It has been estimated that one out of four feature films made in America before the mid-1960s was a western. Since approximately 35,000 features were released in this country in the 70 years after the introduction of film, this would mean that over 5,000 westerns have been projected in America’s movie theaters, making it the largest genre in film history.
In spite of their prolific numbers, few westerns have won major awards, were among the top grossing films of the year, or came to be included in lists of the best American films compiled by critics, historians, or audiences. High Noon is the rare exception.
High Noon was one of the top ten money-makers of 1952, was named “Best Motion Picture” of the year by most of the periodicals and institutions that gave such awards at the time, and was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture. In addition, each of its four principal creative contributors—its star, Gary Cooper, its director, Fred Zinnemann, its writer, Carl Foreman, and its composer, Dimitri Tiomkin, were nominated for individual Academy Awards. In the years since its original release, High Noon has been singled out for discussion in virtually every history of American film.
But High Noon has also been controversial, for several reasons. Four of the people involved in its making were swept up in the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities while the film was being readied for release, and there has been ongoing debate over the extent to which the film was intended to be a parable on Hollywood’s cowardice during those days—or of the entire phenomenon that has gone down in history as “The McCarthy Period.”
High Noon‘s haunting—some would say incessant—theme song has also been controversial. “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’ “ was composed by Dimitri Tiomkin, with lyrics by Ned Washington and sung by Tex Ritter. It demonstrated that a song can significantly heighten a film’s emotional power, help tell its story, and also dramatically increase the film’s profit potential, both by helping to advertise the film itself and through recording royalties. Tiomkin received two different Academy Awards for his creation.
The photography of High Noon has also been controversial, and its cinematographer, Floyd Crosby, was almost fired for what this bosses saw as “incompetent work.” Actually, Crosby and Fred Zinnemann had carefully studied the look of Matthew Brady’s famous Civil War still photographs, with their lack of filtering and high contrast between light and dark, and had sought to achieve a similar look on film. Today, High Noon is studied in film classes as an example of the power of black-and-white photography.
Gary Cooper, it is strange to recall now, was frequently dismissed by critics in his own time, who claimed he was merely “playing himself.” However, Lee Strasberg, “The Father of Method Acting,” pointed out that Cooper was actually one of the first film actors to use Method Acting on the screen, although his use of this important tool was based on intuitive understanding. Cooper’s performance in High Noon is regarded by many as the finest performance of his astonishingly long and varied career, and it not only won him an Academy Award, it placed him at the top of the list of stars at the box office. His portrayal of the beleaguered but defiant marshall remains today a classic example of the difference between theatrical and filmic acting styles, demonstrating how powerful screen performances depend heavily on reaction rather than action.
Grace Kelly, appearing herein her first important screen role, hated her own performance, frequently condemning her stiffness in the role of Amy, the new bride of the marshall forced to choose, like him, between conscience and love, but the judgment of history is inclined to see it as one of her most memorable roles.
Finally, there has been controversy over the extent to which the film’s editor, Elmo Williams, “saved” the picture in the cutting room. But nobody “saved” the picture—High Noon is one of the leading examples of the possibilities of film as a collaborative art, with important contributions from its director, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor and actors. High Noon is one of the few American films that follow the classic Aristotelian principle of the “classic unities” of time, place and action. The running time of the story almost exactly parallels the running time of the film itself. This effect is heightened by the frequent use of clocks throughout the film that remind the characters—and the audience—of the imminent arrival of Frank Miller, the villain, on the noon train.
As suggested in the audio essay on track two, what makes High Noon one of the most memorable films of all time, what earned it its place in history, is the fact that High Noon does what all of the most popular films in history have done: it casts into modern form some of the oldest mythological structures of the human race. At the heart of High Noon is its archetypal hero, Will Kane, caught in a struggle of conscience between duty and desire. It is one of the oldest and most meaningful of stories, squarely facing its tragic potential and rising above it to achieve a reaffirmation of the power of individual human will and courage.