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Western unrest: genre and commerce in high noon.

High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) is an iconic western, yet its place within the genre is contested. The film is cited by critics as exemplary of the way that westerns can successfully explore the political and social issues of the moment, and praised for the enduring, universal relevance of its themes. It is held by some to be one of the best western films ever made, but others criticise it as a betrayal of the genre. (1) These mixed evaluations of High Noon stem from an interpretation of the film as a political allegory for the 1950s communist witch-hunts led by senator Joseph McCarthy, and from its innovative, stylistic temporal structure and use of real time. Yet when High Noon is considered in the context of 1950s Hollywood, these unconventional aspects of the film are revealed to be part of wider industrial trends for 'adult films', psychological westerns and explorations of marketable elements of social engagement.

The 1950s was a golden age for westerns. The boom in film production was matched by an increase in western literature and an influx of western television shows. The genre had been a staple of the Hollywood studios since the silent era, as the films' clearly recognisable iconography, familiar storylines and identifiable character types provided producers with a formula that could be easily repeated and varied. (2) High Noon drew on audiences' familiarity with previous westerns and their expectations for how such stories would unfold while promising something new in its particular treatment of the formula. The narrative of High Noon is straightforward: an outlaw is returning to town to exact revenge on the sheriff who 'sent him up'. The novelty here is that the action starts shortly after 10am and counts down the remaining minutes to the outlaw's arrival on the noon train in real time. (3)

Newlywed sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper) had officially hung up his badge to leave town with his bride, Amy (Grace Kelly). On hearing of the imminent return of notorious outlaw Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), who once terrorised the town, however, Kane faces a decision: should he stay to defend the town, or should he follow the advice of his wife and friends and get out while he still can? Zinnemann identified this moral crisis as the heart of the film, stating, 'The story of High Noon takes place in the Old West but it is really a story about a man's conflict of conscience.' (4) Over the course of the film, as the cowardly and self-interested townspeople refuse to support Kane, the moral conflict reaches the viewer: we begin to wonder whether the town is really worth saving. Carl Foreman's script and Zinnemann's direction imbue this classic set-up with a realistic treatment that probes the mental state of the characters, takes a cynical stance towards the familiar western themes of duty and justice, and creates a state of heightened suspense throughout the film.

The film derives its force from the careful editing of three central images. Described by Zinnemann as 'a conflicting flow of visual concepts', (5) these images each hold a particular tempo. The first consists of repeated static shots of the empty train track stretching off into the distant horizon. The immobility of this image carries a latent sense of foreboding and presages the impending showdown between Kane and Miller, the camera returning to the railway tracks with increasing frequency as the hour approaches. The second image is that of the sheriff's 'plods', as Zinnemann described them; (6) Kane walks up and down the town's dusty streets in search of volunteer deputies. These grow progressively desperate, visualised in the sweat that collects on his brow and the increasingly rumpled state of his wedding suit. The final of the three images is that of clock faces, which count down the minutes to midday. Zinnemann doubled the original number of clock inserts in the script to a total of twelve shots, and increased the shot scale to vary the size of the clock faces as the narrative progresses. As noon draws nearer, the ticking of the hands and the swing of the pendulum appear to slow under the eye of the camera.

When viewed in isolation, these images carry little meaning. The rhythmic editing that connects them, including the varied durational length for each shot and growing frequency with which they are displayed, constructs a mounting pace towards the climax and the shattering sound of the train's whistle that heralds Miller's arrival. In addition to these visuals, the repeated musical refrain of the ballad 'Do Not Forsake Me' varies its pace and tone to match the action while underscoring the emotional and psychological state of the characters. The film is almost entirely contained within the town setting; an outside deputy subplot initially designed for comic relief was cut from the picture in favour of a tighter structure. (7) This concentrated sense of place and time works alongside the recurrent visual and audio elements to instil a stifling, oppressive tone that heightens the film's suspense.

Despite these highly stylised formal techniques, critics celebrated High Noon for its realism on its release. (8) This assessment derived not only from the real-time narrative structure, but also from the deliberate aesthetic choices made by Zinnemann that rejected traditional westerns' aesthetics and many stylistic trends of the early 1950s, such as broad outdoor vistas filmed in newly developed colour processes. Zinnemann collaborated closely with documentary cinematographer Floyd Crosby to achieve a very specific aesthetic. Avoiding tonal filters in favour of stark, flat lighting, they attempted to capture the Civil War photography of Mathew Brady and a grainy newsreel look. Alongside Zinnemann's use of tight close-ups, this lighting emphasises the age and anxiety of Cooper's character, rather than glamorising the western hero. This realist approach to the film's aesthetics underscores the cynicism conveyed in the character's attitudes towards typical western themes such as law and order, and duty and commitment.

