Saturday, May 14, 2011

High Noon (1952): Fred Zinnemann and the Hawks/Wayne Backlash

It had been twelve years since the release of High Noon, and Fred Zinnemann was getting fed up. For over a decade now, he had had to stand by and watch helplessly as his masterpiece was subjected to one of the harshest backlashes in the history of film criticism. Francois Truffaut had called it "facetious". Manny Farber had dismissed it as "white elephant art". Then, director Howard Hawks, upon finishing Rio Bravo in 1959, raised eyebrows after proudly stating, "I made Rio Bravo because I didn't like High Noon… I didn't think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn't my idea of a good Western."

Finally, Zinnemann could not take it anymore. In an interview with James R. Silke in 1964, Zinnemann responded to Hawks’ criticisms: “I admire Hawks very much. I only wish he’d leave my films ALONE!” Zinnemann was puzzled as to why so many critics over the years were starting to complain that High Noon centered on a protagonist—Marshall Will Kane—who behaved more like a human everyman than a traditional, all-powerful Western icon. “If you say this is not a Western character,” Zinnemann retorted, “it’s true. I wasn’t there in 1860. Neither was Mr. Hawks.”

Zinnemann would spend his whole career defending High Noon as a film that stressed a universal theme: a simple story about the individual pitted against an overwhelming majority. As he later described the film in his 1992 autobiography, “It is a story that still happens everywhere, every day.” Indeed, this was the kind of theme that dominated all of Zinnemann’s greatest films, from the paranoid POW escapees of Act of Violence (1949) to the impoverished pioneers of The Sundowners (1960); from Thomas More’s hopeless fight for justice in A Man for All Seasons (1966) to a love triangle tested by the icy crevices of the Alps in Five Days One Summer (1982). It was an overlooked filmmaking career, founded on an underlying sympathy for the underdog; after High Noon, everyone in Hollywood would remember Fred Zinnemann’s name.

Today, it is fashionable to think of High Noon as dated and worthless—a film that still has the AFI and the Academy Awards on its side, but not much else. Jonathan Rosenbaum once called it “vastly overrated,” and Roger Ebert confessed as recently as 2007 that it’s a film he “doesn’t like very much.” Much of the recent dislike for the film appears to stem from a bizarre insistence by critics to cite Howard Hawks and John Wayne’s own criticisms of the film. In his Great Movies essay on Rio Bravo, Ebert had attempted to pan High Noon by quoting from his 1972 interview with Wayne, who sputtered, "What a piece of you-know-what that was! Here’s a town full of people who have ridden in covered wagons all the way across the plains... and then when three no-good bad guys walk into town and the marshal asks for a little help, everybody in town gets shy. If I’d been the marshal, I would have been so goddamned disgusted with those chicken-livered yellow sons of bitches that I would have just taken my wife and saddled up and rode out of there.”

What Ebert seems not to have realized is that John Wayne actually had a more personal reason for disliking High Noon, a reason which he rarely expressed in public: the fact that the film's screenplay was written by Carl Foreman, a former Communist who had been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which Wayne had proudly supported. Foreman made it no secret that High Noon was basically his allegorical slap at McCarthyism; Wayne was reportedly so outraged by Foreman’s intentions that he criticized High Noon as “the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life!” Both Wayne and Howard Hawks felt that the movie violated their macho code of honor; they believed there was something fundamentally wrong with making a Western about a hero who was capable of feeling fear. Here was Gary Cooper playing a decidedly anti-Gary Cooper character: Will Kane, frightened town marshal, ostracized authority figure, humiliated husband. Something was happening here. Something about the Western was about to change forever.

Another problem with Wayne’s criticism of High Noon was his charge that Kane could simply leave town, rather than staying and facing the evil Frank Miller and his gang. But the thing is, Kane can’t just get out of town. He and his wife, Amy (Grace Kelly), are planning on opening up a general store once they find a place to settle, and they can’t risk the possibility of Miller’s gang tracking them down. “We’d never be able to keep that store, Amy,” Kane reminds his wife. “They’d come after us, and we’d have to run again—as long as we live.” The fact that Kane will also have to turn in his badge and guns if he leaves town poses another problem: how could he possibly fight Miller outside of town without his authority? Or without guns? The whole point of Foreman's screenplay is that it's designed specifically to ensure that Kane has no alternatives. He’s got to stay.

Nobody in town is willing to help him. Everybody has some kind of excuse. Martin (Lon Chaney Jr.), the retired town marshal, says he can’t assist Kane because of his arthritis and complains, “People got to talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it, maybe because deep down they don’t care. They just don’t care.” Harv Pell (Lloyd Bridges) won’t help him because of a jealous intuition that Kane has feelings for his girlfriend, Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), and vice versa. The town judge (Otto Kruger), who sent Miller to prison, hurriedly leaves town and takes the city hall American flag with him, thus stripping the town of all its democracy. Mayor Henderson (Thomas Mitchell) deprives Kane of any possible allies by seducing an audience of churchgoers with a speech about how blood in the streets might do significant damage to the town’s economy and tourism. Even Amy turns her back on Kane; both her father and her brother were casualties of gun violence and, as a Quaker, she refuses to stand by her husband as long as he continues to fight.

