High Noon (Special Edition) Blu-ray Review: Gary Cooper Stands Alone

I knew who Gary Cooper was years before I’d ever seen one of his movies. He was famous even to a kid growing up in the 1980s, some two decades after he had died. He was one of the great heroes of the silver screen. He was the very epitome of the strong, silent type – the male ideal. As I grew older, that ideal became scrutinized. Men shouldn’t have to be silent they said, they should be able to share their emotions and talk about how they feel. Gary Cooper began to lose some of that sheen that had made him famous.

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In my mind, strong and silent always meant a man of action. The type of guy who would kick ass and take names. Who would shoot now and ask questions later. That ideal was what we might now call the John Wayne type. When I first started watching Gary Cooper movies, I was surprised how sensitive his portrayals could be. He was strong, yes, and often silent, but he wasn’t the rugged tough guy of the types of action movies I was watching back then. He wasn’t Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger shooting bad guys while tossing off quips. His characters were often sensitive, and thoughtful.

And so it is with High Noon. In it, Cooper plays Will Kane, a marshal of Hadleyville, a small town in New Mexico Territory. He’s not afraid of violence, of using the guns hung around his waist, of killing someone if the need arises. We learn that Hadleyville used to be full of lawlessness. It was a place where good women were afraid to walk down the street in daylight. But Will Kane cleaned it up, made it a nice town, a place you could raise a family.

But as the film begins, he’s hanging up his marshal’s badge. He’s getting married to Amy Fowler (Grace Kelley in her first real role), a Quaker whose religion abhors violence of any kind. He’s gonna settle down and live a simple life. When he learns that outlaws are waiting at the train station, he at first takes Amy and runs away. Those outlaws (including Lee Van Cleef in his cinematic debut) are part of Ben Miller’s gang. Will sent Ben Miller to prison some time ago, but the politicians in Washington have seen fit to let him go. Now he’s coming to town on the high noon train to seek his revenge.

He initially leaves at the urging of the town leaders. They figure everybody is safer if Will leaves town. Amy, too, believes he should run. And so they load their buggy and ride. But before he gets too far out of town, Will turns around. His pride, or his sense of duty, makes him go back. He has to stand up to these men. And besides, if they run, Bill Miller will just hunt them down again.

Amy gives him an ultimatum – leave town with her or they’re through – and still Will stays. He tries to find help with the townsfolk. If he can get a posse of half a dozen men, then they can fight Ben Miller and his gang, and win. But at every turn he finds no one. His own deputy (Lloyd Bridges) turns in his badge because Will thinks he is too young to succeed him as marshal. His friend and mentor (Lon Chaney, Jr.) declares he is too old to fight any more battles. His best friend (Thomas Mitchell) declares, in a town meeting, that Will is a good man, and a great marshal – possibly the best there ever was – but he believes Will should have left town and stayed gone. The town would have been safer that way. Some folks, like the local barkeep, liked it better in the old days. Outlaws drank more whiskey. In the end, nobody is willing to help. Will must face Ben Miller and his gang alone.

Made in 1952, at the height of the House Un-American Activities Committee blacklistings, High Noon is generally considered a critique of that witch hunt. One man stands up against a great evil finding no help, and even sometimes outright hindrance from his friends and community.

Ironically, John Wayne hated the film. He was very anti-communist and pro-HUAC and felt this film was an attack on what he stood for. Director Howard Hawks hated the film as well, criticizing the idea that a town marshal would run around town seeking help from anyone, rather than digging in and saving the day himself. In response, Wayne and Hawks made Rio Bravo where Wayne plays a town marshal who readily takes a stand against a gang of outlaws with only the help of a lame old man and a drunkard.

High Noon bucked the trend of the typical Western, one of the most popular genres at the time. Westerns were shot in full color, using the widescreen format to show off the beautiful wide open spaces of the American West. High Noon was shot in stark black and white and used the town facades and interiors to create claustrophobic images. Westerns were full of gunfights, bar brawls, and chases on horseback. High Noon, up until the explosive final scene, is mostly men and women talking to each other.

Yet it completely works. Director Fred Zinnemann fills the screen with interesting images. (Is there a better shot in all of cinema than the camera slowly moving upwards revealing just how alone Will Kane is walking down the deserted street, headed towards disaster?) Over the course of 85 minutes, he keeps ratcheting up the tension until things gloriously explode. He fills the screen with clocks, constantly reminding us of how much closer it is getting to twelve o’clock noon.

Gary Cooper owns every moment he’s on screen. He deservedly won an Oscar for his performance. The rest of the cast is filled out by wonderful character actors, those not already mentioned include Harry Morgan as a cowardly friend who hides when Will comes knocking at his door and Katy Jurardo as Will’s former lover who juxtaposes nicely against Grace Kelly’s pacifist. For her part, Kelly is given very little to do other than look beautiful, but does the camera ever love her.

I must admit that the middle of the film does drag a little for me. After half a dozen attempts by Will to drum up some help only to be turned down, I find myself wanting the film to just get on with it. But mostly it is a great film. One of the best Westerns ever made.

Kino Lorber presents High Noon with a brand new 4K restoration of the film from the original camera negatives. This is the first time the film has been presented on a 4K UHD disk. Previously Olive Films did release a 4K transfer but only on a Blu-ray disk. I am still a luddite and thus have not upgraded by media center to 4K but the Blu-ray version from Kino looks amazing. Extras include two new commentaries from Alan K. Rode and Julie Kirgo, plus several archival behind-the-scenes and making-of featurettes.

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Mat Brewster

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