O to be torn, ‘twixt love and duty
In the summer of 1952, my mother took my four-year-old brother and my seven-year-old self to see Peter Pan at RKO Keith’s Theatre on 15th Street in Washington, across the street from the U.S. Treasury. The line at Keith’s was three blocks long,1 so we walked two blocks up 15th to the New Yorker to see High Noon.
High Noon may not have been the first “adult” film I ever saw, but it was the first adult film I remember seeing. What is remarkable in retrospect is how much of the film’s “adultness” I was able to absorb. I comprehended High Noon as a conscious artifice rather than responding innocently to it as I would have — and later did — to Peter Pan.2 Whether writer Carl Foreman and director Fred Zinnemann would be pleased to know that their now-legendary parable of public cowardice could be largely if not entirely encompassed by the sensibility of a seven-year-old child is another matter.
By age seven I had already digested dozens of B westerns, so I had a background of knowledge on which to judge High Noon, and it’s striking how often the film plays off the “standard” western. The opening shot, of a lone rider silhouetted against an overwhelming but not necessarily beneficent Nature, is iconic in the extreme. But immediately you have to ask yourself, is this a good guy or a bad guy? Since I did not know who Gary Cooper was, I couldn’t recognize that this fellow (Lee Van Cleef,3 in his very first role) was not the hero, but there was something about him that created ambiguity, the extravagant cant of his six-guns suggesting that perhaps this man fought for profit rather than justice.4
Even when he’s joined by a second rider, Sheb Wooley,5 their moral status remains ambiguous. Lee is leaner than Cassius himself, but Sheb is pretty handsome, and in the movies, handsome means good. It’s only when the seriously not handsome Robert J. Wilke6 shows up that we realize that we’re in the company of evil.7
There’s another nice device as the three ride into Hadleyville — the reactions of the townfolk as they pass by fill in the backstory for us. These guys are bad, and they’re back, and they must mean trouble!
They pass a church, packed with people, and then they pass another building and we cut inside to see a wedding, not being held in the church, a surprisingly, almost explicitly “unreligious” touch in a Hollywood film. At the wedding, we quickly figure out what’s what and who’s who — Gary Cooper/Will Kane is the town marshal who’s hanging up his star, and his gun, to marry the prettiest damn schoolmarm anyone will ever see, Grace Kelly/Amy, a cherry vanilla sundae of Quaker virginity come to life.
In the meantime, the bad guys have headed out to the train station, inquiring about, yes, the noon train. The stationmaster, having just received telegraphic notice that Frank Miller has just been released from state prison, doesn’t have to guess very hard that Frank will be on that train. He hotfoots it over to the wedding to fill everyone in on the bad news.
Naturally, all the wedding folk want Will and Amy to run. Will, being a man of integrity, wants to stay, but, hey, the new marshal is arriving tomorrow, and he can take care of it. And if he can’t, well, that’s his problem.
As Will and Amy depart, they’re observed, even as Colby, Pierce, Miller were observed on their ride in. This time, it’s Deputy Marshall Harvey Pell (hairy-chested and baby-faced Lloyd Bridges8) who does the observing, along with Helen Ramirez, the magnificent Katy Jurado, whose ample, tawny, bed-warmed flesh creates an erotic nimbus — a most supple, palpable, and, above all, graspable nimbus — upon which a man could float forever.9
The relaxed, bed-warmed demeanor of the two lets us know we’re a long way from the moral landscape of a B western, a conviction enhanced by Katy’s response to Lloyd’s remark that Coop and Kelly are heading out of town in a “big hurry,” Katy thinking that Lloyd is making a cheap wedding-night joke, when in fact he’s sensing desperation rather than desire.
Of course, Coop isn’t really going to run. Men don’t run. All this Quaker talk is just gal talk, and Coop, he ain’t a gal. He’s sticking. But when he heads back into town he learns that all the smart folks think he’s a fool. Judge Percy Mettrick (Otto Kruger) gives Coop a civics lesson that you won’t get in school, and rarely got in the movies way back in 1952: “In the fifth century BC the citizens of Athens, having suffered grievously under a tyrant, managed to depose and banish him. However, when he returned some years later with an army of mercenaries, those same citizens not only opened the gates for him but stood by while he executed members of the legal government. A similar thing happened about eight years ago in a town called Indian Falls.”
