One of the most hotly debated American films of the 1950s, High Noon is widely regarded as scenarist Carl Foreman’s subversive assault on McCarthyism. (His script is based on John W. Cunningham’s story “The Tin Star.”) But there are problems with this interpretation of the film as a “morality play” with contemporary relevance. Indeed, the problem stems from a situation not at all uncommon with “texts,” including films. It has to do with the imposition of an interpretation onto a text that eliminates the difference between the text and the interpretation. The two become inseparable, and as a result the viewer or (in the case of a literary text) reader mistakes the interpretation for the thing that has thus been interpreted. The Bible is such a text, for many, probably most, of its readers “see” it as meaning at very many points what they have been told it means or have been taught to “find” there. When this occurs, the text is no longer something that many can “see” for themselves; it arrives already interpreted for them, and nothing in their experience may be encouraging them to step back, as it were, to see the text in any other light. This generates dogma: the “fixed” text rather than the fluid one that achieves the stability of “meaning” in the imaginative space where the text itself and the interpreter’s own experience—her or his history—intersect and interact.
Another issue compounds the problem: the fact that the author’s or artist’s intentions may be no sure help or guide insofar as the finished work may fall short of realizing those intentions. In the case of a film, there is the additional possibility that the director’s intentions may not perfectly coincide with the scenarist’s. This certainly happens when someone other than the scenarist directs, but it may even happen when the two are one and the same person, because different aspects of the creative process may impose different imperatives on a creative person. Art, like life, is never simple; process can muddy waters even when simplicity is an explicit aim.
High Noon is an example of a work that arrives with a conspicuous burden of interpretation imposed on it. The origin of a part of it is the fact that soon after the release of the film Foreman himself was targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, resulting in his flight to England so that his career might survive his being “blacklisted.” Born in Chicago, Foreman was in his late forties when all this occurred. Five years hence the Oscar for writing David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai should have gone to him since he in fact (along with Michael Wilson, also blacklisted) co-authored the screenplay. Instead, it went to the author of the novel on which the film was based—a Frenchman who couldn’t read, let alone write in, English. At the time, the by-laws of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences prohibited awarding an Oscar to anyone whose name appeared on the blacklist. (Two other prominent participants in High Noon were summarily blacklisted: cinematographer Floyd Crosby and actor Lloyd Bridges.)
Into the mix of the hysteria surrounding the artistic outcome of High Noon we must throw at least two other factors. One is the quarrel between Foreman and his producer, the reactionary “liberal” Stanley Kramer. They had collaborated before (The Men, 1950, introduced movie audiences to Marlon Brando), and Kramer, perhaps guilt-ridden, summarily hired blacklisted author Nedrick Young under the pseudonym Nathan E. Douglas (The Defiant Ones, 1958)—a common protective practice. A decade younger than Foreman, Kramer played fast and loose, meaning, he tried to have things every which way, pro-McCarthy, anti-McCarthy, ultra-conservative, moderately progressive. Insofar as he apparently had no core beliefs whatsoever, Kramer has become synonymous with a certain kind of opportunism in Hollywood. But his ghost rests uneasy because he may have always felt, despite his political track record, that he was “liberal”—whatever that means. Because he adamantly refused to stand up and be counted regarding the political grenade that the U.S. tossed at Foreman, Kramer has (rightly or wrongly) been vilified, and it’s doubful that his reputation in some quarters will ever recover. He always felt that the blacklist was something he could work around. When the mechanism of the blacklist ended, the principal fact about Kramer that survived is that he was a monster; but many reports had also surfaced that Foreman was no angel either. In 1961, by which time the blacklist had ended (in substantial measure due to the hiring practices of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Otto Preminger, but mostly, perhaps, because America was “starting over,” having set its rejuvenated sights on JFK’s New Frontier), in a truly historical Oscar competition The Guns of Navarone, written and produced by Foreman, and Judgment at Nuremberg, produced and directed by Kramer, were pitted against one another. (Both lost to an equally lousy film, where the producer had fired the director and finished directing the film himself: West Side Story.)
There is a trump, however, to High Noon. Whatever Foreman’s intentions, Fred Zinnemann directed it superbly. Zinnemann may have been a hack (A Man for All Seasons, 1966, certainly suggests that he was this), but the Viennese-born filmmaker applied to this one Hollywood project of his a degree of expert craftsmanship that would remain unique in his career. An awesome, rigorous beauty, orchestrated by Zinnemann, helps to conceal the film’s muddled quality. In reality a work at significant cross-purposes, High Noon cannot support the interpretations that have been imposed on it. It cannot support the analogy with McCarthyism. Neither can the film support the theme, most often identified with it, that Garbicz and Klinowski have succinctly summarized: “one must resist Evil with all available means.”
