High Noon

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Sep 10 07:22:19 MDT 2002

Chronicles of Higher Education, September 13, 2002

Western Drama, Cold-War Allegory


On first viewing, John Wayne hated High Noon (1952), the social-problem 
film in Western garb produced by the orthodox liberal Stanley Kramer, 
directed by the Vienna-born immigrant Fred Zinnemann, and written by the 
blacklisted ex-Communist Carl Foreman. It wasn't just the people behind the 
scenes, or the slanderous central conceit -- that the Old West was packed 
with no-account yellow-bellies -- but the ending. "It's the most 
un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life," snarled Wayne after he 
watched the embittered marshal, played by Gary Cooper, toss his tin star 
into the dirt of a frontier town too dishonorable to deserve protection.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of High Noon, the film may look a little 
dry and dusty, but few would deny its quintessential American-ness. From 
the opening strains of the Dimitri Tiomkin ballad crooned by the cowboy 
star Tex Ritter ("Do not forsake me/Oh my darlin"') to the final ride away 
from town, emphatically not into the sunset, the film seems as much a 
frontier classic as a wanted poster of Cole Younger or a lecture by 
Frederick Jackson Turner.

But High Noon's staying power derives not only from its compliance with the 
codes of the Old West. It also results from its resistance to the codes of 
the cold war. On September 17, PBS will be showing Darkness at High Noon: 
The Carl Foreman Documents, already making the film-festival circuit, which 
looks at Foreman's confrontation with the House Un-American Activities 
Committee. Viewing the documentary against the backstory of the original 
film highlights how much attitudes toward the cold war have changed -- and 
how much the ideological combat of that war still resonates in American 

At first blush, High Noon seems remarkable today neither for artistic 
innovation nor political controversy. Paced with the precision of a Greek 
drama, the plot is as sparse as a penny dreadful. At around 10:30 on a 
Sunday morning, while Marshal Will Kane (Coop) and his gorgeous Quaker 
bride, Amy (Grace Kelly), are getting hitched, three mean hombres ride into 
town to meet a paroled murderer, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), scheduled to 
arrive on the noonday train. Miller has a score to settle with the marshal. 
The trembling town fathers, worried about venture capital, real-estate 
values, and their own hides, advise Kane to vamoose. Possessing in spades 
what the menfolk lack, only the sultry Mexican "businesswoman," Helen 
Ramirez (Katy Jurado), appreciates the moral backbone of the marshal.

Kane knows what a man's gotta do. From saloon to church, he trudges wearily 
about town looking to recruit deputies, but the able-bodied men of 
Hadleyville skulk away like polecats. Coop's taut, tormented visage 
(painful back problems helped him get into character) registers the anguish 
of a man facing not just death but disillusionment.

In a genre that had for years luxuriated in the liberation of open space 
and scenic vistas, High Noon was a trapped and claustrophobic film. The 
camera hugged the ground for static shots of train tracks on the horizon 
and still compositions of a community paralyzed with fear and indecision; 
the bone-dry, black-and-white cinematography recalled a social documentary 
from the 1930s rather than a mythic flashback to the colorful Wild West 
(not surprising, since the cameraman, Floyd Crosby, shot New Deal 

The restrained style and harsh outlook of High Noon were extreme at the 
time, but not totally out of tune during the high renaissance of the 
postwar Hollywood western. From Howard Hawks's rowdy Red River (1948) to 
John Ford's elegiac The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the new 
westerns were world-weary, philosophical, and morally ambiguous, reflecting 
the hard-won knowledge of a generation of adult males who had learned 
firsthand that dexterity with a gun was not proof of manhood.

"The deeper seriousness of the good western films comes from the 
introduction of a realism, both physical and psychological, that was 
missing from Tom Mix and William S. Hart," observed the cultural critic 
Robert Warshow in a 1954 essay. (Long out of print, Warshow's landmark 1962 
collection of cold-war cultural criticism, The Immediate Experience: 
Movies, Comics, Theatre, & Other Aspects of Popular Culture, was reissued 
last year by Harvard University Press.)

Another part of the reason for the postwar maturation of the genre was that 
the familiar ground of the Old West offered a safe homestead for 
provocative social and political critique. In a conservative era, themes 
that might have been verboten in modern dress -- racial injustice, the 
arrogance of authority, capitalist corruption -- seemed less alien and 
subversive among six-guns and sagebrush.

