In his biography, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: A Life in Hollywood, Stanley Kramer had this to say about his film High Noon: “It’s a story filled with tense anticipation but very little action. Since all those who read it thought of it as a Western, they expected to see guns blazing and horses galloping everywhere. In our minds, though, it wasn’t an action picture. We didn’t even think of it as a Western.” As Kramer suggests, the film is certainly not a typical, classic cycle western. High Noon marks a stark departure from audience expectations by mixing classical genre conventions with new revisionist twists and aesthetics. The film puts a microscope on human nature, exploring a new level of emotional, moral and societal depth never before seen in primitive or classical cycles of western genre.
Prior to the 1952 release of High Noon, many westerns fell into a simplistic construct of basic components that included chases, action, beautiful visuals, clearly defined good versus bad characters and simplistic plots. Predictable formulas pitted a hero (good guy) and a villain (bad guy) facing off with each other. Good guys wore white hats or light colors while bad guys wore black or dark colors. Typically, the two fight over a beautiful woman or fight for town control. Other typical symbolic conventions include the presence of: horses, trains, train tracks, train stations, a telegraph-telegram, beautiful women of purity, law officers of some sort, badges, rifles, six-shooters, liquor, saloons, hangings, gunfights and stereotypically dressed Indians.
Many of these basic classical genre features are present in High Noon. What makes High Noon a significant transition piece, however, is the new twists on the use of these conventions. For example, there is no action in this movie until the end. Only then is there a showdown between Frank Miller and Marshal Kane. No chases occur in the film. There is also just one fistfight between Gary Cooper (Marshal Kane) and his deputy Lloyd Bridges (Harvey) within the last ten minutes of the film. The movie’s shift of focus to depth of character, by pushing the showdown and fights to the end of the movie, is a brand new twist to the typical primitive paradigm.
Character revision begins with the main character, Marshal Kane. He is a reluctant hero who first leaves town in a hurry upon hearing about the release of Frank Miller. A good guy running away from a bad guy, avoiding the fight from the very beginning, is certainly atypical of primitive or classical western heroes. Further, he struggles with his reluctance to fight versus his sense of duty to do so. Kane goes back to the town not because he is eager to fight. Instead, he goes back because he thinks that it is better to face the fight there than alone on the prairie. As typical in most westerns, he hopes for safety in numbers by rallying the townspeople to his side. Yet, High Noon delivers another twist. Kane faces a rude awakening as the townspeople abandon him. Further, Kane shows his fear by openly admitting it around fifty-seven minutes into the film. When Herb abandons him, he puts his head down and cries. When Kane awaits the gunmen in the street, he appears sweaty and nervous. Such character traits are new territory for a western, a genre typically known for its rough, tough and unflinching heroes.
Additionally, High Noon revises the roles of the female characters into something fresh and unfamiliar. Both females are not as pure as we might expect from watching classical westerns. There are mysterious back-stories present for both Ramirez and Kane’s wife, Amy. All of the lead characters link together in a new and unusual way. The audience soon learns that Ramirez used to be Frank Miller’s woman. The story infers that the original conflict between Frank Miller and Marshal Kane was over Ramirez. Kane’s deputy, Harvey, is also involved with Ramirez when the film begins. The film never fully reveals the relationship between Marshal Kane and Ramirez, either to Amy Kane or to the audience. Amy Kane is also a Quaker and a pacifist who holds a healthy disdain for guns and violence. This reveals yet another alteration to a typical female character in classical westerns.
The complete lack of support by the townspeople is also a significant change. In typical westerns, a town looks to a hero to save them from the evil villain or villains. Yet, in High Noon, Marshal Kane finds out just who his ‘friends’ really are. They all seem more content with accepting outlaw Frank Miller back into the town than they are to stand up with Kane. There are moments where characters reveal open contempt for Kane. They openly discuss the hope that Kane leaves town so things can go back to the way they used to be. The audience could even infer that many in town would be indifferent if Miller actually won the gunfight. The saloon owner thinks that Kane has a “come uppance” coming his way. He prefers the more profitable, criminal days of Miller. Patrons also want the good times back, with one of the men telling Miller’s brother “there’s going to be a party tonight for sure”. They are more than pleased to know that Frank is coming back.
Further, when Kane goes to the church for help, townspeople in the congregation argue that if he leaves town, there will be no fight or trouble. In other words, it would be safer and easier on all of them if Marshal Kane just left town. Finally, even his closest allies let him down. The judge, the former marshal and Herb all abandon him. Unlike other westerns, this film’s hero has no town support, no posse or deputies to rally. Even his wife Amy refuses to be involved, buying the first train ticket out of town intent on leaving without him.
Not only does director Fred Zinnemann revamp existing conventions in High Noon, he also adds significant new ones that make the film appear vastly different. First, the film occurs in real time through the symbolic use of clocks. Zinnemann matches the elapsing time to the moment of the gunfight with the progress of time on all of the clocks that appear. The film is eighty-five minutes in length. It starts at 10:35am, tracking each minute of Kane’s efforts on various clocks until we reach high noon. This intense and constant reference to time helps to build a tension that would otherwise be lacking.
Second, Zinnemann shoots High Noon in a stark, washed out black and white style rather than in color. As a result, everything is bleak and dreary. There are no pretty colors or expansive blue-sky vistas as seen in previous classical westerns. It looks more like something you would see from a documentary film, which helps to bring the inflated utopia of the classical western style back down to earth. Both the use of real time lapse and black and white photography provide a sense of classicism to the film. While Zinnemann is manipulating these aesthetics, the manipulation is very subtle.
Third, the film also concentrates heavily on interior shots rather than exterior shots. There are no wide-open spaces, expansive distances or vast open prairies characteristic of classical genre westerns. Typically, westerns might have a posse chasing after villains on horseback across the open lands. They might camp out by a fire at night or forge across a big river. There is very little use of landscapes in High Noon. As a result, Zinnemann creates a palpable sense of confinement. This only adds to the tension and inescapability of fate for Marshal Kane. His past has come back to haunt him, and he must face it, alone.
Finally, use of the musical score is much different. There are two dominant themes. In every scene featuring Marshal Kane alone, we hear the Tex Ritter ballad “Don’t Forsake Me Oh My Darling”. Yet, in most all of the rest of the movie, there is a low-level, continuous stream of dark and brooding music that adds to the rising tension. This tension comes to a musical climax when the trains whistle blows at noon. For the first time in the movie, the music stops completely. An eerie silence falls. Everyone knows that Frank Miller has arrived for the inevitable showdown. Only when Miller and Kane face each other in town does the musical score return, growing to a crescendo as they pace towards each other.
When we think of classic westerns, we think of some sort of injustice that has occurred. The hero restores order and normalcy by chasing down and dispatching the villainous perpetrators, wins the girl, and rides off into the sunset. Yet, Stanley Kramer and Fred Zinnemann turn the tables on the classical genre paradigm. High Noon marks a dividing line between such shallow, basic entertainment of primitive and early classical westerns and more contemporary, thought-provoking westerns to come (such as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven). Kramer and Zinnemann avoid distracting techniques and utopian scenery, taking a classicist approach to force the audience to humanize their hero. They want the audience to abandon previous, lofty perceptions of heroism for a more focused and realistic interpretation. Consequently, High Noon reveals what it means to be forsaken, to embrace the deficiencies of human nature, rise humbly to an occasion and fight for a cause. In Marshal Kane’s case, that means doing so even if that cause may no longer be worth defending.
 Kramer, Stanley with Thomas H. Coffey. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: A Life in Hollywood. New York: Harcourt, 1997.