“Oh, to be torn ‘twixt love and duty” — Ned Washington

December 31, 2009

GARY COOPER

So anyway, I didn’t want to get up yesterday morning, and Turner Classics was playing “High Noon.” I had seen it only about three dozen times, so I decided to watch. It never gets old. Its reputation has grown with the years, and deservedly so. The idea of telling a story in real time when there is virtually no action until the last couple of minutes was a master stroke — although there seems to be some dispute over whose stroke it was.

Unlike most westerns of that period – 1952 – this film is deeply cynical. It seeks to confirm my father-in-law’s frequent pronouncement that “people are no damned good,” as an entire town folds under the threat of the returning reprobate, Frank Miller, and leaves Marshal Will Kane to face Miller and his gang alone – or so they think.

Gary Cooper played the marshal – a good choice for the cerebral lawman, although there were some doubters because Cooper was so much older than his love interest in the film, Grace Kelly.

GARY COOPER and GRACE KELLY

This film was controversial in a way that illustrates the philosophical polarization of  American society at the time. Carl Foreman wrote the screenplay and was a co-producer with Stanley Kramer, but when Foreman refused to cooperate with the House Unamerican Activities Committee, Kramer basically forced him out of the project and took away his credit as a producer.

John Wayne publicly denounced this film as an allegory about those who failed to support actors and other creative artists who were being badgered by the House committee. Ostensibly, he made “Rio Bravo” as a right-wing response to “High Noon.”  On the other hand, Ronald Reagan took the story at face value and said he liked the portrayal of the marshal as dedicated to law and order and more concerned about the well being of the town than about his own life. Dwight Eisenhower was a fan of “High Noon,” and Bill Clinton had it screened 17 times while he was president.

TEX RITTER

Besides the concept itself, the cinematography, and the performances by Cooper and the rest of a strong cast — including Lloyd Bridges and Thomas Mitchell — this film owes its status to the title song with words by Ned Washington and music by Dmitri Tiomkin. The song, performed by the great western singer Tex Ritter, drifts into the background again and again, adding to the tension. Frankie Laine’s recording of this song sold a million copies, and I like his performance, but listening to someone other than Ritter sing “High Noon” is like listening to someone other than Johnny Mathis sing “Misty.”

The title song won an Academy Award that year. British film writer Deborah Allison maintains that the film played a pivotal role in movie-movie history. Her interesting article as at THIS LINK.

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