Written by: Carl Foreman
Starring: Gary Cooper, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Grace Kelly, Otto Kruger
Standing up and being brave sounds good when others join but doing it when the odds are the lowest and limited allies exist shows the true mark of a hero. Something the men within a small town of New Mexico must reckon with impending danger just a train ride away. Lean and to the point with its storytelling High Noon gives us the pleasure of the entire story playing out in real-time for a truly unique viewing experience.
Shortly after getting married, Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is prepared to retire as a marshall but gets cut short when he hears about the return of a dangerous criminal he put away, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald). With the new marshall not starting until the next day, Will refuses to leave the town defenseless despite the protests from his bride. Miller’s arrival gets closer as Will tries to recruit others in the town to help, with little success.
Everything you need to know about High Noon pretty much gets spelled out in the song opening the feature and then becomes part of the score as the film progresses. The song “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling”, pretty much lays out the entire plot of the story, but in the execution, it lays out what it wants to say about duty, bravery, and fealty. The most unique aspect comes from the runtime specifically lasting as long as the narrative within the story. No fast-forwarding into the future or flashbacks to the past. With there being 85 minutes to the production, it represents the time from the initial wedding to Frank’s arrival and the conclusion. A thrilling experience because Will’s on the clock and we know through how much time has transgressed in the film that he has to be ready for the threat of Frank and his gang.
Prior to the criminal’s arrival, Will must contend with his wife, Amy (Grace Kelly) who’s a Quaker who practices pacifism. She would love nothing more than for Will to leave this all behind and go on their honeymoon, but a sense of duty keeps this man here needing to protect this town one last time. Along with his wife, Will hopes to recruit other men in the town to be sworn in as temporary deputies to hopefully meet Frank and his gang with numbers to intimidate and cease any potential violence to occur. Easy enough, one would think, considering several people of the town do not have love for Frank, but it all comes down to who becomes the first person to step up. Will’s struggle comes from this and the cowardice in stepping up when the community needs you the most. Now this story takes place in a time of outlaws and law enforcement dueled it out in the streets. I say this because I cannot judge, as there would be no way I would stick my neck on the line to take on this man and his gang. It makes the refusal understandable even if we see this story through Will’s perspective and the mounting frustration he builds from a lack of support.
In the pursuit, Will runs into quite the collection of men in the town and it demonstrates a distinct divide in the different individuals inhabiting this place. From the drunkards to the religious folk attending mass, everyone finds their own reason to get out of stepping up. Heck, there are even those sympathetic to Frank Miller and are more likely to join him rather than the marshall. You have religious scriptures used as justification, hubris from the one deputy he does have, and outright fear of death, which would certainly be natural given the circumstances. However, as much as this film serves as an indictment against cowardice it speaks on the stubbornness of its lead character.
With a sense of duty on the line, Will gets encouraged by practically everyone in the town to leave with his wife. Something he refuses because he understands what this means for his legacy and his own conscience. The context of this feature being made during the blacklisting era occurring during the rise of McCarthyism and fear of communist ties in Hollywood certainly helps inform aspects of this film and why it has sustained throughout history. Knowing the history of this role and the lead character makes for quite an interesting read but the allegory remains incredibly clear with one man standing up against something larger than himself even with no one stepping up to assist him. This level of stubbornness helped put an end to McCarthyism and it plays similarly well within this narrative as well.
Time running out and an eventual shoot-out on the horizon, High Noon feels like a western bigger than itself with its own messaging trying to poke out at something hampering Hollywood and all of America during the Red Scare. If one wants the cliff notes of this film, they can just listen to the song mentioned earlier in the review, but the filmmaking involved creates an intriguing and enthralling story playing out right in front of us. People make the decision they see as right but it does not change when heavily armed individuals arrive by train and someone has to step up and get it done.