Tuesday, July 24, 2012

'High Noon:' A Thinking Man's Western

I've never been much of a fan of westerns — there have been some I liked, but that was mostly because those movies made you think. They weren't about gunfights alone.

"High Noon" — which premiered 60 years ago today — was such a movie.

It's been many years now, but I can still remember the day I first saw "High Noon."

I was in college, taking a film appreciation class. There were several such fine arts courses on the Arts and Sciences' basic requirements list. A student didn't have to take them all but did have to take two or three so enrollment in each was usually quite high every semester. To satisfy the demand, the school offered several classes of each every semester.

Choosing the film class to fulfill part of that particular academic requirement was a no–brainer for me. I have always enjoyed classic movies, and it turned out that the instructor liked to show movies in class, which met for two hours at a time, and then discuss them.

One day, he showed us "High Noon." That was hardly surprising. "High Noon" was — and still is — regarded as a classic.

What was surprising, I guess, was the fact that I had never seen it before. I was well acquainted with many other classic movies by the time I got to college, and we watched several of them in that class, but I had never seen that one. Strange.

Well, I was mesmerized.

I suppose part of it was the contrast. I mean, it was a late winter/early spring kind of day — cold, windy, a bit snowy. I remember being bundled up in layers of clothing as one typically had to be to go from building to building on the University of Arkansas campus at that time of year — and then practically breaking into a sweat the minute I walked into the seemingly always overheated fine arts building.

On the other hand, "High Noon" seemed to be set in a hot, dry, dusty Western town. I don't know what time of the year it was supposed to be, but I have heard that the location filming was done in the late summer and early fall.

The time of year really didn't play an important role in the story. It happened to be set in the West, but it could have been anywhere. The story was about a man's battle with his conscience — and a similar battle waged by his pacifist Quaker bride — when word spreads that a dangerous criminal is coming to town with his gang.

Then the struggle was to persuade the people of the town to stand with him.

The man was played by Gary Cooper, of course. Many critics thought he was miscast. He was nearly 30 years older than his love interest (Grace Kelly), but, in many ways, he was the best, the only choice.

He was definitely an heroic figure.

He was — arguably — the most heroic of Hollywood's leading men of that time. He had already won one Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of World War I hero Sgt. York — and he received another statuette for his performance as Will Kane, the sheriff in "High Noon."

Kelly, who was not yet 23 when the film was released, was making her debut in a leading role, and she did a spectacular job.

I had seen her in other movies before I saw "High Noon," but it was when I saw "High Noon" that I fell in love with her — one of those this–cannot–possibly–happen kind of things.

Kelly didn't win the Oscar for her performance in "High Noon." That kind of recognition came a couple of years later when she received the Best Actress Oscar for "The Country Girl."

But I've thought, ever since that brisk northwest Arkansas day when I first saw "High Noon," that it wouldn't have been the same without her.

Her career was a bit sluggish after "High Noon," though. But it picked up. She only made nine more movies before she retired from acting to assume the duties of princess of Monaco, but she made three ("Dial M for Murder," "To Catch a Thief" and "Rear Window") under the direction of Alfred Hitchcock.

She never made another film with Fred Zinnemann, her director on "High Noon."

Zinnemann's movies were nominated for a total of 65 Oscars and won 24 of them. But Kelly wasn't nominated for her work in "High Noon."

I'm not sure why that was so.

But her performance deserved a nomination.