At times this disillusioned mindset is expressed visually: the town's judge (Otto Kruger) packs up his scales and unpins his American flag from the wall as he prepares to flee the town. Foreman's dialogue and characterisations, however, are key in channelling this despair with American institutions and with the people who retreat from defending them. Foreman stated that when writing the screenplay he drew on his own experience of growing alienation among the Hollywood film community due to his communist past. The screenwriter faced the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during High Noon's production in 1951 and was subsequently blacklisted by the film industry for refusing to 'name names'. (9) His son, Jonathan Foreman, has described how his father incorporated some of the responses he received from Hollywood into the townspeople's dialogue. (10) The church scene, in which the townspeople debate their responsibility to support Kane, conveys an especially bleak view of humanity. Their complacency and self-interest are expressed in their desire to avoid any conflict that might detract from northern investment in the town, which is cloaked as concern for Kane's safety. As the mayor (Thomas Mitchell) argues, 'He didn't have to come back here today, and for his sake and the sake of this town I wish he didn't.' While the dogged sense of duty maintained by Kane in the face of these setbacks may suggest a hopeful outlook, his final action of tossing away his badge ultimately conveys his loss of faith in the maintenance of law and order.

Contemporary trade reviewers praised the attention paid to these minor characters, which were given substance and authenticity beyond the stereotypes of typical western bit parts. The characterisation of the two female characters, Amy Kane and Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), is particularly notable. Despite holding an initial similarity to the western stereotypes of the virginal schoolmarm and the whore with a heart of gold, respectively, the characters develop a depth and emotional resonance. Helen is a Mexican businesswoman whose past relationships with various male characters contributes to narrative tension without condemning her behaviour; as the character description in the script stated, she is 'a victim of an era and environment with rigid social standards'. The original script gave Amy dialogue, which was later cut, that explicitly described her beliefs:

My family didn't want me to marry Will in the first place [...] I seem to make them unhappy no matter what I do. Back home they think I'm very strange. I'm a feminist. You know, women's rights--things like that. (11)

Amy is a Quaker and her struggle between her pacifist beliefs and her desire to support her husband is one of the central conflicts that drives the narrative and ultimately shapes the film's outcome. The complexity of these female characters and the layered dimensions of their relationship with each other, as well as the characterisations of the townspeople, imbue the film with a complexity that gives added weight to the straightforward scenario and central moral dilemma.

High Noon was not the only film of the 1950s to depict the western hero as a despairing, fallible older man. The psychological characterisation of the disenchanted western hero pitted against a hostile community was popularised two years earlier in The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950), which starred Gregory Peck. The maturity of these characters was frequently matched by the films' weary, cynical, elegiac tones. Genre theorists often take this to be representative of an evolutionary stage in the progression of the western. (12) This traditional, linear approach to genre views High Noon and other 1950s westerns as emblematic of classicism--a shift to an increasingly complex and mature worldview that invokes the conventions of the genre with irony and self-reflexivity. Although High Noon does display such characteristics, this is not a new development in the genre. As some theorists have argued, genres, including westerns, are more complex and unstable than these evolutionary models suggest. Western approaches that include realism, self-reflexivity and the exploration of social issues are cyclical tendencies that have recurred at different periods in the popularity of the genre. (13) High Noon can be viewed as part of an industry trend that developed from specific historical conditions in the film industry and US society in the 1950s.

Contemporary critics praised the ability of both The Gunfighter and High Noon to appeal to a wide audience demographic, including sophisticated city viewers who were selective in their film choices. (14) Traditionally, the industry considered the majority of low-budget westerns to be unsophisticated fare, aimed at a market of action fans and children--those audiences termed 'less discriminating' in the trade press. These westerns generally functioned to supply fillers for double bills and matinees, and were associated with neighbourhood and small-town theatres, action houses and drive-ins. (15) In the 1950s, however, Hollywood's perception of its audience changed drastically. Cinema attendance rapidly declined as a result of demographic shifts, such as suburbanisation and the baby boom, and competition with a growing array of alternative leisure activities, including television. (16) As filmgoers became increasingly selective in their film-viewing habits, it became imperative to implement strategies to recapture this 'lost audience'.

