In 1952 director Fred Zinnemann presented in new type of western onto the Hollywood scene with High Noon. The results would leave some people praising the film, while others criticized, such as director Howard Hawks and John Wayne. They felt the film violated the western genre through the atypical portrayal of its hero. Hawks felt so strongly against the film that he directed another western as a response, called Rio Bravo (1959). On the surface, High Noon contains all the elements of a typical western: a small town, the local sheriff, outlaws, and unassuming townspeople. But while all those conventions remain present, in actuality the film acts as an anti-western. This film challenged many traditions that the western had stood for and in doing so it changed the way people looked at western heroes. High Noon refused to mythologize the west the way most Hollywood westerns do, but instead showcased a more realistic portrayal of the west and its inhabitants.
One of the primary ways High Noon deconstructs the mythical west is through its portrayal of the western hero. In the “classical westerns” heroes easily save the day and are universally praised by all the townsfolk. These heroes are young, good-looking, and possess an enormous amount of confidence in their abilities. The hero of High Noon, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), represents the very antithesis of this caricature. Throughout the film Kane wears black, which in past westerns would normally be worn by villains. Such a detail suggests that Kane represents a conflicted character; one who may not possess all the makings of a typical hero. Also, Kane is much older than the usual hero figure. Zinnemann avoids flattering photography with his protagonist. Instead, Kane is presented for who he is: a middle-aged, somewhat weary man with no illusions of grandeur.
The set up of the story starts as any western might with a small town threatened by the presence of outlaws. Three rough-and-tumble types arrive at the town’s train station, awaiting the arrival of Frank Miller, a destructive force from the town’s past. Everyone knows that Miller wants revenge on the now-retiring sheriff Kane who sent him to jail previously. Residents of the town naturally become concerned, but hesitate to get involved. Everyone turns down the chance to help Kane for various reasons and some of the townspeople even oppose him. One scene in particular illustrates the isolation that Kane feels. Shortly before the climatic showdown, Kane returns to his office, knowing he will fight alone. He wearily sits down at his desk and then begins to cry, which is perhaps the only time in the film that he allows himself to really let out his emotions. This scene plays out so simply that no dialog is required, but, at the same time, much information is communicated to the audience. The audience can see the pain and anxiety on Kane’s face. This is a man who has done everything that he can do to handle the situation. The town that he has protected for so long has turned its back on him. He knows that he has reached the point of no return and must face his enemies even though he fears for his life. Soon after this moment, Kane begins to write his will, showing extreme uncertainty of his fate. This kind of doubt and vulnerability breaks with the tradition of the “classic western” hero who shows no signs of doubt. Shortly after that, Kane steps onto the empty street and the camera cranes back very far to show how isolated the town has left him.
This scene leading up to the shootout keeps in line with Zinnemann’s European influences by focusing on interior conflicts. Kane wants to do the right thing and protect the town, but at the same time he is frightened to fight when no one will help him. Prince says that the “presentation of a vulnerable, anxious, vacillating Marshal has a certain de-mythifying effect” (66). In this film the idea of the classic “western hero” does not exist. Kane attempts to be the classic “western hero,” even though he realizes that he is not and cannot be that kind of hero.
Visually, most westerns take advantage of the beautiful outdoor scenery that the stories typically necessitate, associating the films with qualities such as expansiveness and freedom. Schatz says that, “These films do not celebrate the past itself, but rather our contemporary idealized version of the past” (63). This is not the case with High Noon. Gone are the picturesque vistas of Monument Valley found in the films of John Ford. With a diverse background in film, director Zinnemann was influenced by European filmmaking and, in particular, Italian Neo-Realism. In fact, Prince says that, “The escapism and sentimentality of Hollywood films appalled [Zinnemann] in contrast to the direct social content of post-war European films” (62). As a result the film practices a minimalist visual style and focuses on the main character’s actions. Prince says that realism is maintained by, “avoidance of elaborate visual or technical gimmickry and an interest in grounding the image in the ongoing social history” (61). Perhaps the dedication to realism explains the film’s constant shots of clocks as they mark the time before final conflict, always grounding the audience as the events of the film take place almost in real time. In this respect High Noon has much more in common with Neo-Realism than the Hollywood western.
