AFI Top 100: High Noon (1952)

The eighth in a series reviewing the American Film Institute Top 100 in random order.

High Noon poster at doctormacro.com

“You’re a good-looking boy. You’ve big, broad shoulders. But he’s a man. And it takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man.” – Katy Jurado as Helen Ramirez

 

Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has it made at the beginning of High Noon. He’s just married the young and beautiful (and Quaker) Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) and once he hangs up his badge and gun, they’re off to start a new life together as shopkeepers in another town or some such. There’s only one problem. Frank Miller, a crazed killer Will helped put away years ago has just gotten released on parole and he’s on his way to town. He’ll be arriving on the noon train, and everyone knows he’s got revenge on his mind. Against all advice, Will decides to stay and fight.

What follows is a Western that plays out in realtime, though without most of the traditional Western tropes. There are no sweeping vistas, no face-to-face showdowns in the street, and thankfully, no singing sidekick. [Look, I love Rio Bravo as much as the next guy, but Ricky Nelson's presence in that film is just unforgivable.] Most of the film unfolds as Will tries to raise a posse to fight off Miller and his gang. Despite everything he’s done for the town over the years, taking it from a rough place where women can’t walk the streets alone to a place where one can safely raise a family, there aren’t many folks willing to lay down their lives for what they perceive to be certain death. Except for Jimmy, the one-eyed drunk, of course. Through it all, Will remains stoic, going about his duty, refusing to run away, even when doing so would make the most sense.

This is a good film, though I wouldn’t describe it as exciting. It’s more of a meditation on duty and courage. Cooper embodies both of those, sometimes to a foolish degree. It’s one thing for a marshal approaching his twilight years to bravely stay and fight for what he thinks is right. But are we really to believe that when Amy demands that he leave with her, just a few minutes after their wedding, that he’d essentially say, “Sorry, babe, but the job I just quit is more important than you are”? I doubt it. In this way, I think Will’s tale is best viewed as melodrama, where the heightened emotion is an unwavering sense of duty. As a sort of cinematic ValueTale about doing what’s right, it works well, though I don’t know that I’d be that interested in watching it again. Apart from the one gunfight, that plays out more realistically than you’d see in most Westerns, there just isn’t enough going on here for a guy raised on more action-oriented fare.

 

Up next in the queue, 1956′s The Searchers, in which our hero wonders how big a racist you have to be to shoot dead Indians in the eyes.

 

Click here for an Index of my AFI Top 100 movie reviews.

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