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High Noon: Dilemma at noon
"HIGH NOON" was certainly Fred Zinnemann's high point in a career otherwise noted for films like "The Nun's Story", "A Man for All Seasons" and "The Day of the Jackal". Critics often felt that he had all the disposable qualities: diligence instead of imagination, more care than instinct and, solemnity without wit. They said his "Julia" was a sad proof of the grinding good taste eluding him by inches.
Maybe, but his 1952 "High Noon" was a classic Western that nobody in his right senses can point a finger at. There is not a frame that is wasted in this excellently directed and superbly acted out movie. There is song, there is romance, but the action that swiftly leads to pulse-pounding moments unravels a complex situation and characterisation.
Gary Cooper as Will Kane (has he ever acted better?) is a lawman at a small town surrounded by friends and admirers as the first frames roll, but deserted by them in the end. Just married to that ravishing actress, Grace Kelly (who is Amy, the Quaker bride in the picture), Cooper is about to leave town when he hears that a fierce killer is arriving by the noon train to seek revenge against the community which sent him to prison.
Zinnemann packs every minute - right from 10.20 in the morning to 12 noon, also roughly the time of the film - with black and white suspense that draws a viewer into sheer drama: Cooper's initial panic at the thought of being the murderer's focus of wrath turns into a mighty resolve to stand up and fight, even alone as he is ultimately forced to. The final gun battle by itself is not as electrifying as the minutes - some ticking with hope, the others with despair - leading up to it.
Cooper, of course, enriched every moment of this. His towering presence overwhelmed audiences, and he carried the story not by uttering long speeches, but by believable actions and an expression that screamed pain and sorrow. In any case, he looked naturally haggard those days, suffering as he was from a bleeding ulcer and an injured hip. The song, "Do Not Forsake Me", not only became a hit later, but magnified the grief of a man forsaken by a people whose lives he guarded.
"High Noon" had something else to say, or indicate. Carl Foreman, who wrote the script, averred that it was a political work: Cooper was standing up to the House of Un-American Activities Committee (formed after World War Two to trace Nazi sympathisers). Zinnemann disagreed, and curiously Foreman himself was blacklisted by the Committee.
All this is history, but what is still relevant is the fact that "High Noon" touched me by its stark simplicity. I thought it was almost a sublime tale of struggle between good and bad, between what is right and what is wrong. It may sound archaic, but I wonder if this dilemma has ever been portrayed with such feeling and sensitivity.
(This story/review appeared in The Hindu dated April 1 2000)