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Film / High Noon

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"People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep they don't care. They just don't care."
Martin Howe

Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952) is one of the most famous Western films ever released, in spite of – or possibly because of – the fact that it averts and even subverts many of the genre's conventions; in some ways it's really a gentle deconstruction of the Western, with its depiction of a hero mired in moral complexities rather than the simple, black-and-white clash between "good guy" and "bad guy" typical of the genre.

The movie's plot is rather simple: Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is the town marshal of Hadleyville, New Mexico, who's planning to retire and live happily with his new bride Amy (Grace Kelly) – two sure signs of impending doom. On Will's last day, the whole town learns that Frank Miller (no, not that one), a criminal Will had sent to prison some years earlier, has been released and will be arriving 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 Miller alone.

Lloyd Bridges (father of Jeff and Beau) plays Kane's callow deputy. Thomas Mitchell plays the cynical mayor of Hadleyville. Lon Chaney Jr. is the town's arthritic former marshal. Harry Morgan, who would later become a TV star on Dragnet and M*A*S*H, is a cowardly townsman. A young Lee Van Cleef (doing what he did best, i.e., playing villains in Westerns) appears as one of Miller's henchmen. And Ian MacDonald plays Frank Miller himself.

The screenplay (adapted from "The Tin Star", a short story by John Cunningham first published in Collier's magazine in 1947) 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, 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.

Additionally, High Noon "inspired" Silver Lode, Rio Bravo, and Outland; see Recycled In Space for more.

This film provides examples of:

