High Noon (1952)

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*. I love this movie so much. Let me try and count just a few of the ways.
*. It’s tight. So nice to bring in a movie like this in 84 minutes (the real time of the plot), and not feel there’s any padding.
*. I can’t think of another movie I’ve really liked Gary Cooper in. But here he’s perfect. That face is so soft and jowly and so granite-like, the perfect combination of toughness and vulnerability for the role. And it’s a wonderful understated performance. Look at how little he gives away as the mayor sells him out in front of the churchgoers.

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*. I feel like I should hate the song, but I actually find it quite moving. Especially the part about not carin’ ’bout dyin’, but only if his woman’s leavin’.
*. I love the montage as the clock ticks down to noon, ending not in a clock gonging the hour but the train’s whistle.
*. I love all the nice psychological touches. The way Will keeps trying to force an ingratiating smile at the people he hates having to ask for help, and then letting the smile slide and crumble. The way Harvey has to fight with Will to try and prove he’s not a coward. The way Will stops crying when he realizes the boy is there. The way the townsman looks when he’s buying Helen’s store off her, at what’s probably a very nice rate. The way Will looks when it dawns on him that he’s being thrown under the bus in the church scene. So many perfect moments. And best of all Will’s face as the camera pulls away from him during the famous crane shot, leaving him alone on the street.
*. I love how the laconic script leaves so much unsaid, and that it doesn’t need to be said. Like the nature and history of the relationship between Will and Helen. No need to go over it. Just look at the two of them together.
*. I love the opening shot, revealing . . . Lee Van Cleef! And as the credits roll, the gang assembles. But wait . . . these can’t be the good guys. They haven’t shaved! Something odd is going on here. And note that it isn’t Van Cleef’s Jack Colby with the nasty sneer, but Robert J. Wilke’s Jim Pierce. An influence then?
*. Thomson thought it unlikely Cooper would be without help because Americans love a fight. Perhaps. But they like to be heroes too and the town is only big enough for one hero. Also, the winning argument against helping Will out is . . . property values! And those do kind of trump everything.
*. Talk about a May/December age gap (Cooper was 51, Kelly 24). Kelly was an unknown at the time, but obviously she had “it.” And I like how Amy first appears to us in the wedding scene, with her Bambi eyes looking out of her bonneted face, like some kind of porcelain doll. That’s the image required, the virginal archetype, that the ending will play off against.
*. Such an archetypal tale, like so many Westerns. Good and evil. Set in an everyplace (dirty little town in the middle of nowhere). Nobody says very much. I don’t think Frank Miller has ten words. And as for Will: “I’ve gotta go back, that’s the whole thing.” But what’s the whole thing? Well, as Helen Ramirez puts it: “If you don’t know, I cannot explain it to you.” Or Will himself: “If you don’t know, it’s no use me telling you.” It’s just the thing.
*. Of course lines like this strike us as clichés, but there’s something complex and true in the idea that some people have an innate knowledge or moral sense that others are so completely out of touch with they can never understand. People like Lloyd Bridges’s Harvey don’t get it, and they never can get it.
*. Truly fascinating how strongly Wayne and Hawks reacted against this film (as Wayne would also against the re-working of the same story in High Plains Drifter). Says a lot about just how reactionary those two were.

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*. David Thomson notes how it’s become customary in film circles to pull a face at High Noon, and calls such people snobs. But he then proceeds to pull a face at it, deciding that “it’s not a film to see more than once” (while wondering why Cooper didn’t just fuck Kelly senseless for the 84 minutes he was waiting for the train). Most critics pay a grudging respect to its professional effectiveness, but find it not just simple but simple-minded. Leslie Halliwell gave it four stars, but seems not to have cared for it much: “A minor western with a soft-pedalled message for the world, this turned out to be a classic simply because it was well done.” Manny Farber thought it “deftly fouled-up” and “contrived.” Pauline Kael found in it only a crude civics lesson. Roger Ebert didn’t include it in his three volumes of Great Movies. I can’t really explain this. Yes, it’s a simple movie. But that simplicity, in almost every scene, conceals honest human complexity. This is a movie that is truly great: memorable, moving, and freshly rewarding (pace Thomson) on every re-viewing.

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