Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #127
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Starring: Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly
The first Western I can remember watching was Shane, which I saw in the eighth grade. As anyone who has attempted to show Shane to a fourteen-year-old might imagine, it immediately soured me on the genre. It wasn't until I was exposed to the Westerns directed by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood that I became a fan of films set in the Old West. Those movies were everything that Shane wasn't – violent, colorful, interesting, and most importantly, real. Leone's directorial efforts were a direct response to what he saw as a false impression of the frontier that traditional American Westerns envisioned. There were good guys, there were bad guys, there was a black and white code of morality, and that was that. With Leone firing the starting gun, this trend was reversed and no less than seven of the ten greatest Westerns of all time (in my opinion) were produced between 1965 and 1976. Tonight I took all of these experiences and biases into my first viewing of High Noon, a black-and-white American Western from 1952. Even though it's considered a classic, I was a little bit worried I wouldn't like it. Well, it was no The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – what is? – but I wasn't disappointed with it in the least. It's very much representative of the era of early Hollywood Westerns, and considering its quality when stacked against so many of those films, it should probably be the genre's ambassador.
Gary Cooper is his typically stoic self as Will Kane, a retiring lawman, leaving town at 11 a.m. on a Sunday with his new bride (played by Grace Kelly as one of the most beautiful movie characters I've ever seen) when the report comes that Frank Miller, an infamous outlaw he once arrested, would be coming in on the noon train, flanked by three members of his gang (including a very young Lee Van Cleef.) Kane decides to take one last job as Marshal, and sets out to recruit volunteer deputies to stop Miller and his gang from taking over the town. Unfortunately, he lives in a town full of cowards who won't volunteer, his deputy resigns because he wants to face Miller alone, and his new wife and former lover are both planning to leave on the noon train, with or without him. When Miller and his gang finally roll into town, Kane faces them by himself. The rest lends itself to spoilers, so I'll stop there. In any case, a simple plot summary belies what makes this movie great. True, it's a genre picture, and it probably falls under the category of that which Sergio Leone was rebelling against, but it's executed so fucking well that it transcends the hundreds of budget Westerns that were being churned out every year in the 1950s.
On top of that great execution, High Noon has one interesting gimmick working for it. Most notably, it very nearly takes place in real time. Every actual minute is represented by a minute on screen in the town of Hadleyville, and that gives the film a claustrophobic, suspenseful feeling of dread. Time elapses and we miss pieces of conversations among other people in the town when the camera is set on another. All of this just contributes to the stunning climax and its iconic closing shot. It's not epic in scope like so many Westerns are expected to be, and it lacks some of the meta awareness of the post-Leone world, but for its era and its style, there's no better Western than High Noon.
The Good: The real-time device, the flawless integration of "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling," the stunning beauty of Grace Kelly, and the launch of Lee Van Cleef's career.
The Bad: Gary Cooper won Oscars for this and Sergeant York. Both are great films, but he acts exactly the same in both. He doesn't play characters so much as he plays himself. Fortunately, Cooper himself is apparently an utter badass, but his performance in this didn't impress me. Also, the title inspired the title of Shanghai Noon, a film which came out one year after Wild Wild West. People really liked their terrible Western comedies in 1999 and 2000.
The Skinny: Something would be very wrong if High Noon wasn't on this list. Its position suits me fine.