Because the movie questions pacifism as an alternative, High Noon is sometimes dismissed as an apologia for violence, but a deeper reading indicates that the film’s violence doesn’t come easy. For one thing, Foreman’s screenplay offers an insightful (if often-missed) critique of the death penalty. At first, Kane is bitter about Frank Miller going to prison instead of the gallows, but then considers the possibility of Miller returning to town nonviolently: “Sometimes prison changes a man...” In another scene, when the local bartender (Larry J. Blake) cracks jokes about Miller shooting Kane dead, an enraged Kane knocks the bartender to the ground, then feels bad about it and tries to help him up. This scene critiques the myth of the marshal as a slap-happy, vigilante Western hero. And out of all the people refusing to help Kane, the local minister (Morgan Farley) is perhaps the only man in town with a good excuse: “If you’re asking me to tell my people to go out and kill, and maybe get themselves killed… I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry.”

The film’s long-awaited finale, in which Kane prepares anxiously for Miller’s arrival, is developed by Zinnemann with a montage defined by three lingering visual elements.

The first element is the sense of urgency, symbolized by obsessive close-ups of the many clocks in town, all of which seem to get ominously larger as the noon train approaches.

The second element is the film’s victim, Kane, walking helplessly through the streets before stopping and being regarded in a rising crane-shot of the entire town; Zinnemann achieved this complex shot through the use of a long Chapman crane.

The third and final integral element to the film’s visual style is the railroad tracks themselves. They are always static, always threatening, always waiting patiently for Miller’s train. When the train finally does arrive, it chugs black smoke and blows a loud whistle, reminding us of the train in the finale of Zinnemann’s Act of Violence. And when we finally see Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), he has the face of a Tin Man and the burning revenge fantasies of your typical Zinnemann-esque villain. He is flanked by three bad guys: Pierce (Robert J. Wilke), the second-in-command; Colby (Lee Van Cleef), silent but deadly; and Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), who is loud, horny and reckless—and, naturally, is the first one to die.

Zinnemann did not agree with Carl Foreman that that the story was an allegory for McCarthyism. “With all due respect, I felt this to be a narrow point of view,” the director wrote in his autobiography. “To me it was the story of a man who must make a decision according to his conscience.” Nevertheless, Zinnemann, like Foreman, became embroiled in the controversies surrounding the film. During a disastrous screening in July 1952, Zinnemann's son, Tim, overheard an executive in the bathroom muttering, “What does a European Jew know about making Westerns, anyway?” And the debate over the film’s allegorical subtext has always refused to go away. Although some conservatives—indeed, the film’s own star, Gary Cooper—admired Carl Foreman’s insights into violence, patriotism and human weakness, other conservatives cried foul. Howard Hawks and John Wayne took their hatred of the film to their graves. There is a still a temptation today to compare High Noon to Rio Bravo and determine whether or not one film is better than the other.

Why do we have to choose between the two films? Rio Bravo is one kind of Western. High Noon is another. Rio Bravo is a triumph of invisible style; High Noon is a triumph of real-time, documentary style. Hawks specialized in films about professionals; Zinnemann specialized in films about characters suffering a crisis of conscience. One film was a love letter to Westerns as they used to be; another film marked an attempt to bring Westerns into strange, unfamiliar territory. A marshal like John T. Chance knew exactly what he was doing. A marshal like Will Kane makes it all up as he goes along.

High Noon is one of the best movies ever made. That much must be said, right now, in case it isn’t clear. In the end, Fred Zinnemann delivered a film that was meditative, innovative, and just as American as apple pie. It was true to the complex feelings that all gunslingers have ever shared in the Old West (and beyond). It still has relevance for all parties—whether you’re liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, Green or Libertarian. One way or another, you’re guaranteed to find something to love about this story. Take your pick and choose your villains. This is a movie for everyone.


  1. Great post, Adam. Not only do I agree with you about the greatness of High Noon, but I really don't understand the criticisms. With the background you provide on Hawks and Wayne, it's easy to see why they didn't like it - the film critics have no excuse, IMO. Yet the antipathy for the film remains to this day.

