The myth and poetry of the old west come alive in Fred Zinnemann’s (Julia) classic western, High Noon(1952). One of the great treasures of the American cinema, the film stars the legendary Gary Cooper as lawman Will Kane, a marshal who stands alone to defend a town of cowardly citizens against a gang of killers out for revenge. Engaged in the fight of his lifetime, Kane stands to lose everything when the clock strikes noon – his friends, his honor, and his Quaker bride, played by Grace Kelly in one of her first screen roles. Unfolding in real time, the tension builds as we race ever closer to the climactic duel from which the film takes its name. For his career-defining role, Cooper would go on to win the Oscar® for Best Actor. High Noon’s stellar cast also includes Lloyd Bridges (Try and Get Me), Thomas Mitchell (It’s a Wonderful Life), Katy Jurado (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid), Otto Kruger (Saboteur), Lon Chaney (The Wolf Man), Henry Morgan (Strategic Air Command), Jack Elam (Hannie Caulder) and Lee Van Clef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). High Noon won a total four Academy Awards including Best Editing, Best Score (Dimitri Tiomkin, The Old Man and the Sea) and Best Song, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’,”written by Tiomkin and Ned Washington and sung by Tex Ritter. High Noon also received Oscar® nominations for Best Picture (Stanley Kramer, producer), Best Director (Fred Zinnemann) and Best Screenplay (Carl Foreman).
One of the best westerns in the history of cinema really isn't a western at all. 'High Noon' may be set in the dusty town of Hadleyville somewhere in the blistering Southwest and may climax with a memorable showdown between a high-minded sheriff and vicious band of vengeful cowboys, but director Fred Zinnemann's taut, suspenseful drama eschews classic western motifs in favor of timeless personal and social themes. Characters and ideas, not barroom brawls or Indian skirmishes, drive this riveting claustrophobic yarn that waits to explode like a ticking time bomb. Were it not for the constant bright, hot sun bathing every scene, we might term this outdoorsy period piece a film noir.
And yet the western setting, with its black-and-white vision of right and wrong and uncomplicated view of civilization, suits the tale well, emphasizing the core values of honesty, responsibility, and morality that permeate it. The film's premise - a man alone against not only a gang of thugs but also a paranoid society that shuns him - is simple enough, as is the culminating confrontation between good and evil, but the dark subtext of 'High Noon' adds rich, complex shadings that raise the picture to a rarefied plane. A superior, understated script, excellent performances, and artistic direction that meticulously maximizes tension all combine to create an unforgettable motion picture that stands the test of one of the movie's central elements...time.
Clocks are everywhere in the movie - which, much like the TV series '24,' takes place almost in real time - and each second weighs heavily upon Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the soft-spoken marshal of Hadleyville, who's one day shy of retirement. Will has just married his fresh-faced sweetheart, Amy (Grace Kelly), when he learns notorious outlaw Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) has been released from jail and is headed back to town on the noon train, most likely to settle his score with Will, who sent him to prison. Frank's brother and two henchmen await his return at the local depot, and their ominous, scowling presence sends the townsfolk into a tizzy. Though Will's replacement won't arrive until the next day, everyone urges him to flee with his bride and escape the gang's wrath. At first, Will heeds their advice, but soon, his conscience and sense of honor and responsibility to the town he cleaned up and protected overrides his desire for personal safety, and despite the vociferous objections of Amy, who became a pacifist Quaker after her father and brother were killed in a violent attack, he returns to Hadleyville to face the vengeful quartet.
Will only has an hour or so to round up a posse to help him fight Miller and his marauders, but he's met with resistance, both cowardly and thoughtful, at every turn. "It's not my battle" is an oft-repeated refrain that greets Kane everywhere he seeks support - the saloon, church, homes of friends. Even his cocky deputy (Lloyd Bridges) rebuffs him because he's bitter about being passed over for Will's job.
Amy is resentful, too, believing Will doesn't respect her religious beliefs enough to avoid a violent conflict. In a fit of pique, she decides to leave Will on the same train that will bring his nemesis to town. Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), Will's former flame and a successful local businesswoman, also plans to depart, because she believes Hadleyville won't survive the coming carnage.
As noon approaches and the townspeople shutter themselves, Will's abandonment is complete, and he's left to take a stand against a vicious band of trigger-happy gun toters all alone.
At face value, 'High Noon' is a highly effective, straightforward, no-frills thriller that mounts suspense as well as a Hitchcock mystery. But if you read between the lines, the film also reflects the social and political turbulence that affected America at the time. The House UnAmerican Activities Committee called screenwriter Carl Foreman, briefly a card-carrying Communist in the 1930s, to testify during the movie's production, and when he admitted his party affiliation but refused to implicate others, he was perfunctorily labeled an "uncooperative witness" and blacklisted. His experiences definitely influenced the 'High Noon' script, which many have labeled an indictment of McCarthyism.