The setting is a dusty western town in the 1870s. Fought over the West (in addition to federalism vs. states’ rights, an important issue had been whether to extend slavery to the territories that had recently opened and were opening up), the American Civil War, recently ended, had left this region untouched; neither Puritanism nor Jeffersonianism informed the advent of civilization in the West. A makeshift event grounded in the hardship of the nation’s western expansion, “order” here was essentially the reward of roots for those marked by memory of a condition of uprootedness and rootlessness. Distance from the federal government in Washington, D.C., had helped nurture a wilder disposition that found order, if at all, often imposed by a mightier gun wielded by those, well nurtured by a condition of rootlessness, who sought to take over towns to their own advantage. These local terrorists, as it were, often took aim at the symbol of the federal government that maintained an uneasy toehold in the community: the U.S. marshal. Male inhabitants of the town were divided and self-divided; fearful of disorder (especially for the sake of their wives and the children they were raising) but also resentful of a federal government they identified with the East, not with themselves, they harbored an emotional connection with the worst elements in their midst that sought in fact to destroy the increasingly settled nature of their lives. The law that the marshal thus represented could be tolerated, even admired, without being wholeheartedly embraced.
High Noon centers on U.S. Marshal Will Kane on the day of his wedding to Amy, a girl who has rejected violence, becoming a Quaker, as a result of the shooting deaths of both her father and brother. Kane is about to leave town with his bride, which would leave the town unattended for a day until the new federal marshal arrives, when word arrives that Frank Miller, whom Kane helped put away, is due on the noon train, having been released from prison. (The film is big on all that blather about how judges keep releasing criminals from prison, endangering ordinary citizens.) Miller is coming back intent on revenge. Smelling the gunfire on the wall, the judge who originally sentenced him wraps up his American flag and prepares to take flight. Miller, though, has a double motive for revenge against Kane, the man who arrested him and therefore brought him to trial. Three years ago, during Miller’s incarceration, Kane had an affair with Miller’s mistress, Helen Ramirez, who runs and co-owns the town’s hotel and brothel. She, too, is leaving town, not so much out of fear of Miller but out of a sense that the town’s fortunes will falter once Miller returns and takes over the town again. Meanwhile, Ramirez’s current lover is Harvey Pell, Kane’s deputy, a boy eager to prove himself Kane’s equal in different quarters. Pell feels passed over now that Kane will be replaced as marshal by an outsider. He has been deprived, he feels, of his entitlement, the succession he has tried to foster all along.
The clock repeatedly ticks in closeup as the noon train carrying Miller approaches. Already his cohorts in crime are in town awaiting Miller’s arrival. Their plan is to kill Kane. All that Kane has to do to prevent the confrontation in this particular place on this particular day is follow through with his original plan of leaving town with Amy. At church, Jonas Henderson, Kane’s friend, says as much; if Kane just leaves, he doubts that the town will have much to fear from Miller. But Kane feels duty-bound to stay and face his nemesis. He tells Amy, besides, that there is no avoiding the confrontation, only a possibility of postponing it, for Miller will follow them if they leave. It was Amy’s dream that her spouse would leave his violent life behind and open a store with her elsewhere; now she plans to leave him, on this their wedding day, because Kane seems hell-bent on one last shoot-out. Amy readies herself to leave on the same train on which Miller is arriving.
Most of the film’s action revolves around Kane’s attempt to muster deputies for the noon showdown with Miller and his comrades. This attempt fails, mostly as the result of fear of Miller, but also as the result of residual admiration for the man whom Kane helped put away in prison. Only a teenaged boy makes a sincere offer to join Kane in his killing quest, but Kane refuses his help. (Regrettably, once he does so, a disastrous reaction shot shows Kane smiling after the boy paternally.) Some others offer help, but insincerely, and they don’t follow through; Harvey, for instance, will assist Kane only if Kane makes him his successor as U.S. marshal. In the end Kane faces Miller and Miller’s gang of three alone—except for an unexpected ally: Amy, who stays behind to betray her principles by shooting one of Miller’s men in the back. The psychological assist to her doing this, whipped up on a sensational dime, is the symbolic transcendence of those limitations of hers that had left her powerless to protect her loved ones—both father and brother.
High Noon inspired at least two other films in rebuke. One of these received the top prize at Cannes: William Wyler’s Quaker chronicle Friendly Persuasion (1956), which, lest people miss the connection, stars the same actor as played Kane. In Wyler’s fine if sentimental film, Quakers either adhere to their principles or grapple hard with the conflict between those principles and other imperatives, such as, for a teenaged boy, the possibility of soldiering in the Civil War. The other film is Howard Hawks’s staggering Western Rio Bravo (1959), in which a sheriff and his comrades face down the gang of hoodlums that are cornering them. Unlike Kane, they do not plead with townsfolk to join them and help them out; they take full responsibility for their appointed jobs in protecting the town. It really does seem a wasted effort on Kane’s part in High Noon to try to recruit one reluctant soul after another since, when the dust has settled, Kane is forced to rely only on himself.
