Wednesday, November 17, 2010

High Noon

Cropped screenshot of Gary Cooper from the tra...Image via Wikipedia
Recently my in-laws were visiting from the mid-West, and when we decided to watch a movie together they selected High Noon, one of the most important Westerns ever made. Before the film started I mentioned that the plot and making of this film had many parallels to Hollywood's war with Communism in the 50's. I mentioned that John Wayne hated the film, because he would not accept its premise. The subject was one familiar to me because I wrote a paper about it in my Junior year at Hillsdale College. 

I think I will reproduce it here, as it contains some information I worked very hard to compile, and it will add a different texture and "voice" to the tapestry of this blog. 

Here it is, entitled:
Do not forsake me oh my darling...
"The image is a classic one now: a man, haggard and alone, plodding the length of a dusty, empty street to meet almost certain death under the hot sun at high noon.  Audiences loved it then, and they still love it now.[1]  High Noon is magnetic, perhaps because of its insistent rhythm (the film seems to have a heartbeat of its own), and, hate it or love it, it seems always to provoke strong responses.  Two presidents, Eisenhower and Clinton, loved it so much they claimed it as their favorite movie of all-time.[2]  John Wayne and Howard Hawks hated it so much they made Rio Bravo as a retort.[3]  This is one of the ways in which the history of High Noon is representative of the history of the United States in that period.  Another is that the team behind High Noon consisted of a variety of men with starkly different political ideals, from the stoutly conservative Gary Cooper to the Russian communist Carl Foreman, and that the two men most responsible for the creative vision of the film, Zinnemann and Foreman, were each trying to send completely different messages to the audience. 

"Released in 1952, High Noon starred Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly (in her first major role), Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado and Lon Chaney, Jr., Henry Morgan and Lee Van Cleef in minor roles.  The film was produced by Stanley Kramer, directed by Fred Zinnemann and written by Carl Foreman, featuring an unforgettable soundtrack by Hollywood great Dimitri Tiomkin.  It runs for eighty-five tense black and white minutes.  High Noon was received well by audiences, earning the eighth spot on Variety’s ‘Top Grossers of 1952’ taking in 3.4 million dollars in box offices across the country.[4]  In his New York Times review, Bosley Crowthers strongly urged readers to experience the film’s poetic power for themselves.[5]

"The story-line is simple and powerful.  An aging marshal, Will Kane, is married and planning to retire from law and order to live a quiet life with his Quaker bride, Amy, when he learns that a dreaded enemy from the past is returning on the noon train to seek his revenge.  Acting on the advice of friends, he hurries out of the town, only to return under the influence of his conscience, stating, “They’re making me run.  I’ve never run from anybody before.”  His new bride cannot and will not support his decision to take up the gun once more, and as the marshal searches the town for an ally, he is systematically rejected by the men of the town who wish that he would “just leave” and cannot understand why is he being “so stupid”.  Finally, the marshal faces his enemies alone at high noon and prevails against four ruthless gunslingers with the help of his wife, Amy, who has relented in her pacifism and taken up a gun in defense of her husband’s life.  At the film’s end, Kane drops his tin star in the dust and leaves Hadleyville behind forever. 

"High Noon has long been the source of social analysis and cultural critique.  Critics have examined the film’s supposed messages about everything from feminism, marriage, masculinity, and religion, but the most widely discussed view of High Noon is that the film is an allegory of McCarthyism and the political pressure that arrested Hollywood during the Cold War.  The incumbent idea is that the film was meant as a condemnation of the blacklisting and anti-communist attitude of Hollywood agencies such as the various Screen Guilds, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the vigorously conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPAPAI), as well as the scrutiny directed on the entertainment industries by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)

"During the final war years and the close of the forties, concern over possible communist or radical subversion in all spheres of domestic life (labor, education, entertainment, etc.), sparked a nationwide effort to ferret out and deal with individuals who had ties the communist party (CPUSA) or were engaging in potentially subversive activities.  In 1947 the HUAC subpoenaed and examined a number of individuals involved in the film industry, many of them screenwriters.  Nineteen declared that they would not give evidence implicating other individuals, ten refused to answer any questions at all.  Those ten, now known as the “Hollywood Ten”, all served time in prison as a result of their refusal and controversial invocation of the First Amendment.[6]  Agencies like the SAG and MPAA rallied behind the HUAC, pledging to keep known and suspected Communists off of Hollywood payrolls.[7] 

"Initially, prominent Hollywood liberals such as Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Danny Kaye and John Huston spoke out against the proceedings, organizing “two national radio broadcasts, a series of…ads in the trade papers, and a highly publicized, star-studded trip to Washington, D.C…”[8]  But by the second wave of anti-communist pressure in Hollywood that began again in 1951, the opposition was grimly silent.  Blacklisting was by then an established practice, and it came as no surprise when agencies such as the pro-McCarthy Screen Director’s Guild began requiring loyalty oaths of its members.  This was the political atmosphere that High Noon was born of, and it had direct and substantive effects on the film and the filmmakers involved in the project; two of the three men most responsible for the ideological fabric of the finished project came under fire from a few of these agencies during production.[9] 

"Fred Zinnemann, the director from Vienna, had already established himself as a craftsman of small independent films that focused on the stark realities of human behavior and posed a difficult or troubling question to the audience.[10]  These qualities were the very concerns that characterized film in post-WWII America.  The world was not as simple as it once seemed, and the black-and-white, happy-ending approach that carried Americans through the hardships of the World War no longer made satisfactory fare.  Zinnemann, one of the best of the post-war directors because of his keen and intuitive understanding of this shift, looked at High Noon as an opportunity to explore the internal struggles of very human people.[11]  To accomplish this in the film, Zinnemann made editing and filming choices that emphasized the internal struggle of Will Kane, featuring recurring close-ups of Gary Cooper’s pained face and editing the sequences in a tight formation of gritty footage: no fade outs, no color, just gritty, white skies and the swinging of the pendulum.

