Tag Archives: Lawman and Community

High Noon

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 23, 2013

High Noon—Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell, Katy Jurado, Lloyd Bridges, Lon Chaney, Jr., Ian Macdonald, Lee Van Cleef, Harry Morgan, Sheb Wooley, Jack Elam (1952; Dir:  Fred Zinnemann)

A perennial fixture on the list of greatest westerns, High Noon is a creature of its time, an apparent Hollywood reaction to the era of McCarthyism.  For all of that, it’s also excellent story-telling with terrific actors and a claustrophobic feel as the designated hour approaches.

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Part of the tension is caused by the action of the film taking place almost in real time.  Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is the aging town marshal of Hadleyville, who is now retiring from those responsibilities as the movie opens.  The primary reason for that well-deserved retirement is his brand new wife, the young anti-violence Quaker Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly, looking elegant and cool in her first starring role).  However, Kane’s past threatens to catch up with him   He arrested Frank Miller some years ago and sent him to prison.  Now Miller’s getting out, and he wants to have it out with Kane.  Miller has henchmen who’ve remained attached to him during his incarceration; the citizenry of Kane’s town, who have benefited from his service and past courage, have little similar faithfulness.

The title High Noon refers to Miller’s impending arrival on a train.  We know we are in good hands from the opening shot, as Jack Colby (Lee Van Cleef in his movie debut) sits smoking on a rock.  The Oscar-winning theme song “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’” starts at the same time, its rhythms evoking the sound of a railroad locomotive.  The song Tex Ritter’s singing provides a plot synopsis as the titles and credits roll, and Colby watches as Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley) rides toward him. They are then joined by veteran screen heavy Robert Wilke as Jim Pierce, and the three ride off together toward Hadleyville.  They are Frank Miller’s hard-eyed henchmen.  They ride into town past the church, and a Mexican woman crosses herself as she watches them.

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Miller’s henchmen: Lee Van Cleef, Robert Willke and Sheb Wooley.

Meanwhile, Will Kane and Amy Fowler are being married on this Sunday morning.  As the ceremony ends, Kane turns in his star and hangs up his gun, since he has now married a Quaker.  He is then given a telegram telling him that Frank Miller has been pardoned and is heading his way.  Will the marriage hold up under the collision of principles that is about to take place, not to mention the apparent 30-year age difference between Kane and Fowler?   

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Just married, and already they have a troubled relationship.

Will Kane tries to leave town, but decides he has to come back when he realizes his replacement as marshal won’t be in town until the next day.  “I’m the same man whether I wear this [star] or not.”  He can’t walk away from what he sees as his responsibility, which is not limited by formalities.  And if he stays in town, he figures he can get backup from his long-time friends there.  Amy’s not so sure of any of this; she argues for Will to leave with her, partly because of her pacifist religious principles and hatred of violence and guns.  She declines to wait in the hotel for the next hour or so to see whether she’s going to be a widow before she’s even had a chance at marriage.  She buys a ticket for St. Louis, planning to leave on the same train on which Miller will arrive.

Kane’s hopes for support fade by the minute.  Judge Mettrick (Otto Kruger) who originally sentenced Miller to hang can’t leave town fast enough.  Young Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) is angry at being passed over for promotion to the top job, and tosses in his badge.  He figures Kane won’t support him in wanting to be the marshal because of Pell’s current relationship with Helen Ramirez, Kane’s former mistress and the most prominent business person in town (played by the darkly beautiful Katy Jurado, excellent in her first U.S. movie).  Ramirez sells her businesses to leave town; she has history with both Kane and Miller, in addition to her current relationship with Pell.  She understands Kane better than his new wife does in some ways; Amy mistakenly thinks a lingering affection for Ramirez is the reason Kane won’t leave.

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An iconic image with a lot of resonance in different circumstances.

