AFInity: High Noon
By Kim Hollis
October 16, 2009

He's looked everywhere, but he just can't find Balloon Boy.

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#27: High Noon

I'd been putting off watching High Noon. Even though I'd recorded it on the TiVo a month or two ago, I just couldn't get excited about watching an old western. I didn't really know much about the film, other than a vague recollection that Grace Kelly (whom I love) is in it. It holds a pretty high position on the 100 Years... 100 Movies list, and the AFI named it the #2 Western Film. Clearly, High Noon is well-regarded amongst cinephiles. Is this acclamation deserved for a 57-year-old film set in an Old West that is more fantasy than reality in this modern world?

In fact, High Noon was an engaging and fascinating movie from its opening frames. The haunting tune "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin'" plays over the credits, and surprisingly (though I didn't realize it until further into the movie), that song tells the movie's entire story in its lyrics. As the song plays, three pretty rotten-looking guys swing through a town in the Old West, and the audience can quickly surmise that the denizens of Hadleyville know that something wicked is coming their way.

The scene then shifts to a happy, exuberant wedding between Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and Amy Fowler (Kelly). After Kane kisses the bride, the town selectmen congratulate him both on the nuptials and his retirement as marshal of Hadleyville. No sooner has Kane turned in his badge than the group receives warning that a man named Frank Miller has been pardoned for murder and released from prison. He's due to arrive on the noon train, and his gang is waiting for him at the station. Miller aims to kill Kane, the man who delivered him up to the authorities.

The people in attendance at the wedding rush to action and pack the newlyweds onto a wagon so they can flee to another town, where they plan to open a store. They don't get very far before Kane reconsiders, though. Such an act of cowardice doesn't sit well with him, and he also realizes that Miller will chase him down no matter where he goes. Kane turns the wagon around, returns to town, and puts his badge back on.

However, despite the fact that Marshal Kane has been a solid protector for Hadleyville, keeping it safe and cleaning it up significantly, he can't find anyone to make a stand with him. He visits people he believed to be his friends and even stands up in the middle of a church service to appeal to the townspeople's sense of righteousness, but most are too afraid to step up and offer him aid. A 14-year-old boy wants to help, and Kane has support from his wife and a former lover, but there's little that the three of them can do.

The movie's events unfold in real time, which lends an air of suspense and drama to the proceedings. I was very surprised at how tense High Noon was, actually. I'm not precisely sure what I was expecting to see, but there were no clich├ęs to be found. I became very invested in Kane's story and wanted to throttle the townspeople right alongside him as they all denied him assistance.

I'm sure that Cooper's performance in the lead role has much to do with High Noon's success. He plays Kane as a weathered, tired marshal who's been through many ordeals, and his surprise at the town's reaction to his plight is palpable. Also terrific in their supporting roles were Lloyd Bridges as the craven Harvey Pell, Kane's deputy who quits before the going gets too tough, Katy Jurado as Mrs. Ramirez (Kane's one-time lover) and Kelly, who is always so luminescent whenever she is onscreen. I particularly liked the contrast between the two women in Kane's life, with Mrs. Ramirez being a woman of somewhat ill-repute (having had affairs with Miller, Kane and Pell) and Amy being attached to her pacifist Quaker upbringing. When the two women grimly find some common ground and unite for a common goal, it's believable even though it shouldn't be.

The movie contains a number of subtle touches that help it to effectively impart its themes and ideas. I mentioned that "Do Not Forsake Me..." plays at the beginning of the film, and the song returns again and again to great effect. Clocks are displayed as the scenes unfold, so we consistently know exactly how long Kane has before the hour of reckoning (there's also a clock-like sound that will sometimes play, heightening the tension). And then there's the finale, where a fantastic tracking shot pulls out to show Kane all alone in the town, looking at the landscape. Everything is very consciously crafted to add to the notion that he's been abandoned.

In a Playboy interview in 1971, John Wayne called High Noon "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my life," and I can see why a movie where people behave in such a gutless manner might be troublesome to a man who was accustomed to representing the best that his nation had to offer. The thing is, humans don't always rise to the occasion the way you might want them to. Sometimes, there might be legitimate reasons for their failure to be heroic (they have family to care for; they object on religious grounds; they actually kind of like the bad guy), but it's a much more realistic proposition to assume that a man like Kane would find few offers of assistance than to believe the town would rally around him without hesitation. Clearly, there's room for only one hero in Hadleyberg; the only question is whether he'll prevail.

As I mentioned, High Noon is 57-years-old, but it still feels quite relevant and effective in the 21st century. The themes of isolation and cowardice are as impactful and engaging today as I'm sure they were in 1952. Once again, as we've seen with many of the AFI films, we also have a character who seems to have watched time - and the world - pass him by. Kane once had a place in a rugged old town that needed a watchful protector, but now he's a man alone. People are more accepting of the slip in values - with some of the townsfolk even commenting that they like it better when Miller and his cronies are in town. Kane's struggle to reconcile his position in this new society is a poignant piece of the film.

I have no problem understanding how High Noon would place so prominently on the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies list and their top westerns. It's a movie I'm sure I could watch again and find something new to appreciate each time. The movie is quickly paced and tells a story of a man struggling to do the right thing even though he has no support. I'd argue with John Wayne and say that High Noon is singularly American in that regard. It's a great standard bearer for the western genre.

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