Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952) is one of the most famous Western films ever released, despite the fact that it averts or subverts many of the genre's tropes; in some ways it's really a gentle deconstruction of the Western, depicting a hero mired in moral complexities, rather than the simple black-and-white of the traditional Western.
Town marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is planning to retire and live happily with his new wife Amy (Grace Kelly), two sure signs of impending doom. On his last day the whole town learns that Frank Miller (no, not that one), a criminal Will had arrested, will arrive on the noon train with his gang, looking for revenge. Will seeks support from the townsfolk, but none of them will stand with him, not even his deputy. Amy, a pacifist, urges him to leave, but he refuses, choosing to fight Frank alone.
Lloyd Bridges (father of Jeff and Beau) plays Kane's callow deputy. Thomas Mitchell is the cynical mayor of the town. Harry Morgan, who would later become a TV star on Dragnet and M*A*S*H, is a cowardly townsman.
The screenplay was written by Carl Foreman, while he was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee (and subsequently blacklisted in Hollywood) during the early-'50s Red Scare. The film has been interpreted by many as a parable about U.S. society in general, and U.S. intellectuals in particular, abandoning those summoned to appear before the committee.
High Noon was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning for Best Actor (Cooper), Editing (Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad), Original Score (Dimitri Tiomkin), and Original Song (Tiomkin and Ned Washington). It is also notable as the film most requested for viewing by the U.S. Presidents. Bill Clinton named it his favorite (allegedly having it screened in the White House a record 17 times), and Ronald Reagan and Dwight D. Eisenhower were also big fans.
This film provides examples of:
- Adaptational Name Change: The original short story and first draft of the screenplay named the hero Will Doane. It was changed to Kane because co-star Katy Jurado had difficulty pronouncing Doane.
- The Alcoholic: Kane keeps Charlie, Hadleyville's resident alcoholic, in a holding cell for most of the movie.
- Arc Symbol: Clocks are also a recurring motif as it counts down to the final showdown.
- Batman Grabs a Gun: Amy's decision to break her pacifist code to save Will.
- Betty and Veronica: Amy and Helen.
- Bilingual Bonus: Kane and Helen exchange dialogue in Spanish:Helen: Un año sin verte. (One year without seeing you.)Kane: Si, lo sé. (Yes, I know.)
- Bittersweet Ending: Will was able to defeat Miller but departs by throwing down his badge without a word, disillusioned by the townspeople's cowardice.
- Bloodless Carnage: Used inconsistently: a fistfight leaves Kane covered in blood, but people who're shot just fall over.
- Children Are Innocent: The children dismissed from the church aren't the least bit upset about Miller's impending return, which they've just heard about, and are content to cheerfully play around. (It's possible they don't really know who he is, though.)
- Cowboys and Indians: Kane runs into kids who imitate the battle between him and Miller, with him shot to death.
- Damsel out of Distress: Miller captures Amy, and holding her at gunpoint, orders Kane to come out in the open. When Kane does, Amy claws into Miller's face. Miller pushes her away to the ground, giving Kane the chance to gun him down.
- Dare to Be Badass: Subverted in the church when Kane's speech amounts to nothing.
- Deliberately Monochrome: While it doesn’t hurt that color wasnt in vogue for serious/art films at the time, the black-and-white color schemes are suggestive of a good-vs.-evil conflict in a morally-complex story. The photography was intended to look 19th-century, and especially intended to resemble the solemn palettes from photography of the Civil War. When the idea of colorizing black and white films turned to High Noon, Word of God was, in essence, “No thank you.”
- Divided We Fall: Will's deputy refuses to help him unless Will agrees to him being the next marshal.
- Expository Theme Tune: "The Ballad of High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me)", sung by Tex Ritter.
- Extremely Short Timespan: The film is in real-time and takes place between 10:35 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. There are clocks in almost every room, constantly keeping track.
- Gallows Humor: The barber doubling as an undertaker, telling his assistant to build at least four coffins for the inevitable showdown.
- Good Scars, Evil Scars: Frank Miller sports some evil scars.
- Guns Akimbo: Colby, a member of Miller's gang (Lee Van Cleef) rushes into the barn blazing wildly with two guns. Kane picks him off neatly with one gun.
- Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Played with. Amy, initially depicted as naive and innocent, insists that she is familiar with violence and ultimately becomes Kane's only supporter.
- Hair of the Dog: According to the deleted scenes, the first thing Charlie does after he's released, hungover, from jail, is to help himself to the abandoned drinks at the saloon.
- Hero Looking for Group: Subverted. See Posse below.
- Honor Before Reason: Kane's decision to stay.
- Insignia Rip-Off Ritual: Kane takes off his own badge.
- I Have Your Wife: Miller attempts this on Kane in the climax. It doesn't work out too well for him.
- In the Back: Amy shoots one of Miller's man, Pierce, in the back through a window.
- Knight In Sour Armor: Kane tries to raise a posse to fight off four gunmen but when nobody wants to join in, he ends up taking on the gunmen by himself, then abandons the town in disgust.
- Leitmotif: Helen has a seductive Arabian-style theme to offset her exoticness.
- Light Is Not Good: Frank Miller dresses in white in contrasting his goons wearing black.
- Lock and Load Montage: Subverted. Two minutes before he faces Frank Miller alone at noon, Kane sits down in his office and begins preparing by writing his will. Enter Dimitri Tiomkin's score and a montage of Kane at his desk, the omnipresent clock, Amy and Helen in the hotel, Miller's goons at the depot, and pretty much everybody else in the whole town at the saloon or church.
