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High Noon (1952)

by on 2011/06/09

“If you don’t know, I can’t explain it to you.”

* * * *

At some point in the late Nineties, I caught a flick called Metro. I saw it because, as an Eddie Murphy vehicle, I hoped it would scratch a Beverly Hills Cop itch. Ultimately, all I remembered of it was the villain, played by Michael Wincott, whistling “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling”. This already memorable song was rendered unforgettable (for better or for worse) by its constant repetition in High Noon.

I’d seen the 1952 western a few times before now and yet, despite any familiarity, I’d forgotten everything except the general premise. Newlywed marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is leaving town with his bride Amy (Grace Kelly) when he’s suddenly compelled to stop and return. An old nemesis, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), will be arriving on the midday train. Joined by his old cronies, he’ll likely turn lawful Hadleyville into a shooting gallery.

Kane decides to do The Right Thing and face his foe, but first he needs to gather himself a posse. Over the course of roughly an hour, he becomes increasingly desperate, finding little help, even from trusted friends. He’s constantly reminded of Miller’s capacity for evil, and of the dwindling moments remaining before high noon.

The cast is great. The minor roles are filled with familiar faces, including Lloyd Bridges (Airplane), Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man), Thomas Mitchell (It’s a Wonderful Life), Harry Morgan (Dragnet), Lee Van Cleef (Kansas City Confidential), and Sheb Wooley (Rawhide and also of “Purple People Eater” fame).

However, the cast being great does not mean the characters are too. Although nearly every single part is unredeeming, two of them in particular bothered me. As the new wife, the future Princess Grace has the thankless task of bringing her talents to bear on a maddening petulance. Similarly, Lloyd Bridges’ deputy Harvey Pell is frustratingly stupid, selfish, and stubborn.

We spend a fair bit of time with these cowards to boot, for their yarn unwinds in near real-time. Kane has just over an hour to face Miller, roughly the same duration as the entire feature itself. The sets and props reinforce this concept, as clocks are checked, watches consulted, and signs outside remind us.

The editing also reflects a mechanical progression. Regular, beat-driven cuts bring us closer to the climax with a steady, inevitable pace. The greatest change from shot to shot is that faces appear ever closer with each one.

The craft is hard to fault, because it rarely puts a foot wrong. Low angles empower our hero when necessary, rendering him a looming figure of authority and control. Conversely, a crane sweep up diminishes him in an eleventh hour moment of dread and reckoning.

In fact, such observations were common throughout. I don’t remember how many years it’s been since my last, most recent, viewing, but I know I was quite impressed, having forgotten its sure technique.

On the other hand, I was also reminded why I don’t rewatch it more often: I respect it more than enjoy it. For all its tense correctness, it is oddly uninvolving . . . obvious, drawn out, and often frustrating, even if by intent.

For me, High Noon occupies a murky place between good and truly great. Correctness is perfect for a timepiece, though not necessarily entertainment.

* * * *

Rated PG

85 minutes

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