High Noon is a good example of the classic period of Westerns. Beginning as it does with the iconic image of the lone horseman set against the typical backdrop of prairies and mountains and then cutting to a wide mid shot of three horsemen riding into town, immediately sets up certain expectations in the viewer. This is what audiences like about genre and this film fulfils them all.
Directed by Fred Zinnemann in 1952 it is also a product of its era. It has its roots solidly in the McCarthy era in post-world war two America and it is clear that in this film the enemy which needs to be vanquished isn’t so much Frank Miller and his gang but the townspeople who would rather turn a blind eye to the return of the villain they brought to justice than see their cosy lives overturned and their men killed. They are just beginning to see civilisation approaching their little outpost – just as America was recovering from the losses of the war – and like so many Americans when Senator McCarthy began his ‘witch hunts’ for communists they had lost that pioneering spirit which exemplified the frontier era when life was simple and all you needed was a gun and god on your side to stand up for your rights.
According to Vladimir Propp there are certain character types who occur in all narratives and again this film is no exception. In this film Frank Miller is the bad guy and three of his gang who appear in the film waiting increasingly less patiently for his arrival. They are one example of the many binary oppositions represented in this film. All are seen dressed in dark colours and sporting all the usual accoutrements of the cowboy, the guns, spurs, bottle of beer and cigarette. Kane, by contrast, is the embodiment of the ‘good’ guy, dressed in a black waistcoat, black tie, black hat and crisp white shirt his character is not in doubt. Harvey Pell his deputy is a different kind altogether. Dressed in muted colours, (probably beiges and pale browns) everything about him shouts his moral ambiguity. He is the character who sparks off the only fist fight, without which no self-respecting Western would be complete, as he attempts to get Kane to leave ostensibly for the reason of protecting him and the town from Miller’s revenge but actually so that he can play Marshal.
Conforming to Todorov’s narrative theory the film begins with the marshal getting married and handing in his badge to begin a new life with his new wife and ends with him doing just that.
Throughout the film a lone voice sings the refrain ‘Oh Don’t forsake me oh my darling’ each time we see Marshal Kane walk up and down the main street in the vain search for anyone who will support his stand against the villains emphasising the desperate battle of the lone voice against the inertia of the majority. Juxtaposed against scenes in the church and in the saloon in which the cowardly townspeople wait in silence and trepidation to support whoever wins, the low angle shots of Kane at each of his futile rallying speeches emphasise his moral superiority, the moral bankruptcy of the townspeople and another of the binary oppositions represented in the film.
These are also represented by completely different kinds of music from the honky-tonk piano in the saloon to the sonorous communal singing in the church.
One of the interesting techniques of this film is that it is effectively set in ‘real time.’ From when he first learns of Miller’s arrival on the noon train, it is then 10:40 am, frequent significant glances at clocks to show the countdown are juxtaposed against establishing wide shots of the empty railway out of town emphasising the looming sense of threat and doom.
Of course in classic Western tradition there are the women. Here the iconic exotic ex-lover of Kane, Helen Ramirez, dark, Mexican, husky voiced and dressed in low cut dark dresses, is seen in stark contrast with Amy, now Mrs Kane, blonde, delicate, cut crystal English tones, dressed in a pale coloured dress with a high neck, emphasising how very different they are but perpetuating the ideological view that though it may be alright for a man to dally with the exotic the home-grown all American girl will win in the end. Underlining the different roles the women play are the camera angles. We frequently see Amy from a high angle sitting in the hotel lobby, half-turned as if in fear, whereas we see Helen in long shot or close up to show her beauty and threat, she is after all the reason for the feud between Kane and Miller. However in the end Helen rides away on the train and Amy returns to lend her husband a hand by conveniently killing two of the gang leaving him free to kill Frank. Before the gun battle begins, which only lasts about 4 minutes and is the actual raison d’être of the film, is the only time we ever see a high angle shot of Kane showing his vulnerability and isolation from the frightened townspeople.
The ending of the film is classic Western too. Having conducted a lone battle to save the town from the lawless and corrupt the townspeople emerge from their various hiding places to inspect the damage. No words are spoken and Amy and Kane drive off into the distance but not before Kane throws the marshal’s badge in the dirt.
Westerns are full of grand gestures and troubled and brooding characters, who are usually sacrificed for the general good and to ensure the survival of the ‘pure of heart’, and this one is no exception. It is also Zinnemann’s comment on American society of the day.