Some in town figure that business was better when Frank Miller was around.  Some just don’t like Kane.  Some, like Selectman Sam Fuller (Harry Morgan) hide from him.  Kane approaches the people in church, many of whom have their own reasons not to take a role in the impending clash.  Kane hasn’t been much of a churchgoer himself.  Mayor Jonas Henderson (played by Stagecoach’s Thomas Mitchell) wants him to leave town.  The former marshal, Kane’s mentor, is too tired and too crippled with arthritis to help.  Harvey Pell, tired of Ramirez and everybody else thinking he isn’t up to Kane’s standards, picks a last-minute fight with Kane in the livery stable.   In the end, Kane has only a one-eyed drunk and a 14-year-old boy who’re willing to stand with him.  It’s really just Kane against the four gunmen.

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Kane (Gary Cooper) is on his own against Frank Miller and three of his gang.

During the shootout, Kane does get some help from an unexpected quarter.  In the famous last shot, he tosses his marshal’s badge into the dirt at the feet of those who’ve come to congratulate him after his success in the shootout, and he rides out of town forever in a two-set carriage.

The cast is brilliant, although some of these actors were quite early in what became distinguished careers.  50-year-old Gary Cooper was thought to be past his prime when the film was made, and this performance reinvigorated his career.  Grace Kelly doesn’t quite balance him, but she’s fine in her first starring role.  (She was only 21 at the time.)  Katy Jurado gives a smolderingly good performance, and her part is not written as bloodlessly as Kelly’s.  The many small roles (including Howland Chamberlain as the hotel clerk who doesn’t like Kane) are excellently played.  Ian Macdonald might be less effective as Frank Miller, but he isn’t actually on screen much, and he’s fine.  Lon Chaney, who plays Kane’s retired mentor, was actually five years younger than Cooper.  Jack Elam appears uncredited in a couple of shots as the locked-up town drunk.  Cooper might have been on the downhill slope of his career, but a number of good acting careers were just getting started in this movie.

The film was nominated for seven Oscars and won four.  It lost the Best Picture Oscar to The Greatest Show on Earth, generally regarded as one of the weakest winners ever of that award.  Cooper won his second Best Actor Oscar for this performance.  (The first was for 1941’s Sergeant York.)  He remained a bankable star throughout the decade, making several more notable westerns (Vera Cruz, Man of the West, The Hanging Tree, They Came to Cordura).  The other Oscars this movie received were for Best Editing, Best Original Song (the first such Oscar winner from a non-musical) and Best Score for Dimitri Tiomkin’s music.  Indeed, the Oscar-winning theme song started a new fashion for sung themes in westerns, frequently used badly and intrusively (see, for example, Rancho Notorious, Trooper Hook and the original 3:10 to Yuma).   

Visually, the movie is quite effective, although it was shot mostly on the Columbia back lot in Burbank.  The editing is superb, with frequent images of clocks and pendulums, and low-angle shots of railroad tracks stretching off to the horizon.  The editing heightens tension without becoming too repetitive, a delicate line.  The film is intentionally shot in black and white, not color, and it doesn’t feature the huge western skies and landscapes so effectively used by John Ford, George Stevens, Howard Hawks and others.

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Cooper has fun with wardrobe tests during filming.

Fred Zinnemann, an Austrian of Jewish descent who had grown up on the stories of German author Karl May, was an unusual choice to direct a western.  He and producer Stanley Kramer did not particularly intend to make an allegory for the McCarthy hearings then at their height, but screenwriter Carl Foreman and cinematographer Floyd Crosby did.  Foreman was blacklisted and fled to England before the film was finished.

Somehow High Noon manages to transcend the trap of being stuck in its time.  To the extent it could be said to have underlying political themes, it’s never so overbearing with them that it can’t be seen in a variety of ways.  Right-wing John Wayne and the Soviet news agency Pravda were equally offended by it.  Regardless of what Foreman, Kramer and Zinnemann may have been thinking at the time (and they weren’t thinking the same thing), it represents the most effective presentation of a theme common in 1950s and 1960s westerns:  the role of ordinary citizens in defending civilization and their uneasy relationships with those who use violence and run risks in upholding the law for them.  (See, for example, such movies as The Tin Star, Warlock, The Fastest Gun Alive, A Man Alone, Lawman, etc.—even the parody Support Your Local Sheriff.)  Not everyone agreed with High Noon’s take on this issue, either.  Howard Hawks said that he made 1959’s Rio Bravo partly as a counter-statement to High Noon, and it works marvelously, too.  Dave Kehr refers to “Cooper playing an inflated archetype — the Man of the West — rather than a character” in this, “his most overrated film, Fred Zinnemann’s didactic political fable High Noon (1952).”  For more background on the film, see Glenn Frankel’s High Noon:  The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic (2017).  