With good reason. The townspeople and Kane's friends and colleagues keep their heads low and turn their backs on the sheriff to protect themselves, rather than stand up to a bullying entity and fight for the greater good. Fear is a contagion that quickly spreads through the tight-knit community, crippling even the strongest men who appear impervious to weakness. And Will, despite years of noble, courageous work for the people of Hadleyville, becomes persona non grata in the blink of an eye, instantly snubbed (dare we say blacklisted?) by those who saluted and supported him only hours before.
'High Noon' also explores social hypocrisy, denounces religion, and takes an existential tack, as Kane, ultimately forsaken, becomes the master of his own fate. While it's amazing such a tightly constructed film with such an uncomplicated story can brim with so much substance, it's important to note the brilliance of Zinnemann's film lies in its circumspect tone. No grandiose speechifying telegraphs ideas and viewpoints. Instead, an unsettling quiet pervades the piece. We wait for people to speak up and show some passion, but the most powerful statement is their inertia. Interestingly, the movie's opening sequence is silent (except for the overlaid Oscar-winning theme song 'Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling') - a bold and unique choice at the time - and throughout the film Zinnemann crafts an array of indelible images that propel the narrative and convey underlying emotions and motivations without any dialogue. That's the essence of moviemaking, and 'High Noon' is a masterful specimen.
Cooper, who won an Oscar for his iconic portrayal (beating out Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, Jose Ferrer, and Alec Guinness), almost didn't get the role. Gregory Peck was producer Stanley Kramer's first choice for Will Kane, but Peck turned the part down because he felt it was too similar to the character he played in 'The Gunfighter' a year or so earlier. (Peck later termed his refusal of 'High Noon' the biggest mistake of his career.) Though at 50, Cooper was too old for the role - the character is 35 in the story upon which the movie is based - he doesn't try to hide his age. Instead, he embraces it, bringing to Kane a hint of fragility and vulnerability that add to the burden this put-upon man must carry and make us question whether he's fit to take on the young bucks who target him. Cooper's soft-spoken nature, slight awkwardness, and lazy gait also fit the character like a glove, adding a relatable hesitancy to his work that engenders both sympathy and respect.
The supporting cast is excellent, too. In only her second film, the 21-year-old Kelly is still green around the edges and a tad too patrician, but she's a magnetic presence (Zinnemann showers her with beautiful close-ups), while the fiery Jurado won a Golden Globe Award as Best Supporting Actress for her fine work in her second American feature. Lloyd Bridges, Thomas Mitchell, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney, Jr., Harry Morgan, and Lee Van Cleef in his film debut also shine in small but pivotal parts.
In all, 'High Noon' earned seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, and took home four Oscars (Best Actor, Best Editing, Best Score, and Best Song). Ironically, it lost the Best Picture prize to Cecil B. DeMille's 'The Greatest Show on Earth' - in retrospect, one of the worst Best Picture winners in history. Yet DeMille was a champion of McCarthyism, and in a bit of pandering, the Academy bestowed its top honor on his bloated epic to emphasize the film industry's patriotism and send a message that Hollywood was and would continue to be a team player in the fight against Communism.
Today, 'The Greatest Show on Earth' is all but forgotten, but the reputation of 'High Noon' continues to grow, and its potent themes will always remain relevant and inspiring. Call it a western, call it an allegory, call it a drama of ideas, call it a masterwork of precision and suspense. 'High Noon' is many things, but above all, it's a great motion picture that's both entertaining and meaningful. And how fitting that a movie that focuses so intently on the finite nature of time should become one of the most timeless movies in history.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The Olive Signature edition of 'High Noon' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard clear case inside an attractive matte-finish sleeve. Along with the Joan Crawford western 'Johnny Guitar,' 'High Noon' is the inaugural release in the Olive Signature series, and from a purely aesthetic standpoint, it's a classy, impressive product. An eight-page booklet featuring an insightful essay by Nick James and several black-and-white scene shots - all printed on high-quality glossy stock - is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
'High Noon' is an iconic American motion picture, and Olive at last gives it the attention it deserves with a crystal clear, eye-popping 4K restoration that both respects the film's heritage and preserves it for generations to come. Cinematographer Floyd Crosby shot 'High Noon' without filters to preserve the blistering intensity of the natural light, but the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer never looks overly bright or washed out. Exceptional contrast enhances depth and the impact of the stark locations, while rich black levels, well-defined whites, and a finely varied gray scale help even the smallest, most remote details spring into focus. Zinnemann frequently uses close-ups to emphasize the stress and tension of various moments, and they're all stunning. Glistening sweat, facial stubble, and the careworn creases of Cooper's face are all brilliantly rendered, as is Kelly's creamy complexion and Jurado's fiery allure. Thankfully, grain is still evident, but it's seamlessly woven into the film's fabric, and nary a nick, scratch, or mark dot the pristine source material. Excellent shadow delineation keeps crush at bay, and no noise, artifacts, or other digital issues afflict this superior transfer. Without question, this is the best 'High Noon' has ever looked on home video, making an upgrade essential for those who own previous editions. If this is any indication of what future Olive Signature releases will look like, I can't wait to sample what hopefully will be a long and successful line.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track beautifully complements the top-notch video, supplying clear, crisp sound that serves the action well. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows without a hint of distortion, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackles creep into the mix. Sonic accents, such as gunfire, fisticuffs, horse hooves, train whistles, and rickety wagon wheels crunching along dirt roads make notable impressions, while Dimitri Tiomkin's subtle yet stirring music - thanks to superior fidelity and a rich depth of tone - fills the room with ease. The Oscar-winning song, 'Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin',' sung by Tex Ritter and employed to great effect throughout Tiomkin's score, resonates especially well during the opening sequence, setting the tone for the story to come, and all the dialogue is easy to comprehend. The striking visuals of 'High Noon' often eclipse its stellar audio, but this vibrant track allows us to fully appreciate the sound - or lack thereof - that helps make this classic so gripping.
