly. Martin Howe (Lon Chaney of The Wolf Man fame), Kane’s predecessor as marshal, says he’s simply too old and arthritic to be of any use. Kane’s skeptical glare tells us this probably isn’t true, but the camera lingers on Howe after Kane departs, and we learn the real reason for his reticence: nihilism.

“It’s all for nothing,” Howe laments to himself. “All for nothing.”

Howe, it seems, has been down this road before. He knows the townspeople can’t be counted on, and he now believes that a career spent protecting people who will never return the favor is a waste. He has nothing left to give to others, having drained his capacity for self-sacrifice in his past life as a marshal. If you look up foreshadowing in the dictionary, Howe’s sad face will be staring back at you.

Kane appeals to Howe’s better nature, but it’s too late. Howe knows what’s in store and wants no part of it.

Then there is Amy, Kane’s bride. A Quaker ever since witnessing the deaths of her brother and father to gun violence, she threatens to leave Kane if he doesn’t leave town with her. Her refusal to stand by him is an enduring reminder of the marshal’s loneliness. Every time they meet, each hoping the other has changed their mind, a band-aid is placed on the wound, only to be ripped off anew when she reaffirms her commitment to pacifism. Yet she is never really gone; the film’s theme song, which features the refrain, “Do not forsake me oh my darling,” repeats time and time again in the background, reminding us that no matter how many times friends turn their backs on Kane, only one relationship really matters in the end.

And finally there is Kane himself, whose motivations are not as clear as they first appear. Western stereotypes tell us he is there to selflessly protect the town, but he tells his wife he cannot flee because Miller will follow them anywhere they go. Later, when asked again why he won’t just run away, he says he doesn’t know.

When he visits a church to try to round up a few volunteers, one parishioner explains that the gang is after Kane, not the town, telling him to leave because “we don’t want to see you die.” This sounds like sound advice until one considers the parishioner isn’t saying, “We don’t want you to die,” but is actually saying, “We don’t want to witness your death.”

This is the key to understanding what is going through Kane’s head. He may not be too proud to ask for help, but it turns out that he is too proud to admit that the help is more for him than for the town at large. Sure, one churchgoer cautions that the town will go to ruin if outlaws like Miller are allowed free reign, but the truth is that no one seems particularly afraid of Miller. They didn’t put him away; Kane did. They won’t have to face him in the street; Kane will.

Kane isn’t trying to rally a defense force for a town of innocents. He’s simply asking for a bit of reciprocity, a touch of empathy in return for years of dedication to the safety of the townspeople.

Kane, all alone as he awaits the arrival of the Miller gang.

Many see a political allegory in this film, and it has been a favorite of several U.S. presidents, from Eisenhower to Clinton. Certainly, while Kane sees himself as part of a community, the town’s citizens see him as an “other,” little more than a man they pay with their taxes to worry about things so they don’t have to. In short, a politician.

“I pay for the marshal and deputies to keep the town safe,” one citizen says. “This isn’t my job.”

Another points out that the fault lies with the politicians “up north” who pardoned Miller, an almost comically unhelpful observation and not a particularly convincing reason to refuse Kane’s pleas for help.

But beyond the theme of a town disconnected from the man they have hired — or elected — to represent them in the unsavory matters of the law, the emotionally resonant core of the film is the loneliness of a man who has given everything to his town, only to be abandoned when he finally needs a little help in return. It’s a refreshing turn for a genre that generally seeks catharsis through gunfights; while the film does end with a shootout, it’s not one the audience is supposed to look forward to. The frequent shots of clocks ticking throughout the film, juxtaposed with the near-constant betrayals and abandonments Kane suffers, evoke a sense of dread, not anticipation. And when we reach the conclusion, the film has one more subversion up its sleeve.

Amy, Kane’s bride, makes the last-minute decision to return to her husband when she hears the first shots ring out. Managing to get the drop on one of the gang members, she shoots the man in the back, killing him. Then, briefly captured by Miller, she refuses to be a simple damsel in distress and struggles free, creating an opening for Kane to fire and end the fight for good.

The strength of Amy’s character doesn’t fully emerge until the final scenes of the film, but when it does, we remember.

There’s a lot to unpack there. The film pairs what is traditionally an unforgivable sin for Western heroes — shooting a man in the back — with what is otherwise a positive choice to stand by Kane. Like the motivations of the townspeople and Kane himself, nothing is black and white. We know Amy made the right call, but we also see the pain the act creates in her, an exhausted sort of pain that shares a kinship with the nihilistic resignation of Howe, the former marshal. This is not a loss of innocence — Amy lost that long ago, with the deaths of her father and brother — but it’s the loss of an alternative, a way of life that doesn’t involve violence.

In breaking the mold of the helpless damsel, the character of Amy was a source of consternation among hallowed titans of the genre like John Wayne and Howard Hawkes. Wayne, who had run the film’s writer out of the country for suspected communist sympathies and saw the film as an allegory for the practice of blacklisting, called the film “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” Hawkes remarked, “I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good Western.”

Indeed, the film’s depiction of masculinity feels quite modern, from its ridicule of the muscular and brash deputy to the moment when, 15 minutes before Miller is due to arrive, Kane considers giving in to fear and fleeing on a horse.

That moment is also when we get the film’s first real fight scene, between Kane and the deputy. The catalyst for the fight? The deputy wants Kane to get on the horse and leave. Like the churchgoers, he doesn’t want Kane to die in the town, right in front of him, where the moral implications of shirking his duty are unavoidable. As far as fights in Western films go, it’s not the most exciting, but the clash between the different versions of manhood the men represent is far more interesting than the drunken brawls and feuds over lovers that characterize so many other films in the genre.

Unorthodox to the very end, the film closes not with a triumphant celebration but with Kane’s scornful repudiation of the townspeople who had left him to die. He tosses his badge to the ground and rides away with Amy, leaving everyone else to reckon with their choices. We get the sense that he will be living for himself and for his family from now on, having acquired the cynicism but not the broken spirit of former marshal Howe.

Not exactly the most communist of messages, is it, Mr. Wayne?