Such a combination of erudition and cynicism dazzled my seven-year-old mind, though, fortunately, I did not begin peppering my conversation with allusions to the works of Lucian or Juvenal. Coop, naturally, isn’t impressed. He strides out of the judge’s office to engage in half a dozen fool’s errands, only to discover that everyone in town, including the mayor and the minister, think he’s a fool! They shuffle and stammer, and talk and talk, and think that talk can rearrange the truth, but the truth is that Frank Miller is arriving on the noon train, bringing the unholy fires of Hell with him, and the only way he can be stopped is with a gun.
While Coop journeys, the film takes repeated pokes at the socio-cultural comfort food of the mid-century American mind. As a child, I did not attend church until I was seven, when a smooth-talking Episcopalian minister — actually a very nice guy — moved in down the block from my parents’ house. I was a convinced Darwinist before I could read, thanks to the picture book Life Long Ago, and I had a sharp dislike for the seemingly all-pervasive religiosity that pervaded American popular culture, and it was singularly bracing to see Christianity treated as just another flawed human institution — more flawed, in fact, than most. Early in the film there’s a particular dig when Helen sends Sam (Tom London), her pimp/factotum, to fetch Ed Weaver (Cliff Clark), her silent business partner, dragging him out of church under the very nose of his wife.10 Jesus is important, sure, but when Helen Ramirez calls, a man doesn’t tarry! First things first!
High Noon is filled with subversive socio-sexual undercurrents — for example, the encounter between Amy — defiantly and symbolically chaste in her blindingly white wedding dress, which, it appears, she is likely to be wearing for the rest of her life, à la Miss Havisham — and the bitchy, swishy desk clerk at Helen Ramirez’s hotel (Howland Chamberlain11), who hints broadly at the “Heathen’s Heaven” that flourished in Hadleyville when Frank Miller ran things, when there weren’t no Ten Commandments, and a man could raise a thirst.12 Amy, trembling under the clerk’s sneering, leering eye, gladly accepts Helen’s invitation to wait for the train with her in her suite, setting up an epic confrontation between the very antipodes of femininity, the yin and the yang, the light and the dark, who must ultimately combine to put Frank Miller in his grave.
“You don’t know what it was like, being a Mexican woman in this town,” Helen says, giving Amy a double dose of enlightenment regarding both sexism and racism. “Yes, I understand,” says Amy, in one of the least convincing line readings in Hollywood history. Excuse me, but who would be less likely to know what it would be like to be a Mexican woman in a western border town than Grace Kelly?
Dubious as Amy’s response is, Helen is more than ready for it. “You do? That’s good, because I don’t understand you.” Helen is not interested in ideas or principles. Right and wrong, good and bad, these are mere words. She is of the Earth. In fact, she is the Earth. She understands strength and weakness. A woman goes with the strong man. Kane is the strong man, and Amy is his woman. She should go with him, no matter what.
While Katy and Helen wrangle, Coop is searching, searching, searching, for an honest man, and everywhere he goes, he comes up short. As he goes, the clock is ticking, and we see this — big clocks, little clocks, fancy clocks, cheap clocks, all of them telling the same story. Not exactly subtle, but seven-year-olds don’t do subtle. I got it! Time is running out, and the noon train is on the way! Even the deliciously overripe “High Noon” theme, written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington and delivered by Tex Ritter’s inimitable backcountry (or is it “upcountry”?) baritone, tells us so: “Watch how that big hand moves along!”13
It’s only when the suitably scarred14 Frank Miller finally arrives that the film reverts to western cliché. As a good guy, Will is required to give the bad guys the chance to draw first, although, of course, peace officers in the old west always drew first, because otherwise they would be dead. But if Will drew first, well, we’d have no picture, and so we get a pretty satisfying shoot-out, with yet one more shocking twist: it’s okay to shoot a guy in the back! Well, it is if you’re a woman, and the guy is as ugly as Bob Wilke.15
The backstory to High Noon is matched by few films. At the time of its release, it was very widely regarded as a parable of McCarthyism, though if Old Joe had seen it sans knowledge of the backstory, he surely would have seen himself as Will Kane — “that’s me up there, facing down those commies all alone!”
