Monday, December 9, 2013

High Noon

This review is part of a series featuring classic films which I had not previously seen. Unlike my normal reviews, these reviews will contain spoilers.

High Noon is a black-and-white Western which was released in 1952. It won four Oscars, including Best Actor for its star, Gary Cooper. Other notables in the cast include Grace Kelly and Lloyd Bridges.

The plot is fairly simple: Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) marries Amy (Kelly), and intends to leave town to start a new life. Just after he turns in his badge, he discovers that a man he sent to jail five years before  (Frank Miller, played by Ian MacDonald) is going to arrive on the noon train. Three of Miller's old gang are waiting for him at the train station, and the general assumption is that they have come for revenge. Kane decides that he must face them, which creates a rift with his new bride, who is a pacifist. Further, the rest of the town refuses to help him, leaving him to face the four alone. In the end, he kills three of them and Amy kills the fourth, then they ride away.

The strength of the film is its format - the events happen nearly in real time. There is very little physical action until the end, but there is plenty of tension, reinforced by frequent views of clocks and pocketwatches. I was not previously aware that the movie used this gimmick, but it didn't take long to figure out, and I rather like it.

Unfortunately, I had some problems with the movie.
Near the beginning, when Kane stops the cart and returns to town, Amy demands an explanation and Kane replies "There's no time." But there is time, and he does explain later - that line and the delay are only there to leave the audience in suspense. I don't like being manipulated.
The internet leads me to believe that Kane is seen as a great hero. I give the character credit for standing on principle and doing what he believes is right no matter the odds... right up until he murders a man who had done absolutely nothing except maybe break a window and steal a hat (I'm not sure if the first man shot was the thief). At no point does Kane attempt to arrest the men or negotiate, nor do the men threaten him (they do draw their guns after they see he has his out). Kane and everyone else assumes that Miller and his gang are out for revenge - and they are, of course. But at the moment at which Kane shoots the first man, it's purely an act of murder by a citizen impersonating an officer of the law.

Other than that, I rather like the movie. The townspeople are very human - scared, selfish, and many of them not very nice. It amuses me that most of the townsfolk appeared to be either in church or at the saloon. The church scene was particularly well done, showing how individuals can sway a group. Cooper's and Kelly's acting was good, but I think Lloyd Bridges was the real standout as Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell.
Kane is not really an interesting character - he's a rock, the same at the end of the movie as at the beginning. Amy has a character arc, which is nice. However, it ends in the realization that she loves Kane more than she wants to be a pacifist, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. The movie doesn't give us a lot to go on to underpin her motivations on that one, since we never see interactions that show why she cares about him.
Pell's motivations, on the other hand, are clear. He wants to be Marshal, but is passed over for the job. He tries to manipulate the arrival of Miller's gang to get the job anyway, and when that doesn't work he drowns his sorrows. But just before the climax, he tries to get Kane to leave, even attempting to subdue him and put him on a horse, because he doesn't want Kane to die. This is a self-centered, greedy character, but he is not a bad man. Bridges is marvelous at showing the many faces and emotions of Pell.

I give High Noon 4 stars (of 5)

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