  2. Thanks, Marilyn. Coming from a fellow Zinnemann devotee, I take that as a high compliment. As much as I love Rio Bravo and both Wayne & Hawks, I always thought their criticisms of High Noon were bewildering and invalid -- but the critics share(d) their exact criticisms of it are the ones who amaze me even more. We get all kinds of criticisms of Westerns today, from the ways they handle violence to their supposed political messages... the last thing I'd ever expect anyone to dislike about a Western is the mere fact that the hero shows signs of fear in the face of threat. It's seems like an insult to Zinnemann's intelligence that he actually had to defend that aspect of the film, of all aspects.

  3. Outstanding essay, my friend...though I should admit in full disclosure that High Noon is fully ensconced in the top three of my all-time favorite movie westerns. I don't feel the same degree about Rio Bravo (I actually like its remake, El Dorado, more) but that's because Hawks and Wayne in their criticisms often overlooked the fact that John T. Chance did have help (Dude, Stumpy, Colorado, Feathers, etc.) in dealing with the bad guys whereas Will Kane must go it alone save for one brief moment when he's assisted by "his Quaker wife."

  4. HIGH NOON is one of the greatest westerns without a doubt. Or at least that's the way I've always felt. I can't count the number of tims I've watched it, and have endlessly marveled in it's flawless real-time technique. It's typical that the perfect genre piece will come under negative scrutiny (same thing happened with THE SEARCHERS) but there's really so much that works, that a negative case is most unpersuasive.

    I love the essay and the great approach you take here.

  5. Actually, what Rosenbaum said is that for years it was overrated, but that now it's probably underrated in some circles. And I think that's right, because it's not the awful movie some make it out to be; it's perfectly enjoyable. And Hawks and Wayne's complaints about it are silly. That said, I do find it a simple-minded and heavy-handed piece of work, as even the stills you've included suggest. I don't know how much Lang you've seen, but it feels very much like an uninspired Lang pastiche. The crane shots of Cooper walking through the town could come out of M, the inserts of the clock could come from about any Lang film, the shots of the oncoming train look very much like the opening scene in Human Desire, and the exaggerated composition with the three villains looks like an outtake from the riot scene in Fury. Of course, the whole mechanical mood of predestination is very Langian. But unlike Lang, I don't feel that Zinnemann had much to say - other than that, you know, good townsfolk shouldn't bail on their sheriff, people can be really cowardly, and that sometimes one must stand up and fight the "bad guys." Whereas Rio Bravo, of course, is a profound masterpiece about community, cameraderie, human frailty, professionalism, masculinity, etc.

  6. Ivan, many thanks. It's funny you mention your preference of El Dorado over Rio Bravo; on certain days, whenever I want to be adventurous, I sometimes say the exact same thing. I look at it this way: if Rio Bravo was Hawks' last full-fledged masterwork, then El Dorado was almost certainly, at the very least, his last great film.

    It's definitely true that in Rio Bravo, Chance gets assistance from Dude and Colorado, but I think Hawks' point wasn't about the mere fact of a sheriff getting help so much as a sheriff who questions his own confidence. Hawks and Wayne preferred a marshal who didn't let his guard down, which appears to be the reason why they took so much offense to High Noon. Although it's evident now that Wayne also had deeper, political issues with it.

    Sam, like you, I consider it somewhere in my top Westerns, right up there with The Wild Bunch, Rio Bravo and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The real-time structure *is* pretty fascinating. Just goes to show that some Westerns are built to last forever.

    Asher, you're correct that Rosenbaum writes in his capsule that High Noon "may be underrated in some circles." But c'mon: this is Rosenbaum we're talking about here, and much of the stuff he says about famous Hollywood films is almost always suspect. I'd bet you dollars to donuts that if you were to ask JR, right now, if he thought High Noon was underrated or overrated, he'd most likely go for the latter. I'm not hating on JR -- he's one of our best living critics, and he's even had an influence on my own writing style. But I'm not surprised he doesn't care much for this film; he doesn't seem to dig anything by Zinnemann in general.

    Regarding your Lang comments, well... is it really a big problem if Zinnemann's style does feel similar to Lang's? Zinnemann and Lang were both European exiles who eventually settled into Hollywood careers, and High Noon is unique in that it's a Western with a European ambience to it. Zinnemann's visual style was most influenced by the documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty, which explains the documentary-style, real-time structure of High Noon.

    I disagree with your comments that Zinnemann is merely commenting on whether or not "good townsfolk shouldn't bail on their sheriff." As Zinnemann even says in the interview supplied in this piece, he actually didn't consider High Noon to be a Western at all: he saw it as a story about a crisis of conscience. The kind of story that could be set anywhere, anytime. If you look at Zinnemann's A Man for All Seasons, which was made 14 years later, it's practically the same movie.

  7. Great Essay and I love this film. It's one of my favorites and gets better every time I see it. I think it's one of the top 3 Westerns ever made. I also can't forget about Tex Ritter's theme song. It's a beautiful song and in the opening credits it's used to set up the story brilliantly.