This Olive Signature release greatly expands upon the extras included in the studio's previous Blu-ray release of 'High Noon.' Sadly, the making-of featurette hosted by Leonard Maltin (and featuring comments from Kramer, Zinnemann, Bridges, David Crosby, and John Ritter) has been dropped, but the all-new material is quite comprehensive and presented with the same air of sophistication and class that distinguishes the supplements on Criterion Collection discs. The only thing that's missing is an audio commentary, but there's enough substance in the other extras to dull the impact of that omission.
Featurette: "A Ticking Clock" (HD, 6 minutes) - Academy Award-nominated editor Mark Goldblatt ('Terminator 2: Judgment Day') analyzes the exceptional and often "invisible" editing that's such a vital element of 'High Noon' in this insightful piece. Goldblatt notes how editing "is very much like writing" in the way it helps mount and tell cinematic stories, and how 'High Noon' differs from other westerns because it deals with moral and civic issues and features few rough-and-tumble action scenes. He also discusses how the film's manipulation of time and focus on clocks "works like a fuse on a roll of dynamite."
Featurette: "A Stanley Kramer Production" (HD, 14 minutes) - In this absorbing featurette, producer Michael Schlesinger takes a brief look at the career and "up-and-down reputation" of producer Stanley Kramer and his contribution to 'High Noon.' Schlesinger chronicles how Kramer broke into the movie industry as an independent producer, examines his "hands-on" producing style, and notes 'High Noon' was a western made by people who had never made a western before. He also dissects the controversial dissolution of the partnership between Kramer and screenwriter/producer Carl Foreman due to the Communist witch hunt that swept through Hollywood at the time of production, and explains how a disastrous preview altered 'High Noon' for the better.
Featurette: "Imitation of Life: The Hollywood Blacklist and 'High Noon'" (HD, 9 minutes) - Two perspectives enhance this important featurette. Blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein describes his involvement in politics and the Communist Party as a young man and makes a powerful closing statement about how the current political climate seems ripe for a return to such a dark time, while historian Larry Ceplair provides background on the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy, and recounts the differing stories of Kramer and Foreman regarding their falling out. Both men also look at how 'High Noon' reflects the contemporary issues facing the public during the early 1950s.
Featurette: "Oscars and Ulcers: The Production History of 'High Noon'" (HD, 12 minutes) - Rare archival photos and correspondence distinguish this captivating video essay narrated by Anton Yelchin. We learn about how the film was financed, the hiring of cast and crew, contentious censorship issues that plagued the script, the tight shooting schedule, and the political problems of Foreman, as well as the positive reviews and numerous awards that propelled 'High Noon' to greatness. The piece also touches on the global and timeless message of Zinnemann's movie, which has inspired millions over the years.
Original Essay: "Uncitizened Kane" - This cleverly titled, informative, and well-written essay by Sight & Sound editor Nick James, which also appears in the eight-page booklet that accompanies this release, can be conveniently accessed on screen using your remote.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview, featuring the loaded line, "Time was his deadly enemy," completes the extras package.
Look out, Criterion and Twilight Time! Olive takes a big leap into rarefied territory with its stunning inaugural Signature series release of 'High Noon.' With a spanking new and often breathtaking 4K restoration, high-quality lossless audio, and comprehensive supplemental package, this Blu-ray re-release of Fred Zinnemann's classic existential western becomes an instant must-own for any serious film collector. Gary Cooper won a Best Actor Oscar for his stoic portrayal of a lone lawman who must confront a gang of vengeful demons from his past without any support from his friends, colleagues, or the townspeople he has so diligently protected over the years. A strong supporting cast adds essential flavor and nuance to this taut, suspenseful tale, but it's still the screenplay, direction, editing, and underlying themes of alienation and taking a stand against a culture of fear that make 'High Noon' so riveting. At long last, we have the definitive home video edition of this essential film that plays just as well today as it did 65 years ago.