High Noon’s reputation rests on being a “Western for people who don’t like Westerns.” Since Westerns are generally saddled with a lowbrow reputation, this picture’s elevated status makes one wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, the plot is extremely elemental; a marshal faces four opponents in a mid-day shootout. Nothing particularly novel about that. Part of the attraction is that the preparation for the gunfight plays out in close to real time: It covers roughly 100 minutes of story time over an 85-minute running time. Besides ratcheting up the suspense, it further heightens dramatic tension by having its hero face rejection from the citizens he serves, including his wife.
Perhaps the best way to “elevate” High Noon is by calling it mythic. Its characters are archetypes who appear in countless Western movies. Each character plays a similar social role across different films. The film also reduces the complex messiness of a historical time period to a distinct moral point defined by the resolution of conflict. The restoration of law over disorder symbolizes the moral victory of good over evil. High Noon’s narrative progression feels expansive despite its relentless time compression. Its theme feels powerful because it is expressed in a traditional form.
The story also lends itself to multiple allegorical readings pertaining to the Cold War, explicitly correlating characters, settings, and objects to equivalencies in the original audience’s world. Those connections, however, are both obvious and ambiguous. High Noon has been interpreted as a right-wing call to renew clear-cut American values against acquiescence to liberal compromise. Left wingers see it as an indictment of the liberal progressive establishment’s betrayal of the 1930s left to McCarthyism. Both readings are probably correct. While loyal to different sides of the political spectrum, both star Gary Cooper and screenwriter Carl Foreman disdained the politics of bipartisan consensus that defined the US domestic and international environment after WWII. Their collaboration forged a cultural counterforce that, by using mythic archetypes in lieu of explicit partisan ideologies, expressed contempt for political pragmatism and moderation.
As a supporter of the left-wing Popular Front during the Depression, Foreman believed that moral compromises that were made to sustain social progress gained in the 1930s and 40s amounted to hypocrisy. Facing a declining presence in government, New Deal Democrats, in order to preserve the surviving domestic programs enacted by President Roosevelt, and the rights of labor secured through bills such as the Wagner Act, sided with legislation (most notably the Taft- Hartley Act) that limited unions’ right to strike and banned communists from sitting on their committees. Under such conditions, the HUAC hearings, and the film industry blacklist that studios leveled against their uncooperative witnesses, met little official opposition. Although he left the Communist Party over matters of ideology and the role of art in 1942, Foreman refused to name fellow members to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.. His principle was to not collaborate with authorities investigating matters of political conscience. McCarthyism, Foreman believed, endangered the fundamental right of free thought.
If it’s true that writers cast themselves as heroes, then it is not surprising that Will Kane (Cooper) comes off as a paragon of moral rectitude. Foreman’s protagonist, unlike Dirty Harry, doesn’t acquire his ethical inflexibility by nature but by personal history; a past that the movie nicely teases out through backstory and action. We discover through a conversation with the past marshal, for example, that Kane was a rowdy youth, much like his deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), interested in the authority that guns vested in a man but lacking an ethical outlook on right and wrong. Through life experience, he developed a professional virtuosity with frontier combat. When he takes on the Miller brothers at the film’s foreordained climax, he does not stand in the open as an easy target waiting for his turn to draw. He conceals his presence behind buildings and obstacles in order to surprise and outdraw his opponents. One might also observe his skill at the quick draw and his unerring aim with the six shooter. These actions demonstrate that Kane’s role as the archetypal “town tamer” is well earned and that these skills place him as a critical member of Hadleyville’s community.
Before the film’s start, Kane’s professional obligations came into conflict with a group of villains known as the Miller Gang. Using fear, violence and intimidation, they seized a controlling interest in Hadleyville’s businesses, which seem to be mostly composed of saloons and hotels. Ultimately, Kane led a number of citizens to rise up and take on the Millers, sending them to a federal prison. This suggests that the collective use of force to support the legal process was once universally shared throughout the community and that Kane’s tactical skills made him the essential leader of the effortl.
Virtu is not the same as virtue, and the script also shows that the latter, in Kane’s case, evolved from the former. Kane’s sense of a “right” and “wrong” way of performing his job metastasizes into a black and white ethical structure in which he is the sole arbiter of good and evil. He refuses to recommend his deputy for the top job as a quid pro quo for helping fight the Millers. Since the call to duty cannot be sullied by negotiation, Kane views Harvey as unfit for service. Kane’s relationship with women traces the evolution of his ethical intractability. Shortly after taking control from the Millers, he takes up with Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), a Mexican proprietor of a hotel of dubious repute. She was previously Frank Miller’s mistress, implying that her security depends on sustaining intimate relations with Hadleyville’s gunfighting ubermenschen. Becoming increasingly self-disgusted with this affair, Kane marries Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), a young Quaker bride defined, like her spouse, by the rigidity of her principles. Unfortunately for Kane, those principles uphold pacifism as the highest form of civilized honor.
