High Noon
(United States, 1952)

I consider High Noon to be the best Western ever made. Better than The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Better than The Magnificent Seven. Better than The Searchers. Better than The Wild Bunch. And better than Dances with Wolves. As good as all those movies are, none trumps Fred Zinnemann's best directorial effort. In fact, High Noon is the movie that got me to appreciate Westerns, rather than view them as relics of a bygone day. One of the reasons this movie is so good is because it's deeper and more complex than the average Western. Heroism isn't all it's cracked up to be, and... gasp... the protagonist is actually afraid of the bad guy. He wants to run. His wife wants him to run. But duty won't let him. Another unique aspect of High Noon is that it transpires in real time. This heightens the suspense as the clock ticks away the seconds. Then there's Grace Kelly, my favorite actress from the '50s. Blond, cool, and regal, she was one of the queens of the Silver Screen in an era when that title meant something. In terms of acting, this isn't her high-water mark, but she's a joy to watch, even when her performance isn't much better than that of the nearest hitching post. You won't find any Westerns in a higher slot on the Top 100. This one's as good as they get.

Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Gary Cooper plays Marshal Will Kane, and, when High Noon opens, it's a little after 10 o'clock in the morning, and he is being married to Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), a woman less than half his age. At the same time, trouble has arrived in Kane's sleepy Western town. Three outlaws, the henchmen of convicted murderer Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), are waiting at the railroad station, where Miller, recently freed from prison, is expected on the noon train. He has one goal: revenge, and the target of his hatred is Kane, the man who brought him down. Kane's friends, including the town's mayor (Thomas Mitchell), the local judge (Otto Kruger), and the former Marshal, Martin Howe (Lon Chaney), urge him to flee, but he can't. Against the wishes of his Quaker wife and with no one in the town willing to stand beside him, Kane prepares to face Miller and his gang alone.

High Noon contains many of the elements of the traditional Western: the gun-toting bad guys, the moral lawman, the pretty girl, and the climactic gunfight. But it's in the way these elements are blended together, with the slight spin put on them by director Fred Zinnemann and screenwriter Carl Foreman, that makes High Noon unlike any other Western. Audiences in the early '50s were drawn to the theater by the promise of a Gary Cooper film. Many viewers left confused, consternated, or vaguely dissatisfied, because things didn't play out in the expected way. As is true of nearly every great film, all of the elements mix together in High Noon. The black-and-white cinematography is perfect for setting the dark mood. The music is relentless. And the editing is nearly flawless. But the real elements to applaud are the acting, the script, and the direction, all of which are top-notch. Cooper appeared in more than 100 films during his long career; few aspired to the level of High Noon, much less attained it. And no credit on Zimmermann's resume is as impressive. The Western may be one of the few truly American art forms, and High Noon shows exactly how much potential it can embrace.

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