One section of the film illustrates how inverted typical conventions of westerns become as outlaws are praised by the mild mannered townspeople, while the sheriff becomes dismissed by them. Midway through the film, one of the outlaws comes into town for a drink. The fact that he feels confident enough to casually walk through the town shows the level of power that he views in Kane. As he walks into the bar, many people greet him with cheer, as if saying hello to an old friend. The patrons talk with glee about his future fight with Kane. As the outlaw leaves, Kane walks up to the local bar to recruit some help. When their paths cross, the outlaw shows no signs of panic whatsoever, while Kane freezes, terrified to spot the outlaw. The look that the outlaw gives Kane is a look of total confidence because he knows that Kane can do nothing to stop him. Kane is put in a position where he is powerless to do anything to stop him because he has not broken any laws yet. This is just one of the many examples that show how diminished Kane, and effectively the symbol of the western hero, have become.
Immediately as Kane walks into the bar, an uncomfortable feeling emerges from everyone present. The bartender talks poorly of Kane as he walks inside. Kane then punches the bartender to the ground as most western heroes would do, but then immediately apologizes and offers to help him up. Admitting any wrong doing is not a practice that mythical western heroes tend to practice since they always do the right thing, at least according to their own code. Therefore, by apologizing Kane admits a sort of defeat.
Standing alone in the middle of the room, Kane then asks for volunteers to help him in his struggle. By the look on Kane’s face he knows that he does not stand a chance at finding any help in the bar, but also knows that he must try anyway, if only out of a sense of desperation. The bartender even points out that many of the patrons present were friends of the man that Kane must fight. As the men simply stare at him in silence, Kane’s level of authority becomes clearly diminished throughout the scene. As he leaves the men start to laugh at Kane for even attempting to acquire their help. Such treatment of Kane, the man who symbolizes law and order, was unheard of in western films.
The scene in the church is one of the pivotal points in the story. In this scene the viewer does not see an idealized gathering of people who unite for a common cause, but one that shows what people really care about. This scene is important because the townspeople are allowed to voice all of their opinions and the viewer gets to understand their logic. All of them seem to think that Kane is a good man, but ultimately decide not to help him. Their reasoning that the town would be better off without a gunfight and all its publicity may have some truth, but ultimately they are just turning their backs on a man they know has been good for the town. In this way the scene plays out like a microcosm for the whole film.
At the end of the film, after the villains are killed, Kane effectively does to the townspeople what they had done to him by throwing his badge to the ground in disgust. Just as the townspeople return to accept him as a hero after the fight, he turns his back on the town. By throwing down his badge he is basically saying “Thanks for nothing” to the entire town. The hypocritical townspeople can only stand in silence as Kane rides away. They know that they have forsaken a decent man during his time of need and, as a result, a feeling of guilt follows as Kane leaves. As with Neo-Realist films such as De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948), High Noon contains an anti-climatic ending. The action plays itself out in a realistic manner without any melodramatic elements.
Overall, High Noon broke many precedents for the western genre. The uncertain sheriff, conflicted townspeople, and outlaws who have some of the town’s admiration are just some of the aspects the film turns against the conventions of the genre. After the success of the film, other westerns began to focus more on interior psychological aspects of its heroes. The criticisms of Hawks and Wayne and the resulting film, Rio Bravo, a popular film in its own right, have failed to diminish this film as one of the great examples of American filmmaking. Through its departures in character portrayal and influences in European cinema, High Noon changed the way that people thought about the western.
Prince, Stephen, "Historical Perspective and the Realist Aesthetic in High Noon," Film Criticism (Spring-Fall, 1994): 59-71.
Schatz, Thomas. “The Western.” Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. New York: Random House, 1981. 45-80.