Amy is not alone in distancing herself from her husband’s crusade. Hadleyville has also moved on, but in a different moral direction inspired by the prosperity brought about by the establishment of order. The Justice of the Peace (Otto Kruger), sensing the lack of civic support for raising a posse, flees town. Various saloon keepers see a return to prosperity once the Millers strike a deal with the authorities, and Hadleyville’s mayor (Thomas Mitchell) foresees the prospect of Eastern capital drying up if blood starts flowing in the streets. Besides cowardice and opportunism, most of the townsfolk feel no investment in the marshal’s crusade if nonviolent means can mitigate the Millers’ return. Kane literally becomes a “man alone” when facing his adversaries, at least until a last-minute reversal of Amy’s conscience places her at the center of the fracas. After the Millers are vanquished, the townsfolk come out to congratulate the Kanes, who acknowledge the gesture by disgustedly throwing the marshal’s badge in the dust.
Carl Foreman claimed that the film expressed his feelings when centrist/liberal colleagues and friends (such as High Noon’s producer, Stanley Kramer) failed to come to his aid when HUAC pressured him to name fellow members of the Communist Party of the United States. Although Foreman distanced himself from the party in 1942, he felt that identifying associates before Congress violated an individual’s human rights. If High Noon represents this conflict, it does so quite obliquely. Foreman’s actions explicitly endorse the privilege to hold and to act on personal opinions, but in the specific context of the midcentury Red Scare those privileges should also include the right of political affiliation. Kane acts on individual moral principles alone, eliding the issue of collaboration.
There are several reasons for eliding this subject. The first probably deals with Foreman’s own history with the Communist Party. Many screenwriters gravitated to the party in the 1930s because they felt that a labor oriented political movement would best defend their creative rights and economic interests in an industry that held artistic and compensatory control over authors’ time and hard work. Many also sympathized with the CPUSA’s anti-fascist and anti-racist stances while the Democrats waffled on those issues in order to sustain support for the New Deal. Many writers were later pressured by party subcommittees and critics in the left-wing press to tailor their work towards a social realist aesthetic, aligning the arc of their characters’ self realization to the actualization of social consciousness. Harassment orchestrated by party commissars (like V.J. Jerome) and reviewers in publications like The New Masses against Budd Schulberg (who named names to protestwhat he saw as the group’s threat to impose “political correctness” on the arts) and Albert Maltz (later a member of the Hollywood 10) over their presumed bourgeois individualism led Foreman, Elia Kazan, and others to drop their party membership. The Screenwriters’ Guild’s A.F.L.-based trade union model seemed more amenable to protecting artistic expression and securing better working conditions and compensation. The manner in which Kane’s principles triumph over society’s comfort reflects Foreman’s notion that the leftist should protect the rights of individuals, not instill ideological conformity.
Ironically, the Guild’s failure to defend writers during the HUAC hearings became personal to Foreman, as the blacklist forced him to work outside of the United States.. By severing the exercise of personal freedoms from collective action, High Noon attempted to evade accusations that it supported the Communist Party or its front organizations. This move rendered the allegorical point toothless by making the value of speech, thought, and action inherently apolitical. Yet the picture’s privileging of individual beliefs over their social currency struck a chord with a nascent strain of conservative libertarianism. This is where Gary Cooper’s participation in the project helps one understand the politics of American genre films.
Cooper was a lifelong Republican, although not a particularly outspoken activist. He was a member of the Motion Picture Society for the Preservation of American Values, an anti-communist group that instigated early state and federal investigations into Soviet influence on American films before World War II. Cooper testified as a friendly witness before HUAC in 1947, stating that the industry was actively suppressing subversive messages that communist front groups were trying to insert into movies. When prompted to describe an incident when this might have happened, he gave a vague answer, stating that he was once given a suspicious script to read but that he couldn’t remember what was objectionable or who the writer was. He seemed uncomfortable making seditious accusations against people in the industry. He definitely opposed communism but felt that one had the right to hold different political beliefs individually if they did not challenge the legitimacy of the government.