What has any of this to do with McCarthyism? According to the “McCarthy” interpretation of the film, McCarthyism thrived due to two things: evil people; good people who did nothing to stop the evil. This is as excrutiatingly simplistic as McCarthyism itself. It certainly fails to take into account the fear of Soviet Communism ironically unleashed by the the way that the U.S. had ended World War II in the Asian theater. The United States was terrified that its Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, would unleash on it even worse bombs than the United States had already unleashed on Japan. Moreover, it worried that the infiltration of Communists and Communist ideas would weaken America from within and help move it in the direction of this holocaustic event. To be sure, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy was an opportunist who manipulated such national anxieties for the sake of his own political fame and fortunes; but, even so, how was he like Frank Miller in High Noon? McCarthy rode a crest of national hysteria, all the while convincing himself (as “evil” people are apt to do) that he wasn’t an opportunist but someone on a serious and necessary mission. Miller is a figure of vengeance; he seeks revenge for his incarceration, and sexual revenge as well—the latter in particular a point that muddies the waters of Kane’s position. Kane is sincere in wishing to maintain the order and integrity of the town, but catch it at a particular angle and his quarrel with Miller seems spectacularly personal, not social. Also, while the townsfolk may appear to be “giving in to” Miller, the fact is that a U.S. marshal is scheduled to arrive the very next day. In a representative democracy, of course it’s every citizen’s duty to remain vigilant against a social phenomenon like McCarthyism, where amidst terrible fears individual liberties are confiscated and trampled; but at the same time (call me Hawksian, whatever), it really is the specific job of the law to deal with somebody like Miller. Ordinary citizens have a right to such qualms as distinguishes between becoming sworn deputies to augment Kane and his regular deputies, as was the case years ago when Miller was first arrested, and joining Kane now, when there is only Kane for them to join. Fearful and cowardly aren’t quite the same thing; people have a right to factor in the level of risk involved to their own lives when in fact others are paid and may even have been trained to protect the community. High Noon moralistically paints with a very wide brush, and it seems to me the wider the brushstroke the less likely the analogy with McCarthyism can hold. Registering your dissatisfaction with your democratic nation’s social or political course through various means, including voting, petitioning, organized protests, and so forth, though not always without serious risk, is not at all the same thing as facing down a killer. In one case doing so is indisputably the citizen’s right and duty; in the other, it really is somebody else’s job. People should feel free not to confront a gun-toting killer without Foreman and company condemning them as cowards.
Nor do I really believe that Miller, a common enough example of a hooligan, constitutes a figure of “evil.” He and his cohorts are portrayed blankly in the film—they are as featureless, if you will, as the film’s filtered, cloudless skies. Miller, after all, doesn’t interfere with Helen’s attempt to leave town when she boards the train he has just gotten off of. He is focused on Kane, not her; his isn’t an indiscriminate campaign of violence, such as New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s brutal quelling of a prison riot that earned him the nickname “the Butcher of Attica”—a truly evil act. Frankly, I feel little loyalty for either Kane or Miller. Each is reprehensible in his own way, but the town probably won’t be any the worse for wear for having endured them both on Kane’s wedding day.
If the film is to be redeemed from an interpretation that won’t hold, the analogy with McCarthyism, we must begin to see it shorn of this interpretation. When we do this, however, we may discover how thin the film is; at least that’s how it seems to me. Along with George Stevens’s affected, schematic Shane (1953), High Noon is one of the weaker Westerns of the 1950s; it falls far short of the level of achievement, say, of John Ford’s Wagon Master (1950) or The Searchers (1956), or Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) or Hawks’s Rio Bravo.
That said, Zinnemann has applied to it the widest possible variety of shots, including a withdrawing dolly shot that memorably shows Kane standing alone in the street from the vantage of God and heaven; it’s a great shot! Floyd Crosby’s black-and-white cinematography is eloquent and poetic, now dusky, now riveting with its ravishing contrasts. Few westerns as a result are more beautiful to the eye than this one. The Oscar-winning editing by Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad is brilliant, at times electrifying. The Oscar-winning music by Dimitri Tiomkin, including the Oscar-winning “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’” sung unforgettably by Tex Ritter, astutely counters Kane’s isolation with his need for love and family. And, above all, Gary Cooper is tremendous in the role of Will Kane. One feels fortunate that Kramer’s first choice, Gregory Peck, didn’t enter into the picture; Cooper’s worn appearance, equidistant between Stoicism and anxiety, is perfect, and the degree of craft Cooper effortlessly applies to his famous personality helps give the film a humane, appealing center despite Foreman’s and Kramer’s icily redundant self-righteousness. Cooper deserved the Oscar he won for this role—the second of his three gold-plated trophies. Superb, too, is Katy Jurado as Helen Ramirez (Golden Globe, best supporting actress). Lloyd Bridges is good as Harvey Pell. The one weak performance—but, of course, the role is an impossible one—is Grace Kelly’s as Amy. Kelly would require John Ford, who drew from her a good performance the next year in Mogambo.
Bill Clinton has declared High Noon his favorite film, and he has perplexingly added that “Kane does everything right.” Clinton would think so. I doubt that any of the rest of us agrees.