High Noon is a 1952 American Western film produced by Stanley Kramer from a screenplay by Carl Foreman, directed by Fred Zinnemann, and starring Gary Cooper. The plot, which occurs in real time, centers on a town marshal whose sense of duty is tested when he must decide to either face a gang of killers alone, or leave town with his new wife.
Though mired in controversy at the time of its release due to its political themes, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four (Actor, Editing, Score and Song) as well as four Golden Globe Awards (Actor, Supporting Actress, Score, and Black and White Cinematography). The award-winning score was written by Russian-born composer Dimitri Tiomkin.
High Noon was selected by the Library of Congress as one of the first 25 films for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" in 1989, the NFR's first year of existence. An iconic film whose story has been partly or completely repeated in later film productions, its ending in particular has inspired a next-to-endless number of later films, including but not just limited to westerns.
In Hadleyville, a small town in New Mexico Territory, Marshal Will Kane, newly married to Amy Fowler, prepares to retire. The happy couple will soon depart for a new life to raise a family and run a store in another town. However, word arrives that Frank Miller, a vicious outlaw whom Kane sent to prison, has been released and will arrive on the noon train. Miller's gang—his younger brother Ben, Jack Colby, and Jim Pierce—await his arrival at the train station.
Will Kane and Amy Fowler argue in the Marshal's office
For Amy, a devout Quaker and pacifist, the solution is simple—leave town before Miller arrives, but Kane's sense of duty and honor make him stay. Besides, he says, Miller and his gang will hunt him down anyway. Amy gives Kane an ultimatum: She is leaving on the noon train, with or without him.
Kane visits with a series of old friends and allies, but none can (or will) help: Judge Percy Mettrick, who sentenced Miller, flees on horseback, and urges Kane to do the same. Kane's young deputy Harvey Pell, who is bitter that Kane did not recommend him as his successor, says he will stand with Kane only if Kane goes to the city fathers and "puts the word in" for him. When Kane refuses to do so, Pell turns in his badge.
Kane's efforts to round up a posse at Ramírez’ Saloon, and then the church, are met with fear and hostility. Some townspeople, worried that a gunfight would damage the town's reputation, urge Kane to avoid the confrontation entirely. Some are Miller's friends, but others resent that Kane cleaned up the town in the first place. Some are of the opinion that their tax money goes to support local law enforcement and the fight is not a posse's responsibility. Sam Fuller hides in his house, sending his wife Mildred to the door to tell Kane he is not home. Jimmy offers to help, but is vision impaired and drunk; Kane sends him home for his own safety. The mayor continues to encourage Kane to just leave town. Kane's predecessor, Martin Howe, cannot assist Kane, as he is too old and arthritic. Herb Baker had agreed to be deputized, but backs out when he realizes he is the only volunteer. A final offer of aid comes from a 14-year-old boy; Kane admires his courage, but turns him down.
While waiting at the hotel for the train, Amy meets Helen Ramírez, who was once Miller's lover, then Kane's, finally Pell's, and is leaving as well. Helen tells Amy that if Kane were her man, she would not abandon him in his hour of need.
At the stables, Pell saddles a horse and tries to persuade Kane to take it. Their conversation becomes an argument, and then a fist fight. Kane finally knocks his former deputy senseless. Kane returns to his office to write out his will as the clock ticks toward noon.
Kane then goes into the street to face Miller and his gang alone. The perspective elevates and expands to show Kane standing alone on a deserted street. The gunfight begins. As the train is about to depart, Amy hears the gunfire, leaps off, and runs back to town. Kane guns down Ben Miller and Colby, but is wounded as Miller attempts to burn Kane out of a barn. Choosing her husband's life over her religious beliefs, Amy picks up the handgun hanging inside Kane's office and shoots Pierce from behind, leaving only Frank Miller, who grabs Amy as a human shield to force Kane into the open. When Amy claws Miller's face, he makes the mistake of pushing her to the ground, and Kane shoots him dead.
Kane helps his bride to her feet and they embrace. As the townspeople emerge and cluster around him, Kane throws his marshal's star in the dirt, glares at the crowd, and departs with Amy on their wagon.
Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane
Grace Kelly as Amy Fowler Kane
Katy Jurado as Helen Ramírez
The creation and release of High Noon intersected with the second Red Scare and the Korean War. In 1951, during production of the film, Carl Foreman was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during its investigation of "Communist propaganda and influence" in the Hollywood motion picture industry. Foreman had once been a member of the Communist party, but he declined to identify fellow members, or anyone he suspected of current membership. As a result, he was labeled an "uncooperative witness" by the committee, making him vulnerable to blacklisting. After his refusal to name names was made public, Foreman's production partner Stanley Kramer demanded an immediate dissolution of their partnership. As a signatory to the production loan, Foreman remained with the High Noon project; but before the film's release, he sold his partnership share to Kramer and moved to Britain, knowing that he would not find further work in the United States.
Kramer later asserted that he ended their partnership because Foreman had threatened to falsely name him to HUAC as a Communist. Foreman said that Kramer feared damage to his own career due to "guilt by association". Foreman was indeed blacklisted by the Hollywood studios due to the "uncooperative witness" label and additional pressure from Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn, MPA president John Wayne, and Los Angeles Times gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.