One means to do this, which coincided with the breakdown of the industry's censorship code, was to imbue the films with controversial dramatic material, which the more conservative television stations were unable to broadcast. (17) The 'mature' and 'adult film' labels, developed in the late 1940s, were incorporated into the western as a means to raise the genre's status among those who weren't traditional western fans. In the 1950s, the trade reviews were filled with descriptions of 'off-beat' and 'mood' westerns that, like High Noon, explored mature themes, complex characterisations and psychological undertones. (18) These westerns engaged with issues such as social responsibility, not only to exploit topical interest, but as an industry strategy to target the market sector comprising the lost audience.

High Noon was significant in demonstrating the potential that quality westerns could hold for this lucrative market of selective moviegoers, following on from the success of The Gunfighter. The film was made as the last of Zinnemann's three-picture contract with Stanley Kramer's independent production company, Screen Plays Corp., which already had a reputation for producing socially conscious, critically acclaimed, high-quality dramas. Despite a budget of just US$730,000, High Noon went on to recoup US$2.5 million after only eighteen weeks in cinemas. (19) It was also a major critical triumph, nominated for seven Academy Awards and winning four. (20)

As a result of this success, High Noon sparked a cycle of 'civic consciousness' westerns that explored the relationship between the community and the individual, and the responsibilities of citizenship. (21) This influential status meant that High Noon has become a model for the ability of the western genre to explore social concerns. It remained a reference point for later critics such as Andre Bazin and Robert Warshow when exploring the potential of the western to confront contemporary social and political issues. (22) In the case of High Noon, these themes are typically understood to be based on Foreman's experience testifying before HUAC and being blacklisted by Hollywood. As New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther stated in 1952,

It is a story that bears a close relation to things that are happening in the world today, where people are being terrorized by bullies and surrendering their freedoms out of senselessness and fear. (23)

Yet even this was interpreted in multiple, conflicting ways when the film was released, from both sides of the political spectrum. For instance, Republican western star John Wayne dismissed it as 'the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life', (24) and in 1955 Harry Schein described the film as a Cold War allegory of 'containment' policy that stood for the reluctance of Western nations to face the spread of communism during the Korean War. (25) From the left, the Soviet Union condemned its glorification of the individual, (26) and socialist publication The Daily Worker criticised its misanthropic worldview. (27)

Crowther, writing near the end of the 1950s on the new generation of 'reluctant sheriffs' in films such as Shane (George Stevens, 1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955), The Fastest Gun Alive (Russell Rouse, 1956) and The Tin Star (Anthony Mann, 1957), returned to this central question of conflicted interpretation:

Have [the films] reflected, through their authors, a general public attitude of apathy and self-interest in a complex and disappointing world? Have they been symbolic of a feeling that man is losing his ideals and is bereft of a sense of civic duty? Or is it the other way around? Are these pictures encouraging self-examination and unconcern? Or shall we account for them simply as hopeful followers in the wake of High Noon? (28)

Crowther's conclusion returns to the industrial and commercial nature of the film industry and its desire to replicate prior commercial successes. The popularity of socially engaging, psychological 'adult' westerns contributed to the feedback loop of industry supply and viewer demand; audiences' engagement with social themes led to the further incorporation of such approaches into the films' production and promotion, strengthening their appeal but leaving them open to interpretation. The enduring popularity of High Noon stems from its tense atmosphere, complex psychological characterisations, and cynical attitude towards the stalwart western themes of honour, duty and justice. Though these aspects were commonplace in the westerns of the 1950s, High Noon's employment of the real-time structure, judicious editing and realist aesthetics lifted the film above the conventional western narrative and secured its place at 27th in the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest American Films. (29)


Zoe Wallin is a PhD candidate in the department of Screen and Media at Flinders University. Her doctoral thesis considers the operation of film cycles in the Hollywood studio system.


(1) See Richard Combs, 'Retrospective: High Noon', in Jim Kitses & Gregg Rickman (eds), The Western Reader, Limelight Editions, New York, 1998, pp. 167-73; and Phillip Drummond, High Noon, British Film Institute, London, 1997, pp. 63-73. High Noon has also been explored in relation to its social and political context; see Will Wright, Sixguns & Society: A Structural Study of the Western, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1975; and John Lenihan, Showdown: Confronting Modern America in the Western Film, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1980. Andrew Sarris identifies High Noon as a 'liberal anti-Western'; see 'The World of Howard Hawks', in Joseph McBride (ed.), Focus on Howard Hawks, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1972, p. 58. Robert Warshow describes High Noon as a 'violator' of the western genre; see 'Movie Chronicle: The Westerner', The Immediate Experience, Atheneum, New York, 1970, pp. 135-54.

(2) Steve Neale, Genre and Hollywood, Routledge, London, 2000, p. 243.