In this spirit, High Noon set its sights on the political controversy 
settling over the most famous Western town of all. "What High Noon was 
about at the time," its screenwriter Foreman admitted years later, "was 
Hollywood and no other place but Hollywood." Translation: the Miller Gang 
were stand-ins for the gang from HUAC, the craven townspeople of 
Hadleyville were the cooperative witnesses who cowered before the 
committee, and the marshal followed the lone path of honor in a town 
without pity. Not too far under the surface, readily detectable by any 
viewer with the wits to spot a metaphor, High Noon acted out the high drama 
of conscience against expediency, personal codes against community values.

Here, too, High Noon was not just provocative but prescient in its 
challenge to the consensus cold-war view of domestic tranquility. Today, in 
academic scholarship and popular entertainment alike, the manicured 
landscapes of Leave It to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, and 
Father Knows Best have been supplanted by the corrosive picture of 1950s 
America in Gary Ross's Pleasantville (1998). A virtual sister city to 
Hadleyville, Pleasantville contains a rotten core within its apple-pie 
front: lockstep conformity, blinkered perspectives, and an outlook that is 
truly black and white. Once heretical, the view of cold-war America exposed 
to sunlight in High Noon is now cold-war consensus.

Little wonder, then, that Foreman's free-thinking defiance appears so 
admirable in retrospect. In September 1951, HUAC descended on Hollywood to 
investigate Communist infiltration of the motion-picture industry, and the 
screenwriter faced a showdown of his own. Although far less star-studded 
than the notorious Hollywood Ten hearings of 1947, held in Washington, 
D.C., the 1951 hearings in Los Angeles were a virtual replay, with 
cooperative witnesses reeling off dozens of names of suspected Communists, 
uncooperative witnesses (dubbed "unfriendlies") baiting the committee and 
pleading the Fifth Amendment, and an unruly gallery applauding and hissing 
on cue.

At the time, Foreman was riding the rising arc of a meteoric career, with 
versatile credits including Home of the Brave (1949), a widely praised 
exposé of racism within the Army; Champion (1949), a bare-knuckled look at 
the fight world that brought Kirk Douglas to stardom; and The Men (1950), a 
moving depiction of the struggle of paralyzed war veterans that introduced 
a young Method actor named Marlon Brando. During his testimony, telecast 
live on local television, Foreman tried to avoid appearing stridently 
unfriendly. "If I knew now or ever had knowledge of anyone plotting 
grievous damage to my government and the Constitution, I would report it," 
he declared. "I have always tried to be a good American." Still, he firmly 
rebuffed the committee's demands to inform on his former comrades in the 
Communist Party by "naming names."

The next day, the producer Stanley Kramer, heretofore Foreman's 
collaborator, business partner, and friend, declared: "There is total 
disagreement between Carl Foreman and myself." He then jettisoned Foreman 
from his production company, which was helping to bankroll High Noon.

That outpouring of bad blood roils again in Darkness at High Noon. The 
documentary was directed and written by Lionel Chetwynd, a prolific 
filmmaker perhaps best known for The Hanoi Hilton (1987) and for being one 
of the rare conservative Republicans in lefter-than-thou Hollywood. It 
alleges that the good liberal Kramer, the producer of record for High Noon, 
kicked the former Communist Foremen while he was down by kicking his name 
off the screen and cheating him out of production credit. Though Kramer 
himself died last year, his widow has accused Chetwynd of "rewriting 
history." For anyone else, however, Darkness at High Noon marshals more 
than enough evidence on Foreman's behalf to demonstrate that he, not 
Kramer, corralled High Noon for market.

Nevertheless, despite his renunciation of Foreman, until the recent dust-up 
Kramer's credentials as the very model of cold-war liberalism were 
unassailable. For more than three decades as a producer and director, 
Kramer thrived as the auteur of a distinctive series of high-minded, 
dead-earnest, and smugly self-satisfied melodramas exploring Serious 
Issues: interracial brotherhood (The Defiant Ones, 1958), moral 
responsibility (Judgment at Nuremberg, 1961), and interracial marriage 
(Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, 1966). Ridiculed for his middlebrow 
earnestness by elite critics, he was nevertheless often rewarded by the 
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science and by moviegoers increasingly 
sympathetic to his liberal agenda.