Cooper’s roles after WWII show a shift in his conservatism. From the mid-1930s to the ’40s, he specialized in “everyman” roles. Characters like Lancaster Deeds in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Sergeant Alvin York in the celebrated 1942 biopic represent a mixture of decency and courage that, in Hollywood ideology, lay dormant in every red-blooded American male. His charisma exemplified, and magnified, shared values with his community and nation. This constituted a populist alternative to the progressivism of the New Deal. With Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the state served the collective health of the nation by implementing economic reforms and social welfare programs for those economically dispossessed by the Great Depression. It exuded a managerial approach to social problems. Cooper’s screen image invoked the will of the American spirit to seek character-based, self-reliant remedies to hard times. Yet, as his breakthrough role in 1929’s The Virginian demonstrates, Cooper also fostered an autocratic visage in which individualism defiantly challenged social and institutional convention in order to do the “right thing.” In High Noon, The Fountainhead, and The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell, the actor played rulebreakers who act on their beliefs despite society’s disapproval. As Cooper aged, his onscreen persona became increasingly segregated from conventional institutions and social mores.
Cooper proffered very few public statements on issues of national importance during his career. Based on his film roles, one might deduce that he felt that the Republican Party could have pressed further in dismantling the progressive policies of the New Deal. Entitlement programs, such as Social Security, remained intact, and while the expansion of government-run social spending (as proposed under Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal) was curtailed, labor unions were able to expand benefits to workers, such as health insurance and pension benefits, through collective bargaining. The right saw these as infringements on employers’ privileges. Moreover, the internationalist approach to containing the Soviet Union, which emphasized collaborative diplomatic and military coordination with U.S. allies through bodies such as NATO and the UN, chafed at the GOP’s traditional stance against joining international alliances, arguing instead that the nation should pursue its interests unilaterally. Some have observed that Kane, in his outspokenness and willingness to fight, resembled General Douglas MacArthur, who clashed with the Commander-in-Chief regarding how to handle China’s incursion during the Korean War.
High Noon exemplifies Cooper’s progression from gifted everyman to isolated autocrat. Unlike The Fountainhead’s iconoclastic Howard Roark, Kane’s extreme use of power isn’t just an existentialist stance, it’s justified within the confines of its mythic narrative. The marshal maintains stoic self-control when facing rejection. He doesn’t insult the mayor, the judge, and the saloon keepers when they withhold their support. Their actions are enough to invoke metaphors of cowardice and hypocrisy. They prop themselves up behind alcoholic bluster or the vestiture of social position, such as the minister’s collar. The Western, one should note, relates totems of social imagery to notions of power and weakness, where the marshal’s badge trumps all. Harvey is Kane’s opposite, losing his cool and instigating fights with his superior after Helen insults his manhood. Not only does Kane win the climactic gunfight against the Millers, but his wife follows her vow to not only honor and obey her husband, but becomes his pistol-packing partner. Privatism, represented in the authority of men proven capable of using force in public, seeds High Noon’s moral absolutism.
Despite their political differences, Foreman and Cooperdeeply distrusted both liberalism’s ethos and populism’s sense of a general will. Both believed that politics, and the need to compromise, weakened moral fortitude. High Noon presents an authoritarian origin story of American social order, where the symbolic power of guns and badges legitimized political decision-making as professionalism. This is a revisionist fantasy, replacing consensus-building with a system bestowing power to an elect capable of surgically applying violence as a replacement for negotiation and compromise.
In the context of the 1950s, High Noon also rebuffs the attacks thrown at authoritarian populism in prestige pictures like All the King’s Men and A Face in the Crowd (both written and directed, coincidentally, by friendly ex-communist HUAC witnesses). Being set in a faraway time and place, High Noon’s autocratic sentiments feel less contemporaneous. It expresses yearnings for a selectively remembered past when the frontier shaped character and necessitated forceful, inflexible forms of conduct. While it explicitly allegorized the experiences of certain left-wing factions, the right would better exploit its masculine energy and conflation of right and wrong with good and evil. Dirty Harry (in which Clint Eastwood reprises Cooper’s climactic gesture of tossing the badge) and a slew of ’80s action films promulgated this libertarian/authoritarian Western, introducing contemporary signifiers of urban decay and liberal lassitude, thereby addressing the pressing agonistes of the white “silent majority.” High Noon originated as Foreman’s personal jeremiad, but Cooper’s performance became a seminal text in the future political pageantry of the New Right.