According to Darkness at High Noon: The Carl Foreman Documents—a 2002 documentary based in part on a lengthy 1952 letter from Foreman to film critic Bosley Crowther—Foreman's role in the creation and production of High Noon has been unfairly downplayed over the years in favor of Kramer's. Foreman told Crowther that the film originated from a four-page plot outline he wrote that turned out to be very similar to a short story by John W. Cunningham called "The Tin Star". Foreman purchased the film rights to Cunningham's story and wrote the screenplay. By the time the documentary aired, most of the principals were dead, including Kramer, Foreman, Zinnemann, and Cooper. Victor Navasky, author of Naming Names, a definitive account of the Hollywood blacklist, told a reporter that, based on his interviews with Kramer's widow and others, the documentary seemed "one-sided, and the problem is it makes a villain out of Stanley Kramer, when it was more complicated than that".
Richard Fleischer later claimed he helped Carl Foreman develop the story of High Noon over eight weeks while driving to and from the set of The Clay Pigeon (1949) which they were making together. Fleischer says his RKO contract prevented him from directing High Noon.
Gary Cooper hugging Grace Kelly while Katy Jurado stares at them, promotional photograph for the film
John Wayne was originally offered the lead role in the film, but turned it down because he felt that Foreman's story was an obvious allegory against blacklisting, which he actively supported. Later, he told an interviewer that he would "never regret having helped run Foreman out of the country". Gary Cooper was Wayne's longtime friend, and shared his conservative political views; he had been a "friendly witness" before HUAC, but did not implicate anyone as a suspected Communist, and later became a vigorous opponent of blacklisting. Ironically, Cooper won an Academy Award for his performance, and since he was working in Europe at the time, asked Wayne to accept the Oscar on his behalf. Although Wayne's contempt for the film and refusal of its lead role were well known, he said, "I'm glad to see they're giving this to a man who is not only most deserving, but has conducted himself throughout the years in our business in a manner that we can all be proud of ... Now that I'm through being such a good sport ... I'm going back and find my business manager and agent ... and find out why I didn't get High Noon instead of Cooper ..."
After Wayne turned down the Will Kane role, Kramer offered it to Gregory Peck, who declined because he felt it was too similar to his role in The Gunfighter, the year before. He later said he considered it the biggest mistake of his career. Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Charlton Heston also declined the role.
Kramer saw Grace Kelly in an off-Broadway play and cast her as Kane's bride, despite Cooper and Kelly's substantial age disparity (50 and 21, respectively). Rumors of an affair between Cooper and Kelly during filming remain unsubstantiated. Kelly biographer Donald Spoto wrote that there was no evidence of a romance, aside from tabloid gossip. Biographer Gina McKinnon speculated that "there might well have been a roll or two in the hay bales", but cited no evidence, other than a remark by Kelly's sister Lizanne that Kelly was "infatuated" with Cooper.
Lee Van Cleef made his film debut in High Noon. Kramer first offered him the Harvey Pell role, after seeing him in a touring production of Mister Roberts, on the condition that he have his nose surgically altered to appear less menacing. Van Cleef refused, and was cast instead as Colby, the only role of his career without a single line of dialog.
High Noon was filmed in the late summer/early fall of 1951 in several locations in California. The opening scenes, under the credits, were shot at Iverson Movie Ranch near Los Angeles. A few town scenes were shot in Columbia State Historic Park, a preserved Gold Rush mining town near Sonora, but most of the street scenes were filmed on the Columbia Movie Ranch in Burbank. St. Joseph's Church in Tuolumne City was used for exterior shots of the Hadleyville church. The railroad was the old Sierra Railroad in Jamestown, a few miles south of Columbia, now known as Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, and often nicknamed "the movie railroad" due to its frequent use in films and television shows. The railroad station was built for the film alongside a water tower at Warnerville, about 15 miles to the southwest.
Cooper was reluctant to film the fight scene with Bridges due to ongoing problems with his back, but did, without the use of a stunt double. He wore no makeup, to emphasize his character's anguish and fear, which was probably intensified by pain from recent surgery to remove a bleeding ulcer.
The running time of the story almost precisely parallels the running time of the film — an effect heightened by frequent shots of clocks, to remind the characters (and the audience) that the villain will be arriving on the noon train.
The movie's theme song, "High Noon" (as it is credited in the film), also known by its opening lyric, "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling", became a major hit on the Country-Western charts for Tex Ritter, and later, a pop hit for Frankie Laine as well. Its popularity set a precedent for theme songs that were featured in many subsequent Western films. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin's score and song, with lyrics by Ned Washington, became popular for years afterwards and Tiomkin became in demand for future westerns in the 1950s like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Last Train From Gun Hill.
The film earned an estimated $3.4 million at the North American box office in 1952.