To now cast Kramer as central villain of the blacklist era is both 
mean-spirited and off target. Whatever his aesthetic sins, he was a gutsy 
voice for traditional liberalism during the depths of the cold war. At once 
anti-Communist and anti-McCarthyite, he played a notable role in helping to 
crack the blacklist. In a famous gesture of subversive defiance during the 
credit sequence of The Defiant Ones, the name "Nathan E. Douglas" -- the 
pseudonym used by the blacklisted screenwriter Nedrick Young -- flashes on 
screen over the face of none other than Nedrick Young, who was making a 
cameo appearance as a truck driver in the film he co-wrote.

Moreover, so long after the fact, it is difficult to disentangle how much 
of Kramer's grasping of screen credit for High Noon was blacklist-inspired 
opportunism and how much the usual credit-hogging in an industry where the 
fight over name recognition has always been a blood sport. Tellingly, the 
1952 trailer to High Noon, viewable on the DVD released in 2001, bills the 
film as "Stanley Kramer's masterpiece of suspense" -- neglecting to mention 
not only the blacklisted screenwriter Foreman but the un-blacklisted 
director Zinnemann.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Darkness at High Noon reflects just how 
contentious and convoluted the politics of the blacklist era remain after 
half a century. Where else could a conservative Republican (Chetwynd) use 
an ex-Communist (Foreman) victimized by right-wing politicians (HUAC) to 
discredit a liberal Democrat (Kramer)?

Sometimes lost against the blacklist backstory is the other time-bound 
sensitivity exposed by High Noon. In what was then an audacious hook, the 
film exploits the passage of "real time" to ratchet up the suspense: Its 
85-minute running time unspools approximately in sync with the 
10:30-to-noon time frame of the narrative. Everywhere, pendulums swing and 
clocks tick as the passage of time is highlighted in a prolonged session of 

A plague more terrible for Hollywood than even the blacklist was helping 
prepare audiences for the timely innovation: television. As the media 
historian Erik Barnouw noted in his 1975 compendium Tube of Plenty: The 
Evolution of American Television, before television, spectators were 
conversant in only one moving-image language, a dialect that found its most 
eloquent expression in the "invisible style" of classical Hollywood cinema, 
where a syntax of smooth dissolves and seamless editing worked to suspend 
the passage of time. High Noon brought to the movies the tension and pace 
of Studio One, The U.S. Steel Hour, Playhouse 90, and other gems from the 
golden age of live television drama.

Punctually enough, the television-derived time codes and the blacklist 
backstory of High Noon collided in a moment of high drama on the evening of 
March 19, 1953. The occasion was the 25th Academy Awards ceremony, for the 
first time telecast live. High Noon was favored to win the Best Picture 
Oscar, but the more conservative choice by the most conservative director 
took top prize: Cecil B. DeMille's circus extravaganza The Greatest Show on 
Earth. In the end, High Noon won four Oscars -- Best Song, Best Editing, 
Best Musical Score, and Best Actor for Coop.

But the category that the citizens of Hollywood had anticipated with a 
fearful tension that the citizens of Hadleyville would have understood was 
Best Screenplay. By then the blacklisted Foreman was in exile in London, 
which meant that someone from the production team of High Noon would have 
had to accept the award on his behalf had he won. Yet Foreman's pariah 
status had rendered the usually coveted trophy radioactive. According to 
The Hollywood Reporter, Kramer and his associates drew straws to see who 
would accept the Oscar. When the MGM executive Dore Schary read the name of 
the winner -- Charles Schnee for The Bad and the Beautiful -- the only 
person happier than Charles Schnee was High Noon's production designer 
Rudolph Sternad, who had drawn the short straw.

Later that evening, when the ceremony-averse Coop won his Oscar, his friend 
and fellow frontier icon John Wayne accepted for him. The actor in Wayne 
winning out over the activist, he confessed that he would have liked to 
have played the role of Marshal Kane. High Noon was already beginning to 
seem timeless.

Thomas Doherty is an associate professor of film studies at Brandeis 
University and the author of Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of 
American Movies in the 1950s (Temple University Press, 2002).

Louis Proyect

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