- May–December Romance: Gary Cooper was 28 years older than Grace Kelly and more than 22 years older than Katy Jurado.
- Meek Townsman: Just about everyone in town.
- The Missus and the Ex: Amy and Helen. Although Helen Ramirez clearly still carries a torch for Kane, she helps persuade Amy to be the partner she knows he deserves:Helen: I don't understand you. No matter what you say. If Kane was my man, I'd never leave him like this. I'd get a gun. I'd fight.
Amy: Why don't you?
Helen: [beat] He is not my man. He's yours.
- Neutral Female:
- Subverted. Amy vows not to support or help her husband fight the thugs, but ultimately she is the only person to help him fight. She shoots a bad guy and is even able to break free of Miller's hold so her husband can shoot him.
- Played straight by many of the female townspeople. Some seem disgusted at their husbands' refusal to help Kane, but do nothing themselves.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: When Kane goes to the church for help, many of the congregation are willing. However one man convinces them otherwise, saying a gunfight will lead to bad publicity and lack of investment. But the gunfight happens anyway, whereas a posse might have convinced Frank Miller to back down rather than take on superior numbers.
- Off-into-the-Distance Ending: At the end, Will and Amy ride off in a horse and cart, leaving the town behind.
- Offstage Villainy: We spend most of the film only hearing about Frank Miller.
- Pet the Dog: When he hears Miller's train is coming, one of the first things Kane does is warn Helen (Miller's ex) so she can get to safety, even though they don't get along. Likewise during the climax when a barn is set on fire, Kane drops everything to unhook the horses so they can escape.
- Politically Correct History: It's typical for a lot of Westerns to gloss over or stereotype Hispanic characters, but this film averts it. Helen faces prejudice over her ethnicity, and is only able to help run a store by being a silent partner. The other owner of the store refuses to be seen with her in public.
- Posse: Subverted; Kane tries to get one, but unsuccessfully. Some refuse to join him out of cowardice, others because they sympathize with Miller. The only people who would be willing to help him are an one-eyed old drunk and a 14-year-old boy; Kane sends them away, as they'd be more of a hindrance.
- Prematurely Marked Grave: Marshall Kane is not amused to find the local carpenter building several coffins in anticipation of the impending gunfight.
- Punch-Clock Hero: Kane's job as marshal is unglamorous and he openly admits that he doesn't like having to face Miller and his gang, but he does it anyway because it's his responsibility.
- Put Down Your Gun and Step Away: Miller, having Amy at gun point, orders Kane to deliver himself which he does. Cue Amy's Damsel out of Distress moment.
- The Quiet One: Lee Van Cleef's character doesn't say a word the whole movie.
- Rage Against the Legal System: This is Miller's reason for coming to town-to kill Kane because he was the one to arrest him.
- Real Time: One of the most famous examples in movie history, as the film tells about an eventful 1 hour and 40 minutes in the life of Will Kane.
- Retired Gunfighter: Will Kane, trying to hang up his guns to marry his Quaker bride.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!:
- When Kane first hears that Miller is coming, the people around him urge to escape. He grabs his wife and a wagon and get out of town. He stops when he realises that he's panicking; he doesn't even have his guns with him. On returning to the town he finds the judge calmly packing up his horse to leave town, being aware from prior experience that the townspeople will not help Kane.
- Helen Ramírez sells her part in the store at a very disadvantaged deal and immediately leaves the town. She knows that it doesn’t matter Kane wins or loses against Frank Miller, the town will not help him and either way they will lose the only man who defied the town they live in.
- Showdown at High Noon: The Movie.
- Spared by the Adaptation: In the original short story, The Tin Star, Kane's counterpart Doane is killed in the final shootout. He makes it out alive here.
- The Stoic: Will. At least, until the moment when he buries his head in his arms, close to tears.
- Take This Job and Shove It: Kane's final act of tossing his sheriff's badge to the ground in disgust and ride away with Amy definitely screams this.
- Undertaker: On hearing Kane is going to stay and fight Frank Miller, a store owner eagerly tells his carpenter to start making up several coffins, as no matter who wins there will be a demand. He's embarrassed when Kane comes round as the carpenter is banging away in the back, and discretely tries to get him to stop. Kane is unimpressed, and sarcastically says he'll leave them to get on with their coffin-making.
- Villain with Good Publicity: Miller's thug Pierce is welcomed as a hero by the saloon rats of the town. Some people assert that Miller isn't a villain, he's just involved in a personal dispute with Kane.
- Violence Really Is the Answer: Many people urge Kane to run away rather than fight, including his pacifist wife, but he stands his ground, and his wife forsakes pacifism to save his life.
- The Voiceless: Colby, the harmonica-toting thug played by Lee Van Cleef, has no audible lines.
- Water Wake-up: Kane uses a bucket of water to revive Harvey after their stable fight.
- Wedding Day: The entire movie takes place on Will's wedding day.
- Wet Blanket Wife: For most of the film, Amy is adamant that if Will stays and fights a group who are out to kill him, she will leave him. She's trying to keep him alive, and if he's going to recklessly endanger his life, she wants to be on the train out of town when he gets himself killed rather than see it happen.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Helen calls out Amy for abandoning Will in his darkest hour.What kind of woman are you? How can you leave him like this? Does the sound of the guns frighten you that much?
- Widowed at the Wedding: The Miller gang is due to arrive at any moment to kill Sheriff Kane, on his wedding day.