When I watched High Noon many years ago, I was struck by its pacing, its intensity, its seriousness. This time, I kept laughing. There’s something comic about watching Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) aimlessly tread around the town, waiting for someone, anyone to assist him. I found myself curious (having forgotten most of the details) not whether he’d find aid, but just what methods of bailing on responsibility his fellow townspeople would employ.
The judge (Otto Kruger) is, of course, is my favorite. Having passed sentence on Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a killer who has now been freed and is headed to town for revenge, the judge opts for exiting pronto. He tells Kane, the marshal who caught Miller, to do the same. His advice is a cynical history lesson about how little one can rely on civilian ethics when danger is afoot–an account of Athenians who welcomed a tyrant they’d once banished, and watched as he executed their government; an incident much like one that recently occurred in a nearby town. The judge shares these accounts as he casually packs away his flag and scales of justice.
His assessment about the value of the people he’s leaving to the mercy of an outlaw is almost as breathtakingly cold as the clock speech in The Third Man: “This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important. Now get out.” The former marshal (Lon Chaney, Jr.), Kane’s mentor, is likewise a ray of light: “People got to talk themselves into law and order..down deep, they don’t care. They just don’t care.” Poor Kane is asking for just a bit of support before he takes on a posse, and these are his cheerleaders.
Of course, it’s hard not to love Kane, even as you wonder whether there’s a better way to overcome Miller than the one he’s devised (i.e., shoot it out).
“I’ve got lots to do,” Kane keeps saying as the minutes creep by. But really, he doesn’t. He has to warn Helen Ramirez (former lover to both him and Miller), ask for volunteer deputies, and write a brief will. But this is a small town, easily navigated, and these tasks are quickly accomplished. What he really has to do is busy himself to avoid dwelling on the cowardice of his companions and his own slim chances for survival if he stays in town until noon, when Miller is arriving.
While Ramirez (Katy Jurado) is the most interesting character, it’s clearly Kane’s new bride, Amy (Grace Kelly), who brings on the dark humor.
First, there’s the fact that she’s just had the biggest bummer of a wedding day ever. Then there’s the small detail that she’s a Quaker who has married a marshal. I don’t think I have to tell you that she may not be the wisest of women. Sure, he’s retiring; the new marshal is arriving the next day, and the newlyweds are planning to leave town and to run a store elsewhere before they hear about Miller. But surely five minutes of Kane’s obdurate behavior during courtship would have enlightened Amy that this whole conversion business–of both faith and career–wasn’t going to work so well. (Admittedly, given the pickings we see of the townspeople during the film, she may still have made the best choice of a mate she could.) And of course, it’s quite amusing that a woman who has to overcome her beliefs–not dodge them–is the only helper Kane receives. No wonder Kane throws his star on the ground after besting Miller.
That the film would include such darkness isn’t surprising from a screenwriter (Carl Foreman) who had been blacklisted before High Noon even came out. What he was witnessing of former friends and those he must have once respected couldn’t have led to idealism. Apparently, John Wayne scorned the film as anti-American, and Rio Bravo is a reinterpretation, with more admirable townspeople. While I agree with the movie’s distance from Wayne’s optimism, I think Foreman’s (and the original story’s) cynicism goes much deeper than any individual country, any specific belief system. It’s a simple, sadly humorous morality tale about human nature: while there may be rare moments of heroism (like Kane’s), typically, when the going gets tough, the “tough” scatter.