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High Noon (Blu-ray Review)

23 Jul, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado.

Hollywood made a ga-zillion Westerns of all stripes in the 1950s, including the psychedelic-before-its-time Red Garters, which was shot in Technicolor you can still hear. But if we're talking about 1.33 black-and-white, I suspect that this 1952 landmark from producer Stanley Kramer, writer Carl Foreman and director Fred Zinnemann was the movie most responsible for the fact that by 1959, something like 35% of network TV programming was devoted to black-and-white Westerns. Just my Monday nights alone began with John Payne in The Restless Gun and Dale Robertson in Tales of Wells Fargo.

This was one influential movie, even though auteurists never liked it — nor did my old NYU prof William K. Everson, who, long before he entered a kind of “emeritus” stage, was probably this country's (if not the world's) foremost authority on the genre. And it has pretty well been confirmed that Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo in answer to High Noon, a movie he disdained because he didn't think Gary Cooper's town marshal should have even expected a local citizenry (with a fairly high weasel quotient to boot) to aid him in what was a professional undertaking: pumping lead into four outlaws seeking personal revenge. Of course, in Rio Bravo, you don't even see too many of the regular townsfolk — just the hired guns who spend their blood money in the local saloon plus some Gonzalez-Gonzalez comedy relief at the hotel.

I think several of Noon's characters — particularly the Quaker wife played by Grace Kelly, the morally shaky deputy played by Lloyd Bridges and the community girl friend played by Katy Jurado — are very well drawn in limited screen time. But they are not particularly idiosyncratic, and I can see how fellow moviegoers who gravitate to the kind of supporting-cast oddballs and squirrels you routinely find in Hawks and Ford could find it (atop its allegorical Red Scare story-telling) underwhelming. But I remain awed by the movie's professionalism and even recently have been reminded — twice — of its power on the imagination.

The first came when someone on TV again brought up that it's Bill Clinton's favorite movie (does Cooper end up being another “Comeback Kid” or what?). The other came when I met a room of new-to-me baseball fans, part of a group that drove/flew in to catch all three Yankees-Nationals games in Washington, and a couple of them turned out to be very knowledgeable about movies. So the conversation naturally turned - as it always does among all hetero guys of a certain age — to Grace Kelly. Most of the time, these conversations end up being dominated by the Kelly of Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, but it turns out that one of the guys had always had his imagination stirred up by that tight Quaker wedding outfit the actress wears in what was only her second screen outing (and first movie role of any consequence). And the dilemma Cooper faces isn't merely the obviously fear-inducing one that comes from facing 4-to-1 outlaw odds. It's also that you have just married Kelly moments before and turned in your badge — whereupon society is not only granting you permission but is encouraging you to have a week or 10 days of consecutive sex with her if she agrees. But no: you're going to turn the buckboard around and head back for the probably fatal confrontation — which, among other things, forces her and her Quaker values to leave you.

Just about every generation since the film's release has been able to grow up with High Noon: it was one of the few really big-name movies of the '50s released to television before the decade was even completed (I saw it for the first time on a Friday night late, late show in the fall of 1959, just after entering seventh grade). This was a big, big deal at the time because the film had won four Oscars: for Cooper — and also for Elmo Williams' editing, Dimitri Tiomkin's world-famous score and the title tune (“Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling”) — which is sung by Tex Ritter in the movie but went to Billboard's No. 5 via the smash Frankie Laine Columbia single. I suspect that many of those enamored (including the future president) could easily have managed to see High Noon half-a-dozen times by the time of high school graduation, as did I. But this is Blu-ray, and for the first time I can see the sweat on villain Lee Van Cleef's face (a mixed blessing, of you want to argue it that way) and get a hitherto unrealized sense of (a la Kelly's Rear Window) what a life-before-air-conditioning movie this is. Note from the people fanning themselves how sweltering it is in the church, and it isn't even … noon.

Folklore has long had it that the still amazing juxtaposition of Williams' editing against Tiomkin's score “saved” what had been a problem picture — though a miffed Zinnemann tried to shoot this down with claims that its brilliantly crafted structural values were always part of the grand plan. I haven't seen Zinnemann's 1951 Teresa in so long that I don't have an opinion about the degree to which it mucks up a grand directorial streak. But I do think that The Men, High Noon, The Member of the Wedding, From Here to Eternity and Oklahoma! (the 65mm TODD-AO version, not the shot-separately and inferior 35mm alternative) represents one of its era's most supreme runs (1950-55).

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