Widely regarded as one of the best Westerns ever made, Fred Zinneman's High Noon was filmed in black and white and made in 1952. It won four Oscars.
Will Kane, the retired Marshal of the Western town of Hadleyville, has just got married to Amy Fowler when he receives a telegram telling him that Frank Miller, a man he charged with murder and sentenced to hang, has been pardoned, and will be arriving in Hadleyville on the noon train. He tries to raise a posse, but for a variety of reasons the townsfolk all turn him down. Deserted by his friends, his deputies and his wife, he will face four deadly killers alone at High Noon.
High Noon is an allegory against blacklisting, where people with suspected communist sympathies would be banned from working in Hollywood. Political allegory was a new direction for the Western, and Americans were aghast at this film taking their traditional cowboys-and-Indians genre into such areas. In particular, the final shot where Kane throws his Marshal badge to the ground was often criticised for being un-American.
One of the most admirable things about High Noon is its well thought-out characters. The stereotypical Western personalities have been replaced with believably sketched townsfolk1, each with his or her own reasons and motivations for leaving Kane alone in that street come High Noon.
The grizzled Marshal of Hadleyville, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), ranks among his greatest successes the arrest of Frank Miller and making Hadleyville a safe place in which to live. He has just got married and retired from the post of Marshal when the film begins.
Upon hearing of Miller's return, his first reaction is to flee with his new bride, but later realises if he runs now, he'll be running all his life. His wife Amy begs him to leave, but even though no-one will support him, Kane won't be swayed from his duty.
Gary Cooper won an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance.
Amy (Grace Kelly) is Kane's new bride. After witnessing her father and brother killed by guns she became a Quaker. Finding that Kane won't flee town, she threatens to leave him on the same train that Miller will arrive on. She boards it, but on hearing gunshots rushes out to help her husband. One of the strongest female characters in any Western, she ends up shooting one of Miller's band and distracts Miller long enough for Kane to finish him off.
A smouldering Mexican beauty, Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), also has a good head for business; owning a saloon and being a silent partner in a successful store. She has history with Miller as well as Kane, but when the movie begins she is in a relationship with Harvey Pell. Another exceptionally strong female character, she leaves town on the noon train.
Jurado won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her brilliant portrayal of the role.
Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) is characterised by a lack of maturity. Sore at not being promoted to Marshal on Kane's retirement, he is one of the first to abandon him. Helen Ramirez leaves him shortly after for telling Kane about their relationship, and he spends much of the movie drinking in the saloon. He tries to force Kane to flee, perhaps thinking this will excuse his own cowardice, and ends the film unconscious on the floor of the livery stable after a punch up with Kane.
Despite the fact that he only appears in the last 15 minutes, Frank Miller (Ian Macdonald) dominates the film in his absence, as the camera focuses on the chair where he once sat, the railroad his train will arrive on, and the clocks ticking away the seconds until High Noon. After he arrives, his four-man gang sets out to take down the lone Marshal. The gunfight that develops is shown in several realistic stages, with neither Miller nor Kane being portrayed as gunslinging supermen. After his three-man advantage is whittled down to a one-on-one, Miller takes Amy hostage. She escapes by biting his hand, allowing Kane to shoot him down. Miller may be more interesting in his absence than his presence, but he's still an unforgettable villain.
High Noon's soundtrack was composed by Dimitri Tiomkin, and it won two Oscars: Best Original Song and Best Music Score. The title song 'Do not forsake me, O my darling' was composed by Dimitri Tiomkin with lyrics by Ned Washington. It is one of the finest examples of the Western ballad.
Elmo Williams and Harry W Gertsad won the films fourth Oscar for Best Editor, and it isn't hard to see why. In addition to using the first example of real time editing2 in a Western, they created the tense, forbidding atmosphere that greatly increases the impact of the film.
One of the film's finest sequences is just before Miller arrives, where the camera cuts between many locations and characters we've already visited, all of them warily awaiting the noon train. To name but a few, there are townsfolk looking worried in the saloon; Kane writing his last will and testament in the Marshal's office; Miller's sidekicks waiting at the station; ticking clocks in many locations; Amy looking defiant; and the chair where Miller once sat and swore to return. The music slowly builds to a crescendo as the pace of the editing gets faster, then the mood is suddenly broken by the whistle of the approaching train. The tension created is so terrific that when Miller finally appears and the showdown begins, it's almost a disappointment. Not many Westerns can say that!