“The noonday train will bring Frank Miller.
If I’m a man I must be brave
And I must face that deadly killer
Or lie a coward, a craven coward,
Or lie a coward in my grave.”
You may know ‘The Ballad Of High Noon’, only just not under that name. You might be more familiar with the title which it’s now more popularly known by: ‘Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’’. As a song, it’s taken on a life all of its own, so that even if you know it, you may not know that it hails from 1952’s High Noon. Perhaps the song seems familiar as there’s an episode of The Prisoner called ‘Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling’; or it may have been from Red Dwarf’s ‘Queeg’, when Holly’s heading for a showdown with his rival AI program, and the track is playing over the top.
So highly regarded was the song, it even went on to win 1952’s Academy Award for Best Original Song. At the time High Noon was released, very few dramatic films had a theme with lyrics, let alone one that told the story the audience was about to watch without them realising it was the case. It’s just one of the many ways in which High Noon is an atypical example of the whole Western genre, and was a trendsetter at the time – it isn’t just a lightweight romp with a singing hero, or a typical ‘cowboys and injuns’ feature, but something which operates on a much deeper level, and has the extra twist of being told almost in real time.
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It also has the additional strength of being told against a difficult political backdrop, some of which crosses over into the story. At the time, Senator Joseph McCarthy was conducting the ‘Reds under the bed’ witch hunts, and the screenwriter of High Noon – Carl Foreman, a former Communist – had refused to name names, which resulted in him being effectively blacklisted within Hollywood. High Noon was seen as being an allegory for Foreman’s refusal to help in McCarthy’s investigations – one man who stands alone, against overwhelming odds, while those all around start to turn their backs on him.
Combined with Foreman’s past, it was a big reason why John Wayne – originally offered the lead – turned down the role of Marshal Will Kane, ending up with Gary Cooper taking the part instead. Cooper is something of an unconventional lead as what is an unconventional character – in most Westerns, the hero is portrayed as a stoic, rugged, fearless sort; here, however, Kane is someone who’s wracked with self-doubt, and at times openly afraid of what lies ahead, as time is slowly ticking down to a confrontation with a man who he put away some time ago, and is now heading back for revenge.
The story takes place over the course of roughly an hour-and-a-half, starting out showing Kane’s wedding to Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly); shortly after tying the knot, Kane learns Frank Miller (Ian McDonald) – a deadly outlaw he’d sent to jail, and was supposed to be headed for the gallows – has been freed, and his making his way there to settle old scores, arriving on the noon train. Kane changes his mind over fleeing with his new wife, and decides to stand and fight, spending much of the film trying urgently to get help from the townspeople who he’s protected all these years, only to find them turning away from his entreaties, and isolating him as he prepares for the impending climactic showdown.
There’s a scene where Kane heads to the town’s church during a service, making his case for people to support him; this leads to an impassioned debate between the townsfolk, where they argue whether or not to help him. When you watch this, it’s hard not to think of a similar moment in Blazing Saddles, where the residents of Rock Ridge debate about why one of their own people should be killed when it comes to protecting the town, preferring to leave things to someone else to sort out. Even if Mel Brooks didn’t directly steal this moment, it’s hard not to think he was somehow influenced by this, even if only subliminally, so it shows just what a long shadow High Noon has actually cast over the whole genre.
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The township of Hadleyville itself feels three dimensional and believable, which is helped in no small part that it actually looks like a real place, rather than just a standard cliched Western set. The use of clocks throughout gives a sense of pace and urgency to proceedings, with tension palpably building as events get nearer to the arrival of Frank Miller at noon, and the sense of quiet desperation as Kane slowly finds all avenues closed to him, leaving it increasingly likely that he will have to face his fate alone, one which he might not be able to walk away from.
Eureka Entertainment’s Blu-ray release of High Noon – as part of its ongoing Masters Of Cinema series – has plenty of extras, all of which are worthy of being on the disc. As well as a trio of archival featurettes all about the making of the film, there are also two new audio commentaries – with one being by Glenn Frankel, author of High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist And The Making Of An American Classic – along with a 1969 audio interview with Carl Foreman recorded at the National Film Theatre. Eureka has once again managed to put together an very impressive raft of extras, making another fantastic entry in their range.
A taut, tense thriller which more than stands up to the scrutiny of a modern audience, High Noon is an outstanding movie in its own right, let alone in its genre. It’s truly the Western for people who hate Westerns, and there can be no higher accolade than that.
High Noon will be released on Limited Edition Blu-ray on 16th September, from Eureka Entertainment.