  8. A Western with an european ambience or"as american as an apple pie"
    A McCarthy allegory or an universal individual vs majority"crisis of concience" story
    It seems almost impossible to draw a line.It made a lasting impression on me - and I´m not american.
    Here critics usually refer to it as Zinnemanns Edel(prestige/noble)Western.Thanks for the Wayne/1952 bathroom parts of your essay- i get an impression what these times were like.I didn´t know it was critizised for having a hero capable of feeling fear,Kanes last action seemed more likely.McCarthy allegory: I always wondered if this could have influenced Bolts "A man for all seasons" as well but as I said at the beginning it isnt easy to draw a line.

  9. Very true, Maren. Interestingly enough, the story about what the executives said in the bathroom at one of the 1952 screenings is told by Tim Zinnemann (the director's son) on the 2-Disc High Noon DVD. I had never heard that story before--it's a sad testament as to just how much pressure and discrimination the movie was up again.

    The way Bolt structured A Man for All Seasons definitely makes one wonder if Bolt was influenced by High Noon. If so, it's only appropriate--since Zinnemann and Bolt made such a masterful film out of it. Actually, Zinnemann was originally going to make a movie about General Custer around that time, but creative differences with Daryl Zanuck (who didn't want the movie to make Custer out to be an antihero, as Zinnemann wanted) caused that project to be turned over to Robert Siodomak. Still, as I've said, that's just as well, since A Man for All Seasons was bound to be a better project for Zinnemann anyway.

  10. Adam,
    Fantastic review of HIGH NOON! As to comparisons between HIGH NOON and RIO BRAVO, there is NO comparison! Each is special in it's own way! Hawks is a great character director and Zinneman is also a character director, but as you mentioned - characters living in the real "conscious" world. Hawks delt in a more "conventional" world. I love both these films!!!

  11. Thanks a bunch for the kind remarks, Anonymous. Means a lot.

  12. Thank you for a great and obviously well researched review of my favorite western film. When it came out in 1952, my grandfather took me to see it ( I was 10 years old ) and I loved it. To this day, the "High Noon" Oscar winning song is, in my opinion, the best ever made for a movie.
    In 2006 a friend of mine named Dick and I started writing stories about two mythical federal agents (us) that get into all kinds of jams but always emerge as heroes. In early 2009, Dick was forced to have his right leg amputated, thus putting a temporary halt to our writing. While I was waiting for him to recover, and hopefully take his mind off his troubles, I started writing a story that reflected on the "High Noon" movie. It involves Sister Dolores (Hart), Elvis Presley, who we prove is alive but at the same time never existed, and of course us, as we strive to save "Elvis" from being gunned down by a present day Frank Miller at high noon on the "Old Tucson" movie set. Many of our friends have liked it but it is short (8 pages) and if we ever tried to develop and sell it we would get sued out of our socks for slander. It reflects our conservative politics and we place commercial products in it just for laughs.
    Thank you again for awakening me to both the movie and my own more recent writing experience.

  13. Nice work, Adam. Your blog post has greatly enhanced my appreciation not just of the film but the director as well. I had already seen a few Zinnemann films, including High Noon, but until reading your review it hadn’t occurred to me that his best films had a common thread, namely the championing of underdogs pitted against the tyranny of an overwhelming majority. As an advocate for underdogs he’s like Frank Capra or John Avildsen, the former championing individuals who triumph over corrupt leaders and the latter celebrating underdogs who face overwhelmingly superior adversaries. However, from what you’ve written and what I’ve seen of Zinnemann’s work, it appears his approach was more subtle and less populist than directors like Capra and Avildsen, and he chose subjects with greater heft. How else could he poke the eye of Hollywood’s biggest scourge, the McCarthy-ear witch-hunts?

    After reading your post I have a new-found admiration for all things Zinnemann -- AND my respect for John Wayne has dropped appropriately : )

    Thanks, Adam!
    P.S. One sign of a good blog is the quality of the commentary that follows. You’ve got that in spades!

  14. Haha. Thanks a bunch, Vince. I definitely agree with you that Zinnemann shares Capra and Avildsen's sympathy for the underdog. But yes, he's much more subtle than them; Capra and Avildsen like to use sentimentality a lot, whereas Zinnemann prefers understatement and, occasionally, mild cynicism (incidentally, my favorite Avildsen films are actually the lesser-known, angrier ones like Joe and Save the Tiger).

    Film school has caused me to neglect this blog significantly these days, but it's always nice to go back and look at these old posts -- lots of nice memories. I basically posted here a lot in community college when I lacked good hobbies and most of my friends were film critics on the Internet. That era has passed now, but I do miss the good commentaries -- glad to see you picking up where they left off! ;)

  15. Great review!

    We're linking to your review for Academy Monday at

    Keep up the good work!


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