Thursday, June 30, 2011

High Noon (1952)

Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Kane. The time is 11:50.
"Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! ... But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come."
-Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Fred Zinnemann's High Noon may be one of the most perfectly constructed films ever made. If ever there were a doubt that film was art, high art, in the sense of Da Vinci and Shakespeare, surely films like High Noon must put to rest any such dispersions. Like a tightly constructed sonnet, nothing is missing, and nothing is superfluous.

Gary Cooper plays soon-to-be-retired town Marshall William Kane, who is on his way out of town with his new wife Amy (Grace Kelly), who is a Quaker and opposed to violence in any form, even on the side of the law. Only moments after they've said their vows, their marriage faces its first test--the pair receives word that Frank Miller is coming on the noon train. Miller (Ian MacDonald) is said to have been a real nuisance around town several years ago, until Kane led a team of special deputies to hunt him down. He was sent north to hang, but his sentence was first commuted to life, and now he is back out on the streets. What does he want to do with his newfound freedom? Take a guess.

This is lean, robust filmmaking, with every word and image working to support the film's two related themes. The first is an age-old question--how do you choose between an objective moral right and the pragmatic interests of yourself and your loved ones? This is never an easy question when the danger is as real as it is in High Noon, and although many of the characters choose the path of the coward they do not do so lightly, or with no thoughts other than self interest.

The second question in High Noon is this--what do you do while you wait? The townspeople, even Kane, are forced to decide between what is right and what is easy, but it is never entirely clear which path is which. Once the decision has been made, they have an hour to think it over. An hour to consider and reconsider. An hour to make plans, gather support. An hour to get out of town. An hour to sit and wait.

Frank Miller's posse, waiting for his train.

The film is obsessed with time. From the first pronouncement--"Frank Miller is coming on the noon train!" the camera is never far away from the nearest clock, and few indoor shots are without the rhythmic swing of a pendulum. They seem to go at different speeds, some hurtling precipitously towards the fatal moment, others dragging out the purgatorial hour to tortuous proportions. Even outside on the street, Kane walks unseeingly under the sign of a watch repair shop. As though a mere craftsman could fix this broken hour. The words, "there is no time," echo throughout the film, as the characters contemplate possible responses to the moral dilemma with which they are faced. And yet, there seems to be nothing but time. The clocks tick, and the pendulums swing remorselessly on.

Everyone waits. The special deputies wait for Kane to find them and try to coerce them into a duty they have not the courage to face. Amy waits to see if her newborn marriage will live out the day. Frank Miller's cronies wait for his arrival at the depot. Kane alone does not sit and wait, but for all his efforts, twelve o'clock finds his situation little changed from what it was at eleven. He might as well have done nothing at all. Like the characters in Waiting for Godot, Kane finds that the more frantically he tries to fill his time with action, the more inconsequential that action becomes. All the many things he finds that must be done in that fatal hour become simply another form of waiting for Frank Miller, like twiddling his thumbs.

Watches may be repaired here, but time cannot.
There is no time to avert the danger with which they are faced, but there is enough time to make the waiting unbearable. There is no time for action, there is only time itself. Thus the paradox--they have no time, and yet they have nothing but time. This is mirrored in other seeming contradictions throughout the film. Those with the ability and responsibility to fight alongside the Marshall refuse, but boys and half-blind old men are eager to fight. Kane himself is old, ready to retire and live a quiet life, but he does so with a young bride at his side, as though this is his beginning, not his end.

Unlike Beckett's play, High Noon is no existential plea for help, where all life becomes reduced to the act of waiting for something that will never happen. Frank Miller does come on the noon train, and he does come after Marshall Kane, guns blazing, as everyone knew he would. Here the film shifts gears abruptly, as the inaction of the past hour crystallizes into a flurry of activity. After all the talk, and the moral reasonings, there is  now no longer any time for such musings, and they are wonderfully absent from the final showdown. Kane and Miller do not talk about their grievances between trading fire. They fight.

Ian MacDonald as Frank Miller and Grace Kelly as Amy Kane. And another clock.

Action takes the place of waiting entirely, and the film moves at a brisk pace through its climax, without any dramatic lingering. There is no clean-up scene, either, where the survivors nurse their wounds and discuss how they will reconstruct their lives in the face of the changes they have undergone over the course of the film. The story is told through the action itself, without any supplemental narration from the participants, and when that action is complete the camera gets out quickly, pulling back from the scene and drawing the curtains mere seconds after the final shot is fired.

Thematically the film centers on time, and how you can use what little you have to your best advantage, and ultimately that plays out structurally as well as thematically. Kane has an hour to wait for Frank Miller, and there is so much waiting to be done that there is no time to waste. Even assuming he lives, he has a mere decade or two to live a lifetime's worth of happiness with his young bride. Amy has an hour to decide between her most fundamental beliefs and her devotion to a husband she hardly knows. Everyone else in town has an hour to decide how they will respond, or what excuse they can use for keeping their heads down. Director Zinnemann too has only an hour and a half to tell all of these stories at once, and let me tell you there is not a second of that time wasted.

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