Friday, August 26, 2011

A Western for people who don’t like Westerns?

It’s never an easy task, writing a review of a classic and much beloved film.  This is even more daunting in the case of High Noon - writes Sue Murphy, our guest blogger for The Western Season at the IFI. 

Almost 60 years old, High Noon has often been described as the greatest Western of all time, one of Gary Cooper’s greatest performances and the breakout role for Grace Kelly who was just 23 when the film was released in 1952.  Despite providing entertainment for generations there is no doubt that High Noon has shouldered the burden of becoming a symbolic piece.

Mid morning Hadleyville in the New Mexico territory, amidst burning heat and rising dust, three men ride through town.  It has been years since their departure, the circumstances of which have not been forgotten.  They ride towards the local railway station, leaving the town in a flurry.  They pass the Justice of the Peace where a marriage ceremony is taking place between the soon-to-be-ex Marshal, Will Kane (Cooper) and his bride, Amy (Kelly).  Just before they plan to leave the town to set up their new life, Kane hears that Frank Miller’s boys are back in town and Miller plans to be in on the noon train.  Miller was put away by Kane and he promised he would return to kill him for his part in the arrest. Despite the scared townsfolk running for cover Kane refuses to leave town.  As the time creeps closer to noon and with the train en route, Kane stands alone to face down his old enemy.

In the same breath as High Noon is described as the Greatest Western of all time, it has come to be known as the “Western for people who don’t like Westerns”.  The bulk of the 84 minutes of the film which was aimed to be filmed in real time, concerns Kane’s quest to find allies.  High Noon simmers before your eyes, both metaphorically and literally.  The heat is visible on the faces of the characters, sweat pouring down their cheeks, while Cooper’s Kane is almost suffocated in his panic to find anyone to help him.  The director Howard Hawks was known to have openly criticized the representation of the Marshal to which Zinnemann retorted “Sheriffs are people and no two people are alike.”   There is barely any action, but the film does not suffer from it, rather Zinnemann proved his own point with an understanding of each character and individual that is rarely witnessed in the genre.  

There is perhaps no need to fawn over Cooper’s role as Kane as that has been done since the film’s release by audiences and critics alike.  (Cooper received an Academy award for his portrayal of Kane)  It is, however, worth noting that he suffered greatly throughout the production with a bleeding ulcer.  This didn't stop Cooper and Grace Kelly continuing an affair for the entirety of the filming.  Many were considered for the role of Kane, including Gregory Peck who claimed it was one of his greatest regrets not taking the part but that he could never match Cooper.  He carried the show, the hero of the hour who stood for his principles against not only an old adversary but a town who shamefully turn their back.

In hindsight, the production was dogged by controversy.  Carl Foreman who had written the screenplay was brought in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee and although he had no involvement with the Communist party for over ten years, he refused to divulge names of those who were.  Stanley Kramer, his working partner at the production company they shared, forced him to sell his half of the company in case any association arose with the Communist party and their future would be destroyed.  Kramer attempted to have Foreman completely removed from High Noon, but following an intervention by Cooper and Zinnemann, he was allowed to continue on his capacity as producer and writer.  His producer credit was removed before release and Foreman became blacklisted by Hollywood in its aftermath.  In its appeal to community values in the face of an external threat, High Noon is often seen as an outspoken critique of  HUAC and  blacklisting. 

Zinnemann fought through his entire life to ensure that High Noon was only ever seen in black and white, and to witness it on the big screen in all of its glory in the IFI last night was a sight to behold.  

- Sue Murphy -

Sue Murphy graduated from Trinity College in 2008 with a Masters in Film Theory and History.  Beginning on Spin 1038's We Love Movies, Sue began reviewing for various outlets including the Movies and Booze slot for Sean Moncrieff and RTE Pulse.  She has written for websites like, and the Galway Film Centre.  Sue now guest blogs for the IFI.

'High Noon' opened the IFI's The Western Season, which continues between August 24th - 28th. Tickets are available online on or from our Box Office at 01-679 3477.

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