Saturday, 22 April 2017

High Noon (1952)

The beauty of High Noon is that its themes are universal. On the surface it may be a western, but its themes of conscience, fearlessness and a sense of what is right and of duty, not just to the law, a cause, or even to others, but to yourself and how you wish to live and be perceived, transcends the trappings of the genre to connect with audiences who perhaps would never consider themselves as horse opera aficionados. That High Noon has been uprooted from its old west setting to be effectively been remade or paid homage to time and again in everything from sci-fi actioner Outland (1981) to a 2010 episode of the Jimmy McGovern Manchester-set drama The Street, starring Bob Hoskins, serves as a testimony to the strength and continuing relevance of the film's human story of a man who feels compelled to fight rather than run.

The film's screenwriter Carl Foreman intended High Noon to be an allegory of the McCarthy witch hunts that plagued Hollywood and destroyed the lives and careers of many involved in the business at that time. The House Un-American Activities Committee sought to investigate 'Communist propaganda and influence' in the film industry and declared Foreman, a former Communist Party member who declined to identify any of his colleagues and contemporaries of being fellow members, to be an 'unreliable witness'. He was subsequently blacklisted and moved to the UK. 

However, when you add Fred Zinnemann to the mix as the film director, you get a further resonance to the metaphorical aspect of High Noon and one that supports the theory that the film is a film that just so happens to be set in the west, rather than being a western. As Zinnemann said; "High Noon is not a Western, as far as I'm concerned; it just happens to be set in the Old West". His shooting style certainly supports this too - out goes the traditional landscapes and painterly panoramas of John Ford, in favour of tight close-ups and crisp newsreel style footage in keeping with the social realist approach the director worked in, which reaches its zenith here with the real time setting that makes the tense atmosphere really palpable. 

The critic Stephen Price believes that the Polish-born Zinnemann progressed the anti-McCarthy allegory by allying himself to the core values of Gary Cooper's character, seeing what he represented as being the physical embodiment of his greatest wish for all his films to be about "trying to preserve our civilisation". Price argues that it is easy to see the outlaws arriving to wreak terror and revenge upon the town as a threat to their way of life akin to the fascism of the Nazis who killed Zinnemann's parents in the Holocaust in the previous decade.

Such resonance has run throughout the intervening years and rightly continues to do so to this day, as Zinnemann himself said in his autobiography "In the end, he must meet his chosen fate all by himself, his town's doors and windows firmly locked against him. It is a story that still happens everywhere, every day" This was certainly proved in 1989 when the then 22-year-old Polish graphic designer Tomasz Sarnecki adapted the original Polish language poster for the film by Marian Stachurski as part of the campaign for Solidarity in the first partially free elections in Communist Poland. Referring to his very own High Noon on 4th June, 1989 Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa discussed the metaphor the film presents and its relevance to his politics; "Cowboys in Western clothes had become a powerful symbol for Poles. Cowboys fight for justice, fight against evil, and fight for freedom, both physical and spiritual" Call me an idealistic Corbynista (which I am) if you will, but Labour wouldn't go far wrong if they adopted it for their campaign now - like Gary Cooper, Corbyn seems to stand alone, shunned by a soft and self serving, blissfully and blithely ignorant society but compelled to do what is right for them nonetheless, as an encroaching dangerously fascistic menace appears over the horizon.

Rightly regarded as a classic film, not just a classic western, HUAC poster boy John Wayne hated it, calling it "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life" and went off to make Rio Bravo with Howard Hawks (who also detested High Noon, disparagingly believing that no good Marshall should "run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help", only to be saved by his 'Quaker wife' in the final reel) as a direct result. And if the likes of John Wayne hating High Noon and believing it to be unpatriotic doesn't immediately make High Noon a five star film then I don't know what does.

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