Upon its release, critics and audiences expecting chases, fights, spectacular scenery, and other common Western film elements were dismayed to find them largely replaced by emotional and moralistic dialogue until the climactic final scenes. Some critics scoffed at the unorthodox rescue of the hero by the heroine. David Bishop argued that had Quaker Amy not helped her husband by shooting a man in the back, such inaction would have pulled pacifism "toward apollonian decadence". Alfred Hitchcock thought Kelly's performance was "rather mousy" and lacking in animation; only in later films, he said, did she show her true star quality.
High Noon has been cited as a favorite by several U.S. presidents. Dwight Eisenhower screened the film at the White House, and Bill Clinton hosted a record 17 White House screenings. "It's no accident that politicians see themselves as Gary Cooper in High Noon", Clinton said. "Not just politicians, but anyone who's forced to go against the popular will. Any time you're alone and you feel you're not getting the support you need, Cooper's Will Kane becomes the perfect metaphor." Ronald Reagan cited High Noon as his favorite film, due to the protagonist's strong commitment to duty and the law.
By contrast, John Wayne told an interviewer that he considered High Noon "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life", and later teamed with director Howard Hawks to make Rio Bravo in response. "I made Rio Bravo because I didn't like High Noon", Hawks explained. "Neither did Duke [Wayne]. I didn't think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn't my idea of a good Western."
Zinnemann responded, "I admire Hawks very much. I only wish he'd leave my films alone!" In a 1973 interview, he added, "I'm rather surprised at [Hawks' and Wayne's] thinking. Sheriffs are people and no two people are alike. The story of High Noon takes place in the Old West but it is really a story about a man's conflict of conscience. In this sense it is a cousin to A Man for All Seasons. In any event, respect for the Western hero has not been diminished by High Noon."
The film was criticized in the Soviet Union as "glorification of the individual".
In Chapter XXXV of The Virginian by Owen Wister, there is a description of an incident very similar to the central plot of High Noon. Trampas (a villain) calls out the Virginian, who has a new bride waiting whom he might lose if he goes ahead with the gunfight. High Noon has even been described as a "straight remake" of the 1929 film version of The Virginian in which Cooper also starred.
Entertainment Weekly ranked Will Kane on their list of The 20 All Time Coolest Heroes in Pop Culture.
In 1989, 22-year-old Polish graphic designer Tomasz Sarnecki transformed Marian Stachurski's 1959 Polish variant of the High Noon poster into a Solidarity election poster for the first partially free elections in communist Poland. The poster, which was displayed all over Poland, shows Cooper armed with a folded ballot saying "Wybory" (i.e., elections) in his right hand while the Solidarity logo is pinned to his vest above the sheriff's badge. The message at the bottom of the poster reads: "W samo południe: 4 czerwca 1989", which translates to "High Noon: 4 June 1989."
As former Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa wrote, in 2004,
Under the headline "At High Noon" runs the red Solidarity banner and the date—June 4, 1989—of the poll. It was a simple but effective gimmick that, at the time, was misunderstood by the Communists. They, in fact, tried to ridicule the freedom movement in Poland as an invention of the "Wild" West, especially the U.S. But the poster had the opposite impact: Cowboys in Western clothes had become a powerful symbol for Poles. Cowboys fight for justice, fight against evil, and fight for freedom, both physical and spiritual. Solidarity trounced the Communists in that election, paving the way for a democratic government in Poland. It is always so touching when people bring this poster up to me to autograph it. They have cherished it for so many years and it has become the emblem of the battle that we all fought together.
The 1981 science fiction film Outland, starring Sean Connery as a federal agent on an interplanetary mining outpost, has been compared to High Noon due to similarities in themes and plot.
High Noon is referenced several times on the HBO drama series The Sopranos. Tony Soprano cites Gary Cooper's character as the archetype of what a man should be, mentally tough and stoic. He frequently laments, "Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?" and refers to Will Kane as the "strong, silent type". The iconic ending to the film is shown on a television during an extended dream sequence in the fifth-season episode "The Test Dream".
High Noon inspired the 2008 hip-hop song of the same name by rap artist Kinetics, in which High Noon is mentioned along with several other classic Western films, drawing comparisons between rap battles and Western-film street showdowns.
Sequels and remakes
- A television sequel, High Noon, Part II: The Return of Will Kane, was produced in 1980, and aired on CBS in November of that year. Lee Majors and Katherine Cannon played the Cooper and Kelly roles. Elmore Leonard wrote the original screenplay.
- Outland is a 1981 British science fiction thriller film written and directed by Peter Hyams and starring Sean Connery, Peter Boyle, and Frances Sternhagen that was inspired by High Noon.
- In 2000, Stanley Kramer's widow Karen Sharpe Kramer produced a remake of High Noon as a TV movie for the cable channel TBS. The film starred Tom Skerritt as Will Kane, with Michael Madsen as Frank Miller.
- In 2016, Karen Kramer signed an agreement with Relativity Studios for a feature film remake of High Noon, a modernized version set in the present day at the US-Mexico border. That deal collapsed when Relativity declared bankruptcy the following year; but in 2018, Kramer announced that Classical Entertainment had purchased the rights to the project, which will be produced by Thomas Olaimey with writer-director David L. Hunt.
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