(3) The film's duration is eighty-five minutes, but the action takes place over a 105-minute stretch as there are instances of condensed and repeated time.

(4) Fred Zinnemann, quoted in JE Smyth, Fred Zinnemann and the Cinema of Resistance, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2014, p. 113.

(5) Fred Zinnemann, quoted in Howard Thompson, 'Directed by Zinnemann', The New York Times, 25 January 1953.

(6) See Smyth, op. cit., p. 101.

(7) Drummond, op. cit., p. 39.

(8) 'High Noon', Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin, 5 May 1952, p. 7.

(9) Carl Foreman, quoted in Jeremy Byman, Showdown at High Noon: Witch-hunts, Critics, and the End of the Western, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD, 2004, p. 75.

(10) Jonathan Foreman, commentary, High Noon, Collector's Edition DVD, Artisan Home Entertainment, 2002.

(11) Quoted in Joanna E Rapf, 'Myth, Ideology, and Feminism in High Noon', The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 23, no. 4, Spring 1990, p. 77.

(12) See Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System, Random House, New York, 1981, pp. 45-55; Andre Bazin, 'The Evolution of the Western', What Is Cinema?, vol. 2, trans. Hugh Gray, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1971, pp. 149-57; and Byman, op. cit., pp. 159-77.

(13) See Tag Gallagher, 'Shoot-out at the Genre Corral: Problems in the "Evolution" of the Western', in Barry Keith Grant (ed.), Film Genre Reader III, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2003, pp. 262-4; and Peter Stanfield, Hollywood, Westerns and the 1930s: The Lost Trail, University of Exeter Press, Exeter, 2001, p. 7.

(14) 'The Gunfighter', Variety, 26 April 1950, p. 8; Bosley Crowther, 'The Gunhghter, with Gregory Peck in Leading Role, New Bill at the Roxy Theatre', The New York Times, 24 June 1950, p. 7; Bosley Crowther, A Western Legend', The New York Times, 3 August 1952; and 'High Noon Wins Aug. B.O. Stakes', Variety, 3 September 1952, p. 4.

(15) See 'Tension at Table Rock', Variety, 3 October 1956, p. 8; 'Gun the Man Down', Variety, 6 March 1957, p. 6; 'Terror in a Texas Town', Variety, 20 August 1958, p. 6; and 'The Oregon Trail', Variety, 19 August 1959, p. 20. Westerns were included in lists of films aimed at the juvenile market; see 'Fare for a Young Bunch? We Got 'Em!', Variety, 19 September 1956, p. 20.

(16) Peter Lev, Transforming the Screen, 1950-1959, History of the American Cinema, vol. 7, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2003, p. 7.

(17) '"More Adult" Pix Key to Top Coin', Variety, 9 March 1949, pp. 1, 24; and 'See Tighter Censorship of Pix', Variety, 28 February 1951, pp. 1, 54.

(18) See 'The Silver Star', Variety, 2 March 1955, p. 9; 'Fastest Gun Alive', Variety, 20 June 1956, p. 6; and 'The Last Hunt', Variety, 15 February 1956, p. 6.

(19) Drummond, op. cit., p. 43.

(20) High Noon won awards for Best Actor (Cooper), Best Song, Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, and Best Film Editing.

(21) Matthew J Costello, 'Rewriting High Noon: Transformations in American Popular Political Culture During the Cold War, 1952-1968', in Peter C Rollins & John E O'Connor (eds), Hollywood's West: The American Frontier in Film, Television, and History, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2005, p. 176.

(22) See Bazin, op. cit., pp. 149-50; and Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre, and Other Aspects of Popular Culture, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1962, p. 149.

(23) Bosley Crowther, 'High Noon, a Western of Rare Achievement, Is New Bill at the Mayfair Theatre', The New York Times, 25 July 1952.

(24) John Wayne, quoted in Smyth, op. cit., p. 259.

(25) Harry Schein, 'The Olympian Cowboy', The American Scholar, vol. 24, no. 3, Summer 1955, pp. 309-20.

(26) Byman, op. cit., p. 94.

(27) 'Soviets May Accept High Noon, Once Derided as Superman Myth', Variety, 30 September 1959, pp. 5, 18. Variety discusses the film's reception in The Daily Worker here.

(28) Bosley Crowther, '"The Reluctant Sheriff"; New Type of Character to Contemplate in Western Films', The New York Times, 27 October 1957.

(29) See 'AFI's 100 Greatest American Films--2007 List', available at <>, accessed 14 October 2016.
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Author:Wallin, Zoe
Publication:Screen Education
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Apr 1, 2017
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