The noon train coming into town.

Late to the Party: High Noon (1952)

My dad loves old Westerns. I do not. I’ve certainly seen old Westerns I liked, but his ability to sit in front of the TV every night and weekend and watch what could, to me, be the same mediocre movie over and over, to the point where he recognizes not just actors but recycled sets and costumes and horses, has always mystified me.

I knew basically three things about High Noon going in: that it was considered a deconstruction of the classic Western, that it was partly a metaphor for McCarthyism and blacklisting, and that it ends with the marshal throwing his star into the dirt. I don’t know if I have the grounding in the genre to understand exactly what audiences in 1952 expected from a Gary Cooper Western, but the social and political implications are clear enough.

Cooper is the marshal of the small town of Hadleyville. He’s quitting to marry Grace Kelly, but the new marshal won’t be here until tomorrow — and today, on the noon train, an outlaw he once arrested is coming back to kill him. He could handle the outlaw and his gang with a posse to back him up… but nobody in town who could help is willing to lift a finger.

Frank Miller's gang waiting for him at the depot.
Hey, kids, it’s Lee Van Cleef!

I’m not that familiar with Cooper, and at first I was underwhelmed by him in this — he seemed stiff as a board, especially in his scenes with Kelly, and there can’t help but be something unintentionally funny about a hero who spends the movie personally going around town asking the occupants of every building for help. There are only so many ways any actor could register “dawning disappointment” in closeup. But there’s something about that very stiffness, and his height and the way he’s always stooping slightly as if having to adjust himself just to fit into this little town with its little people. He grew on me, and by the time he’s walking down the street to face the gang alone, I could see the fear in his eyes.

There’s a stacked supporting cast — Lloyd Bridges, Lon Chaney — and two of my favorite performances were uncredited: Larry J. Blake as the saloon owner, and this guy, Howland Chamberlain, as the inexplicably malicious hotel receptionist.

Howland Chamberlain as the hotel receptionist.
Somehow the most skin-crawling part of the movie?

Grace Kelly doesn’t get very much to do, but Katy Jurado is the best thing in the movie. A Mexican woman who’s in business for herself and has had at least three sexual partners does not sound like a character who can expect respectful treatment in a movie from this era and genre, but not only does she completely avoid being a stereotype and escape the story unscathed, she and Kelly get to play off each other and end up as allies despite clashing personalities and overlapping love lives. It’s a goddamn miracle.

Katy Jurado epically rolls her eyes.
The look on her face as she responds, “I believe you,” to Lloyd Bridge’s insistence that he’s not afraid of Miller and his gang… A+.

The final shootout is as tense as you could want, and in the context of everything that’s happened, Cooper throwing down his badge has a slightly different edge than I’d expected. The movie acknowledges that the central conflict between Cooper and the town isn’t that straightforward — it’s entirely possible it would be better if he just ran away and took his chances, and some townspeople bring up valid points, like that Cooper has let the number of deputies dwindle to nothing in his complacency since the town became so tame, and that it simply isn’t their job to step in. But none of that changes the fact that he’s willing to risk his life for these people and none of them care enough to reciprocate. The Red Scare allegory is of neighbors letting one of their own hang out to dry rather than stick their necks out, but in one way I think the “bystander effect” nature of the betrayal resonates even more with our recent political crisis: it’s perfectly within their power to get rid of this criminal and his friends if they’d all do the right thing… but nobody believes that anybody else will, so nobody can.

Some things I liked:

  • Cooper and Kelly’s brief conversation after their wedding: “I’m gonna try, Amy. I’ll do my best.” “I will too.”
  • When Cooper punches the saloon owner, he mutters, “You carry a badge and a gun, Marshal. You had no call to do that.” He has some nerve to complain after taking bets that Cooper will die — but he’s still right… and Cooper says so.
  • Cooper, when called out on coming into church looking for a posse, admits he’s not much of a churchgoer and maybe he has no right to be there: “But I came here for help because there are PEOPLE here.”

Other thoughts:

  • Katy Jurado, stop automatically saying “come in” to everyone who knocks! There’s doings afoot!
  • The gag with the coffins is a little out of place.
  • Those are some pretty long shadows for high noon.