August 10th, 2008
Continuing my endless film education, I finally caught the classic western High Noon, starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly.
Cooper plays Will Kane, the marshal of a small western town. It’s his wedding day — he’s marrying a Quaker woman played by Grace Kelly — and his last day as marshal. He wants a peaceful life from now on, but…
Oh-oh! Bad guy Frank Miller has been released from jail! Those lenient northern judges let him out on a technicality, he’s arriving on the noon train, and he’s out to kill the marshal.
Some of the townspeople — mostly the guys down at the saloon — think life was more fun when Frank Miller was around. They’re betting that Marshal Kane gets killed in about two minutes, and then life will be good again. But the consensus among most of the townspeople is that even though they love the marshal and hate Frank Miller, it isn’t their problem. If Kane would just get out of town everything would be all right.
Even Kane’s new bride thinks that, and she buys herself a train ticket to prove it. Then the marshal has to spend his wedding day not only worrying about being killed by Frank Miller, but also grieving his broken marriage.
In the end Kane has to stand alone, but there isn’t any showdown on main street. It’s a series of guerilla skirmishes as he manages to pick off Miller and his three henchmen, one by one. Shockingly, it is his Quaker wife — not on the train after all — who blows away one of the bad guys. In the end Kane tosses his badge disdainfully in the dirt and rides out of town, leaving the cowardly townsfolk to their own devices.
I loved this movie, right from the first frame. I loved the rich, creamy black-and-white cinematography and the immaculate, square-framed compositions. I loved it for its suspense, its world-weariness, and its cynicism about humanity. Cooper is perfect as the disheartened marshal who can’t get even a single deputy to help him fight Frank Miller.
I think it rings true. I relate completely to the theme of one good man standing up for what’s right, although I expect in real life I would have been one of those urging Kane to get out of town and take his quarrel with Frank Miller with him.
The politics of the film are trickier. When it was first made, High Noon was usually seen as a parable about the McCarthy anti-communist witch hunt, when (in the eyes of the liberal filmmakers) only a few brave men like Will Kane would stand up for what was right.
Nowadays it’s easy to see why US presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush cite it as one of their favourite films. One imagines that to them, Kane is America herself, standing alone against Frank Miller and the forces of tyranny (Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda, the Taliban), abandoned by those effete northern wimps from the UN and the rest of the world.
Yikes! Those politics don’t work for me. But I still loved the movie. Sometimes classic films really are as good as everyone says they are. I think you should watch it if you haven’t, and if you’ve already seen it, watch it again and pay attention this time