It’s 1897. There are armed ruffians and thugs coming to take over the town …who can we turn to? Gary Cooper, of course.
“High Noon” is a fantastic film. On the surface, it’s a well-crafted, suspenseful little western.
But there’s more to it than that. Screenwriter Carl Foreman knew that he was going to be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and he knew that he didn’t want to name names. Soon, Foreman would be blacklisted and would flee to England to escape the Red Scare.
“High Noon” was written by a man in the middle of serious crisis and you can feel the intensity and soul-searching. This is a philosophical film about individual conscious, collective responsibility, and the necessity of violence.
At the heart of this thought-provoking masterpiece is a simple man. Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is retiring after a successful career as Marshal of Hadleyville, New Mexico Territory. Kane’s new wife Amy (Grace Kelly) is a pacifist Quaker and they are going to move away to open a shop together.
The morning Kane and his bride are going to leave, they get some very bad news. The town’s most vicious ex-con – Frank Miller – is arriving on the noon train. Three of Miller’s gang are waiting for him at the station. They plan on taking back Hadleyville and killing Will Kane.
A sane man would flee with Grace Kelly and never turn back. But Will is driven by his conscious to stay and fight. Interestingly, he never explains what is motivating him. Will Kane is hardly the smartest man in Hadleyville; he’s merely the bravest, and most pigheaded.
Will needs a posse to back him up. Deputy Marshal Pell (Lloyd Bridges) is terrified and hands in his badge. One by one, the men of Hadleyville turn their back on Will Kane. If you are going to save your community, Carl Foreman argues, you may have to do it alone.
You can’t trust democracy. In 1952, most Americans were so paranoid of Russia and China that they were willing to let Sen. McCarthy and HUAC control the narrative in Washington and the Red Baiters dominate the culture. Similarly, it turns out that the silent majority of the town is perfectly happy to let Frank Miller murder Will and take over.
You can’t trust religion. Will Kane breaks into a church service to plead for help. Ultimately, the parishioners demand that Will get out of Hadleyville and leave them alone.
Even Amy Kane refuses to support her heroic husband. Young Grace Kelly is believable as a Quaker convert. She expresses the sensible Quaker suspicion of authority and Earthly hierarchy. And she expresses the less sensible Quaker idealism that man can move past violence and solve all our problems peacefully.
Again, Will Kane is a simple man and Gary Cooper’s performance is hardly sophisticated (it’s kind of ridiculous that he won the Best Actor Oscar). But Cooper shows us the quiet anger of a man betrayed and the quiet fear of a man who knows that death is arriving on the twelve o’clock train.
“High Noon” is the best movie about the Red Scare and a philosophical drama with timeless lessons about society.
It’s 2021: there are armed ruffians and thugs coming to take over the town …who can we turn to? Brave police officers, of course. Like the people Hadleyville, however, we don’t give them the full support they need.