  • Actual Pacifist: Kane has just retired and married a pacifist Quaker — which is sort of a problem 'cause a gang of indignant baddies has just come back to town and they want revenge. This makes for extra drama when Amy, after protesting his heroics and leaving him because of his choice to stay and fight, comes back just in time and kills a man to save her man.
  • Adaptation Title Change: High Noon was based on the short story "The Tin Star".
  • 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 and is reunited with Amy, 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.
  • Chekhov's Gun: A literal example. During the first act of the film, Will's deputy quits because Will doesn't agree to make him the next marshal, and makes a point of hanging his revolver and belt in the wall. During the climactic fight this is the revolver Amy uses to shoot Pierce in the back and kill him.
  • 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.
  • Crapsaccharine World: On the surface, Hadleyville is a small, peaceful and prosperous town in the New Mexico Territory that was cleaned up when Kane captured Frank Miller and had him sent to prison. However, when push comes to shove, virtually all the townspeople turn out to be too cowardly, apathetic or opportunistic to defend the town, if they're not outright welcoming Miller's return. This is something that Kane's old lover Helen has known all along on account of being a Mexican woman in a predominantly white town, with all the drawbacks involved. This is why she decides to move out of Hadleyville, because regardless whether Kane lives or dies, by the inaction of its people Hadleyville has shown that it is ultimately doomed to return to the bad old days once Kane, the only one willing to stand up for law and order, is no longer around.
  • 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 instinctively 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.
  • Death Glare: Kane calmly gives this to the townspeople who refused to help him against Miller and his thugs in the end when he drops his badge in the dirt. The only one in the crowd who doesn't receive this is the 14-year-old boy who earlier wanted to help Kane, even knowing that nobody else would; Kane had to order him to go home for his own sake.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: While it doesn’t hurt that color wasn't 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.”
  • Dirty Coward: A truly impressive example of an exaggerated version: a whole town refuses to make a stand against a very small gang because of various stated reasons but in the end the reality is that they're self-interested idiots.
  • Divided We Fall: Will's deputy refuses to help him unless Will agrees to him being the next marshal. And almost everybody else in town just plain refuses.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The movie was inspired by the then-ongoing Hollywood blacklisting by the HUAC. A man is turned on by his so-called friends and colleagues when a threat comes to town. They are either too cowardly to fight back, sympathetic to the villain, or more interested in debate than action.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Amy eventually comes to the conclusion that Will is only sticking around because of Helen, his ex, and goes to her to ask that she "let him go". Helen has to flat out tell her that this isn't the case, since they haven't talked for a year (until he came to warn her about Frank).
  • The Dreaded: Frank Miller and his gang, from the perspective of Kane and the townsfolk.
  • Expository Theme Tune: "High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin')", written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington and performed by Tex Ritter, lays out the hero's motivation and objectives while appealing to his wife to stay with him in spite of what he's about to face. Despite the line "look at that big hand move along nearin' high noon," it's more expository than a Title Theme Tune. (Both Ritter and Frankie Lane had hit recordings of the song.)
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The story plays out in real time and takes place between 10:35 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. There are clocks shown 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.
  • Generic Doomsday Villain: Frank Miller's personality and past aren't expanded on in any detail. He's a murderer who Kane put away and is now seeking revenge, and that's it. It doesn't help that he barely appears in the film. See also Offstage Villainy below.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Frank Miller sports some evil scars, instantly establishing him as the bad guy when he arrives, in spite of his good publicity.
  • 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. Kane tries to find people for his Posse, but everybody is either a Dirty Coward or otherwise not up to the task.
  • Honor Before Reason:
    • Kane's decision to stay. He tells Amy that if they flee, they will never be able to settle down with the Miller Gang after them.
    • It's also pointed out that Kane should throw Miller's gang in the clink before he arrives to take charge of them. Kane refuses as they're not actually breaking the law.
    • Kane doesn't try to shoot first. He comes out from behind Miller's gang and announces himself so he won't shoot anyone in the back. He waits for them to fire before firing his weapon.
  • Insignia Rip-Off Ritual: A poignant moment at the end, where Will Kane takes off his sheriff's badge and drops it in on the ground in front of the town that abandoned him.
  • I Have Your Wife: Miller attempts this on Kane in the climax. It doesn't work out too well for him.
  • Implausible Synchrony: Justified. A train arrives in Hadleyville at noon on a routine basis, therefore allowing all the clocks in town to be synchronized by a single point.
  • Inescapable Horror: When Kane makes hjs decision to make a stand against Miller, he explains to Amy that running away would not be a good solution anyway because Kane and his gang would just give chase.
  • In the Back: Amy shoots one of Miller's man, Pierce, in the back through a window.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: While the townsfolk are vilified for being cowardly and unable or unwilling to support Kane, there's a few who raise decent points. Very few of them have any form of training with weapons and nothing is stopping Will from leaving town to get reinforcements rather than just running away. Hell, Kane just waiting one day would allow him the benefit of the new Marshal's help.
    • John Wayne made the film Rio Bravo because he objected to the idea that a man hired to protect a town should turn to it for protection. This is brought up during High Noon in the church scene where one townsfolk member asks why Kane let the situation degrade to just him and one disgruntled deputy.
    • Another townsfolk member suggests that Will should arrest Frank's gang before he arrives. Will says that they haven't done anything yet but he could legally hold them for 24 hours today. Then if Frank tried to kill him, it would be pretty strong evidence that they were part of a conspiracy to commit murder.
    • The preacher points out that telling his flock to go out and kill or get themselves killed is against his duties as a man of God.
  • 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.
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: Kane spends most of the movie asking the townspeople for help; he also manages to gun down three out of four of the gang (including Miller himself) in just a few minutes
  • Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: Kane's old girlfriend is a curvaceous, passionate dark-haired Spicy Latina. His new wife is an innocent, angelic blonde pacifist. They're further color-coded by Amy wearing a bride's white dress while Helen wears a dark dress.
  • 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: Most of the male characters, to the point where you wonder why the town marshal bothered protecting the town in the first place.
  • 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.
  • Mook Chivalry: Averted, at least in some aspects. The bandits announce when they'll arrive, but that is for intimidation. When they do arrive when scheduled, they immediately find concealment and, even when discovered, continue to find cover, preferably on high ground, and take a highly defensive strategy. They still attack mostly one at a time, but this is because they are so scattered around the town that only a few at most can shoot at Kane at a time.
  • 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.
  • Not So Stoic: Will Kane is a calm, collected, responsible former marshal who needs deputies to help him fight Frank Miller, who's arriving into town on the noon train, but no one is willing to help him. Finally, when the marshal realizes he's utterly alone, he hides his face away, near tears, in the solitude of his office.
  • Oddly Small Organization: Frank Miller only has three henchmen waiting for him at the station, which is a fairly small number for a gang boss all told. However, as the townspeople themselves are generally apathetic, cowardly or opportunistic, when they're not ready to outright roll the red carpet for him, it's easy to see how Miller could retake control of Hadleyville once the trifling affair of murdering Kane has been taken care of.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: The film ends with the carriage containing the hero and his wife rolling away into the distance. (It's not long after noon, so there's no sunset.)
  • Offstage Villainy: Frank Miller for most of the film. Kane sent him to prison for murdernote  before the start of the film, but Miller gets out and decides to take revenge on Kane. Kane runs around town insisting that Miller is a menace to them all, but people refuse to stand with him. Some even sympathize with Miller and insist that Kane is trying to drag them into a personal feud. When Miller finally arrives, he sports some evil scars to prove his villainy, but he still doesn't do anything except go after Kane and take Amy hostage.
  • 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 a 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: Marshal Kane is not amused to find the local carpenter building several coffins in anticipation of the impending gunfight.
  • Put Down Your Gun and Step Away: Miller, having Amy at gunpoint, orders Kane to deliver himself which he does. Cue Amy's Damsel out of Distress moment.
  • The Quiet One: Colby, played by Lee Van Cleef, doesn't say a word the whole movie. The only time he speaks is in the opening scene, but his words are completely drowned out by the opening music.
  • Race Against the Clock: Sheriff Will Kane has roughly one hour to raise a posse to confront notorious villain Frank Miller before Miller's train arrives at High Noon. He doesn't.
  • Rage Against the Legal System: Miller's reason for coming to town is to kill Kane for arresting 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.
  • Right Behind Me:
    • The bartender at the saloon is confidently predicting that Frank Miller will kill Kane within five minutes of his arrival, when Kane shows up behind him.
    • 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.
  • Right on the Tick: The film makes heavy use of this trope, constantly reminding the viewers of how fast the noon hour is approaching.
  • 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 gets 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.
    • One man turns up at the start who has Jumped at the Call, and Kane tells him to wait in his office while he recruits some more. When Kane returns to tell him it's just the two of them, he's not so eager and decides to leave.
  • The Seven Western Plots: A hybrid marshal/outlaw/revenge story, where the marshal has to face a band of outlaws who want revenge on him for arresting them previously.
  • Showdown at High Noon: Despite what one would think, actively subverts this, as the hero sneaks up behind the gang of villains, gun already drawn, and yells for them to drop their guns before shooting one in the neck and leading to a tense chase. Furthermore, noon only marks the arrival of Frank Miller and co., not the showdown itself.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: An extremely cynical film, just about the most cynical movie ever made in the studio era. One hero asks for help from the people of his town when a bunch of killers show up, but no one will help him. They won't help, because they're cowards, too cowardly to defend their own town against criminals. They're all perfectly willing to let Will Kane die. The film's message is spelled out when Martin Howe, the elderly retired sheriff, tells Kane that people "just don't care" about law and order.
  • 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.
  • Spicy Latina: Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), the half-Mexican saloonkeeper who's the former lover of both Frank Miller and Will Kane, and the current lover of Harvey Pell.
  • 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: Even if totally wordless, when Sheriff Will Kane rips off his sheriff's badge and tosses it to the ground before Riding into the Sunset with his wife, sickened that almost everybody in town was a Dirty Coward who refused to stand up to Frank Miller and nearly got him killed, he definitely means this Trope.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Helen Ramirez as the Tomboy and Amy Fowler-Kane and the Girly Girl
  • Took a Level in Badass: Amy fires a decisive gunshot despite being a pacifist (and openly telling Kane to get out of town) through most of the film. While it may not be as adrenalin charged as other examples, it is a pretty major shift in terms of the character!
  • Training the Peaceful Villagers: Subverted. Kane hears that a criminal gang is coming to his Wild West town bent on revenge. Despite the fact that he was already planning on leaving, he spends most of the movie attempting to rally the villagers to the defense of their town. Everyone else proves too cowardly to fight, however, and he is forced to take on the gang almost singlehandedly.
  • Ungrateful Townsfolk: Marshal Kane is trying to save the town from a gang of criminals and the rest of the ungrateful townspeople don't lift a finger to help him. In fact, some support the gang being allowed to run the town.note  At the end, after beating Miller and his gang, Kane throws down his badge and drives away without a word.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Miller's thug Pierce is welcomed as a hero by the saloon rats of the town. Some people even assert that Miller himself isn't really 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.
  • Violently Protective Girlfriend: Amy eventually decides to fight for her man and guns down one of Miller's men.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    Helen: 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.