Thursday, November 05, 2009

It's High Time You Saw 'High Noon'

It's been 57 years since "High Noon" was released. The Western existed as a film genre long before director Fred Zinnemann and producer Stanley Kramer joined forces to make it, but, in many ways, "High Noon" redefined the phrase "Western classic."

If you consider yourself a fan of classic movies and you haven't seen it, you owe it to yourself to watch it when Turner Classic Movies shows it tonight at 9 p.m. (Central).

It's part of a three–film salute to Grace Kelly. Actually, they're the first three films that featured Kelly (in chronological order), but, for my money, "High Noon" is the best of the three. The first film in the salute on TCM tonight was Kelly's debut, "Fourteen Hours," so she wasn't the star. Since it was her debut, Kelly's role was modest. But, for film historians, it is a rare opportunity to see how Kelly's brief film career began.

Then, after TCM shows "High Noon," you can watch a movie — "Mogambo" — that is probably a little better known than "Fourteen Hours," perhaps because Kelly's co–stars are more familiar to contemporary viewers.

But "High Noon," Kelly's second film, was stunning. The film's writer, Carl Foreman, said the story was meant as an allegory of the unimpeded rise of McCarthyism at the time. And, unlike nearly all the Westerns that came before, there was virtually no gunplay until the last 10 minutes or so.

In "High Noon," Kelly plays the Quaker bride of a Western marshal (played by Gary Cooper) whose wedding day is ruined by the anticipated arrival of a gang of killers. The ever–present clocks tick off the minutes of the story in real time, building the tension as Cooper resolves not to leave town as planned but remains to face the outlaws alone. It wasn't what he had in mind, but the citizens of the town refuse to stand with him and his pacifist bride leaves without him when she realizes he feels obligated to defend the town.

"High Noon" remains a controversial film. It lost Best Picture in a still disputed decision that awarded the Oscar to "The Greatest Show on Earth," and the image of a Western marshal begging for help so offended legendary Western star John Wayne that it led to the blacklisting of Foreman (who later wrote the screenplays for "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "The Guns of Navarone").

But it was a groundbreaking film, and it remains a thought–provoking one. A true film fan cannot say that his or her movie viewing is complete until it has been seen at least once.

The film is ranked 27th on the American Film Institute's Top 100 movies of all time.