High Noon was largely scriptwriter Carl Foreman’s baby. Foreman broke into films writing scripts for the Bowery Boys — both Bowery Blitzkrieg and Spooks Run Wild — but quickly moved uptown, joining forces with producer Stanley Kramer in the late forties to create a number of highly successful “message films” like Champion, which made a star out of former wrestler Kirk Douglas, and Home of the Brave, the first “modern” film about racial prejudice, and the first since the 1934 Eugene O’Neill/Paul Robeson curio/classic The Emperor Jones to use the word “nigger.” Foreman was originally to be listed as co-producer of High Noon, but Kramer, fearing bad publicity over Foreman’s communist past, gave him screen credit only for the script. Foreman refused to participate in the “naming names” ritual16 before the House Un-American Activities Committee and became persona non grata in Hollywood, emigrating to Great Britain before the film’s release.
It appears that during the filming of High Noon Gary Cooper became quite impressed with Foreman’s talents and discussed forming a production company with him. The thought of a star of Cooper’s magnitude going into business with a commie drove the anti-commie elite into overdrive, rallying folks like John Wayne, Harry Cohn, and Hedda Hopper to ruin Foreman’s career, which they did, for a while. He wrote the script for one English film, The Sleeping Tiger (1954), directed by fellow blacklist victim Joseph Losey. He is credited with the scripts for two major Hollywood films in 1957, A Hatful of Rain17 and The Bridge on the River Kwai,18 the first of the “thinking man’s epics” that flourished after the demise of the sword and sandal epics of the early and mid-fifties, lasting up until the arrival of “modern Hollywood” in 1967 with the release of Warren Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde.
There are several documentaries on the making of High Noon, available on some but not all of the many DVD versions of the film now available. The one I’ve seen features considerable footage of Foreman himself, giving his side (and only his side) of the story. We’re treated to veterans of the blacklist era saying thing like “If being in favor of civil rights made you a communist, then I was a communist.” Never do they say things like “If supporting the Nazi-Soviet Pact made you a communist, then I was a communist” or “If slavishly obeying the dictates of one of the worst mass-murderers in history made you a communist, then I was a communist.”19
The 60th anniversary Blu-Ray edition of High Noon, which you can rent from Netflix, has easily the best print of this film I’ve ever seen. Accept no substitutes.
- Three blocks long and three feet high. [↩]
- I guess my response to Tinker Belle’s ass was not entirely innocent. The little fairy’s persona strikes me as a remarkable prefiguring of Brigitte Bardot. When Roger Vadim “created” Brigitte, did he have Tink in mind? [↩]
- After High Noon, Van Cleef worked largely in TV for a decade, until his role in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly made him film-worthy. [↩]
- Although we never really get to see it, Van Cleef is wearing a very fancy rig, a “double cross draw,” which requires the wearer to reach across his body to draw his guns. It’s not emphasized, for the simple reason that Coop plugs Lee before he has a chance to draw (or speak). [↩]
- Wooley, though he worked steadily in westerns for decades, mostly on TV, is best known for his 1958 novelty hit “Flying Purple People Eater,” even though his good looks earned him a leading role in the sixties TV series Rawhide, the show that served as Clint Eastwood’s springboard to fame. In 1988 Wooley had a minor role in the presumably light-hearted Purple People Eater, which starred Ned Beatty, Shelley Winters, Neil Patrick Harris, Peggy Lipton, Chubby Checker, and Little Richard. About ten years ago at an office Christmas party I ended up with a flying purple people eater doll that played Sheb’s original recording when you pressed its nose. [↩]
- I can only remember seeing Wilke in this one film, but he’s always been my favorite heavy. There’s no elegant, understated menace, no twisted sickness. This man is just fucking bad! He’ll stomp on a puppy and laugh! Unfortunately, Wilke was never able to muscle his beefy menace into more than stereotypical roles. [↩]
- In case we’re still not sure, the groaning soundtrack fills us in. [↩]