"Carl Foreman, the screenwriter and originally the Associate Producer under Stanley Kramer, had a vastly different intent for High Noon.  In fact, Carl Foreman’s goal in writing the film was the very sort of thing that HUAC and the MPAPAI feared.  To Foreman, High Noon was “a parable about Hollywood and McCarthyism.”  In an interview Foreman explicitly stated his motivation for writing High Noon.  He saw:

a community beginning to crumble around the edges as these high powered politicians came in…putting this community through an inquisition…and people were falling to the wayside one way or another.  They were either capitulating to these gangsters…from out of town…or they were being executed by them here.  And I could see my time was coming sooner or later…and I wanted to write about that.  I wanted to write about the death of Hollywood. (Buhle, 421).

"When thought about from this angle, it is very easy to see exactly what Foreman
described playing out onscreen.  But a lot of people didn’t think about it.  To Foreman’s delight, some viewers were aware of the film’s message and wrote to tell him so.[12]  But it is safe to say that most of the film audience didn’t take it that way.[13]  Even Zinnemann claimed ignorance of the allegory.[14]  Certainly the film would not have enjoyed such huge success if audiences had connected all of the dots.  Some even chose to read the film the opposite way, that it was glorifying the stand against communism.[15]  Although audiences in the Fifties were attracted to films that explored sobering human qualities, they were still interested in movies that entertained and inspired.  High Noon proved to be a deeply satisfying combination of all of those traits, and that made it a legend."  

     [1] The American Film Institute’s lists of bests and greatest consistently rank High Noon near the top.  Current rankings are: #27 of the 100 best; Will Kane is 5th best hero; High Noon is 20th most heart-pounding film, “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” is #25 best song, and Dimitri Tiomkin’s tense score is the 10th best.  The full lists can be found at the American Film Institute’s site:
     [2] Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America’s Favorite Movies, (New York: The New Press, 2002), 418.
     [3] Phillip Drummond, High Noon, (London: British Film Institute, 1997), 38.  John Wayne even bragged to have been instrumental in Carl Foreman’s blacklisting and expulsion from the States. 
     [4] Drummond, High Noon, 43.
     [5] Bosley Crowthers, “High Noon”, The New York Times, July 25, 1952.
     [6] Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960, (New York: Anchor Press, 1980), 356.
     [7]Ceplair and Englund, Inquisition, 445.  From the Waldorf Statement:  “We will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States by force or by illegal or unconstitutional methods.”
     [8] Ceplair and Englund, Inquisition,  276-277.
     [9] Drummond, High Noon, 19.  Zinnemann initially refused, but eventually agreed to sign a loyalty oath for the Screen Director’s Guild.  Carl Foreman was a genuine communist and was fired from High Noon by the producer Stanley Kramer when he refused to cooperate with HUAC.  He was then blacklisted and left for England.  See Gabriel Miller, ed., Fred Zinnemann Interviews, (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), 140 and 149.
      [10] Miller, Interviews, 9.  “It’s a perfectly valid approach to present a problem or a question or an issue to an audience, and let them determine for themselves how they feel about it…I felt it was very important to let the audience supply their own answers.”
     [11] Miller, Interviews, 35.  “The theme of my films is…simply a question of conscience…It is a question of a person who has strong belief in something and who is prepared to stand up to it regardless of the consequences…Sometimes it is the conflict within the person himself, as in High Noon.”
     [12] Miller, Interviews, 89
     [13] Phillip L Gianos, Politics and Politicians in American Film, (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1998), 71.
     [14] Miller, Interviews, 151.  Zinnemann is recorded as saying, “I did not think of it in political terms.  To me the film was about conscience and degrees of compromise.”
     [15] Drummond, 73.

Selected Bibliography
Buhle, Paul and Dave Wagner.  Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America’s Favorite      Movies.  New York:  The New Press,  2002.
Ceplair, Larry and Steven Englund.  The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community,1930-1960.  New York:  Anchor Press,  1980. 
Crowther, Bosley. “High Noon”.  The New York Times.  July 25, 1952.
Drummond, Phillip.  High Noon.  London:  British Film Institute,  1997. 
Gianos, Phillip L. Politics and Politicians in American Film.  Westport:  Praeger Publishers, 1998.
Meyer, William R. The Making of the Great Westerns.  New YorkArlington House Publishers,  1979.
Miller, Gabriel. ed. Fred Zinnemann: Interviews.  Jackson:  University  Press of Mississippi,  2005.
Patterson, James T.  Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974.  New York:  Oxford University Press,  1996 
Enhanced by Zemanta


Anonymous said...

Fantastic! Thanks for this informative post.

No Political Lemmings said...

Thank you very much for this assessment of one of my favorite films of all time. There has always been something going on during this film (in the background) that I really could not describe. Thanks for 'striking the nail on the head' with your write-up, here.

Cheers, Karl @ NPL

Priscilla said...

I'm thrilled by your responses, thank you! Karl, it's great to have you here at the site. I always enjoy finding out who are the classic film lovers among us. There are many more than we sometimes realize :)

Rick29 said...

I enjoyed your essay on HIGH NOON! Although I've seen it many times, I never thought of it as an analogy of McCarthyism, but you (and those you quote) make a good case. Personally, I think it's a good Western that set the stage for even better ones, such as Delmer Daves' 3:10 TO YUMA. (Both of these Westerns had memorable songs...of course, it was an era for good Western movie songs!)

Related Posts with Thumbnails