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High Noon (1952)



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High Noon, perhaps the most well-known of all classic westerns, provokes a broad range of strong reactions. I think it works on a metaphorical level: the story of a man who stands up for what's right against all odds, and even after everyone else has deserted him, is a compelling story. The Gary Cooper character can even be seen as a Christ figure of sorts: he stands firm to face a daunting challenge that will probably result in the loss of his life, all to save a people that have betrayed him. Small wonder this film resonates with people.

But the story is not really a biblical allegory. It was commonly seen as a criticism of the Hollywood blacklist, which somewhat famously did not sit well with several filmmakers of westerns, including John Wayne and Howard Hawks, who teamed up to make a rebuttal of sorts with the great film Rio Bravo. But the politics are less clear to me than with, say, On the Waterfront (1954), whose storyline maps more directly to the blacklist brouhaha. High Noon, by contrast, doesn't really work as a commentary on the blacklist unless you accept the validity of the metaphors it uses. I'm not sure I do.

I'm also not sure I buy the story on a literal level. One of John Wayne's criticisms of the film makes a lot of sense: "Here's a town full of people who have ridden in covered wagons all the way across the plains, fighting off Indians and drought and wild animals in order to settle down and make themselves a homestead. And then when three no-good bad guys walk into town and the marshal asks for a little help, everybody in town gets shy."

But High Noon is not a film that can be ignored. Whatever fundamental problems I have with it, the fact is that it sounds beautiful and is gorgeously shot; some of the complex tracking shots have become iconic in the years since. Director Fred Zinnemann keeps the tension wound tight, so it works as a thriller, and it also works as an inspirational story of a man who takes a difficult stand when it would be so easy just to cut and run.

Me? I'd have cut and run. I'd like to think I'd have stayed if the townsfolk had been more deserving of it, but these cowardly wretches aren't. Then again, if we are to see the film as a biblical allegory and Gary Cooper's character as a Christ figure, isn't that the point? "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."

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