- Bridges, 38 when he made High Noon, was still looking for his big break. This should have been it, but his communist past forced him into TV instead, becoming famous, but probably not very rich, as Mike Nelson in the seriously old-time B&W syndicated Sea Hunt series. Fortunately, Lloyd learned patience, and, helped by the careers of sons Jeff and Beau Bridges, enjoyed considerable success in his old age, last appearing as Jerry Seinfeld’s acerbic fitness coach (“bring your jock, if you’ve got one”) . [↩]
- At age seven, I was afraid of Katy but at the same time I sort of wanted to climb on her. She was clearly more reality than I or America could handle. She was fourth-billed in the all-star Trapeze (1955), behind Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, and Gina Lollobrigida, but otherwise couldn’t break into A pictures even after High Noon. If she had been Italian rather than Mexican — and thus more “continental” — she might have had more success. [↩]
- The penis-shriveling beatdowns Helen administers to both Ed Weaver and Harv have delighted feminists for decades. I saw High Noon on a college campus in the seventies, and when Helen unleashed her classic “I don’t like anybody to put his hands on me unless I want him to, and right now I don’t like you to — any more,” inevitably, a chick in the audience shouted out “Right on, sister!” [↩]
- Howland was not only swishy (at least on film) but a commie. After appearing in an episode of the Superman TV series in 1952, he was blacklisted for 22 years. [↩]
- Kipling’s once-famous couplet “Send me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, where there ain’t no Ten Commandments and a man can raise a thirst” stated the attractions of Empire perhaps a bit too boldly for the would-be Winston Churchills hanging around the American Enterprise Institute three blocks from my pad. [↩]
- When Tex isn’t singing, the theme and variations continue to ripple and rumble on the soundtrack, sometimes affecting a staccato rhythm that provides a near-onomatopoeic approximation of the thrusting pistons of Sierra No. 3, the famous “movie locomotive” that bears Frank Miller toward his doom. [↩]
- Facial scars are almost always the mark of Cain in films, an outward sign of inward evil. [↩]
- Wilke’s so gloriously bad that after he’s gone, the elimination of Frank Miller is only an afterthought. Frank is classy bad — he has a mind, more or less — so he ought to be the greater evil, but Wilke is such an elemental ogre that he outclasses everyone. [↩]
- It was considered “not enough” for former communists to admit to having been a communist. Only implicating others was considered proof of a pure soul. [↩]
- A Hatful of Rain was based on a now-forgotten Broadway shocker about drug addiction. When I was a boy, I frequently rode the train between Washington, D.C., and New York. In those days, each station along the way would carry ads for Broadway hits. A Hatful of Rain ran for years, along with Golden Boy (“Sammy Davis Jr. is a powerhouse!”) and, of course, My Fair Lady. A Hatful of Rain was written by Michael Gazzo, who moved to Hollywood and ended up writing the script for Elvis Presley’s King Creole. Apparently, Mike found the whole Hollywood writing process a bit soul-shattering and switched to acting, appearing in supporting roles in dozens of films and TV series, most notably as Frankie Pentangeli in The Godfather II. His only other writing credits were for adaptations of A Hatful of Rain, including one for Italian TV, where it was known as Un cappello pieno di pioggia. [↩]
- From what I’ve read, Foreman wrote the first draft, which was then reworked by fellow blacklistee Michael Wilson. Pierre Boule, author of the original novel, who could neither read nor write English, was given sole screen credit and, naturally, won the Oscar for best screenplay as well. In 1984, Foreman and Wilson were finally given screen credit. Wilson was already dead, and Foreman died the day after the announcement was made. Hollywood, like the communists, and like the Catholic Church, has a strong preference for martyrs. They’re so much less talkative than the living. [↩]
- If a thorough, even-handed history of the communist and anti-communist movements in Hollywood exists, I’ve never seen it. Fifty years after, it’s still “too soon.” No one acts out the way actors act out, and as long as you can piss off the suits by saying that the communists had a point, actors will do so. [↩]