It is the wedding day of Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper), and he is married to Amy (Grace Kelly), though not in the church of his town, as she is a Quaker and the pastor does not approve. But Kane's friends are happy to gather around for this happy occasion, which also marks his retirement as a lawman so he can settle down. But then the news arrives: Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley) has been released without charge and he is heading back to town on the noon train. This is bad news, since it was Kane who arrested him, and Miller holds a huge grudge against him for cleaning up the place and making it fit for decent folks to live in. But what if those folks are not as decent as they think?
One of the most divisive films, never mind Westerns, ever made, despite its accolades as a classic of the genre, High Noon had a lot of weigh to bear on its shoulders thanks to the political climate it was made in. Director Fred Zinneman saw it as a straightforward morality tale about standing up for what is right, but of course what is right has many interpretations, some of which are themes in the film, yet what was unavoidable was that at the time this was released the United States was labouring under massive paranoia about The Soviet Union as the Cold War was unfolding across the world. Surely what producer Stanley Kramer had made was an attack on the political right?
Kramer was a well-known liberal, and saw to it that those beliefs would influence his work as both producer and director making his path through fifties Hollywood so precarious that it can be surprising he was not hauled up in front of a court “investigating” unamerican activities and had his career curtailed: certainly that happened to High Noon's screenwriter Carl Foreman, who had to emigrate to Britain to continue his work as a writer. But in truth, there was a certain vagueness about precisely who the film was taking aim at, since the main target appeared to be the cowardice of the crowd, the sort of people who take power from sticking together against outsiders.
Not any old outsiders, but outsiders who should really be insiders, since they are far more moral than either the villains who would seek to do damage, and indeed the insiders themselves, smug in their superiority but unwilling to stand up for anyone who is suffering a crisis. When you see how many of the townsfolk Marshal Kane goes to for help, only to be turned down, whether it's because they feel too weak, which is excusable, or because they refuse to stick their neck out when it is in their own interest to do the right thing, then you sense a curious mix of anger and disappointment. This is America, the film says, aren't we supposed to be better than this? John Wayne famously called High Noon the most unamerican thing he had ever seen, and made Rio Bravo to refute it, which has pitted those two classics against one another ever after.
Rio Bravo may be a Western too, and starts at a similar point of plot, but where that has absolute faith in the man or woman in the street to bolster their community, their country, their world, with their morality, High Noon is more cynical. Yes, there are good people here, but as that superb shot of Cooper in the latter stages shows, where Kane is left punishingly alone in the streets while the people he has respected his whole life leaving him to die stay indoors, sometimes taking a stand can be a very lonely place to be. What Kane, and eventually Amy, must do is have the belief in themselves that no matter they are losing some of their humanity in resorting to violence to better the bad guys, they can at least die knowing they had the high ground, though they would prefer not to. As much a shot at smalltown life as Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (where people are naïve) or David Lynch's Blue Velvet (where the good prefer to ignore the evil), and increasingly tense as it played out in real time, High Noon may be unpalatable by its nature, but didn't it make you think? Music by Dimitri Tiomkin, notably the ballad that runs through the soundtrack.
[Eureka have released this on Blu-ray, and here are the wealth of special features:
4K Digital Restoration
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
Brand new and exclusive audio commentary by historian Glenn Frankel, author of High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic
Brand new and exclusive audio commentary by western authority Stephen Prince
New video interview with film historian Neil Sinyard, author of Fred Zinnemann: Films of Character and Conscience
A 1969 audio interview with writer Carl Foreman from the National Film Theatre in London
The Making of High Noon [22 mins] a documentary on the making of the film
Inside High Noon [47 mins] and Behind High Noon [10 mins] two video pieces on the making and context of the film