Another character who throws his badge in the dirt after having saved his community:  Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry twenty years later, making a very different statement than writer Foreman, at least, intended for this movie.

William Faulkner, a great American writer who had a substantial history in writing for the movies, said that High Noon was one of his favorite films. “There’s all you need for a good story:  a man doin’ something he has to do, against himself and against his environment.  Not courage, necessarily.”

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The Tin Star

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 13, 2013

The Tin Star—Henry Fonda, Anthony Perkins, Betsy Palmer, Neville Brand, John McIntire, Lee Van Cleef (1957; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

Grizzled bounty hunter Morgan Hickman (Henry Fonda) meets green sheriff Ben Owens (Tony Perkins in one of his first roles):  “How long you had that badge?”  “Since Sheriff Parker…uh, got killed.”  “Nobody else wanted it, huh?  How come they picked you?”  “I’m only temporary.”  “You’re more temporary than you think.”

The title is a generic sort for a western featuring a lawman; in fact, a short story with this name was made into the classic High Noon.  In this case Hickman has come to town to collect the reward on an outlaw he brings in, dead and draped over his pack horse, only to find himself despised by the respectable townspeople.  The inexperienced sheriff is just finding his way in a difficult job and tells Hickman he’ll have to wait for his money until he gets confirmation from the party offering the reward.  This means Hickman will have to spend at least several days in the hostile town until he can get paid.  The town bully and livery stable owner is Bart Bogardus (played by experienced villain Neville Brand, who was said to be the fourth most-decorated American soldier during World War II); Bogardus thinks he’d be a better sheriff than Owens.  Hickman bails Owens out of a difficult situation with Bogardus and unintentionally becomes the young sheriff’s mentor.

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Hickman (Henry Fonda) submits a claim to the green sheriff (Anthony Perkins).

Meanwhile, the hotel won’t rent Hickman a room, and he finds accommodations with young widow Nona Mayfield (Betsy Palmer) and her half-Indian son.  In addition to making a place for himself as sheriff, Owens is also trying to get Millie Parker (Mary Webster) to marry him.  But she’s the daughter of the previous (and now dead) sheriff, and she won’t marry him unless he takes off the tin star.  The beloved town doctor (John McIntire) is killed, and Owens loses control of his posse to Bogardus.  It becomes a mob.  Meanwhile, Hickman and Owens find and capture the killers, but may not be able to hold them against Bogardus and the mob.  As Hickman and Owens become better friends, Hickman reveals that he had been a lawman in Kansas when his own family needed help, and the townspeople he thought were his friends wouldn’t provide the assistance he needed.  He now has few illusions about the relationships between townspeople and those they hire to protect them, and he thinks they ask too much while providing too little in return.

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Hickman gives the youngster a few tips.

In the final confrontation between Owens and Bogardus, Hickman puts on the star again in support of Owens, but Owens, armed with what he’s learned from Hickman, is the one who has to deal with the situation.  And at the end Hickman takes off with the young widow and her son to find another town that wants somebody to wear a star.

tinstarpalmerfonda Romancing the widow.

This is one of a number of westerns from the 1950s that explored social issues, especially one of those concerned with a sense of community and how much townspeople owe to those who enforce the law against the lawless.  (Compare it with High Noon, Man With the Gun, At Gunpoint, 3:10 to Yuma and Rio Bravo, for example.)  The townspeople usually come off badly in such situations, so much so that it has become a cliché (see Support Your Local Sheriff, for example, which exploits that cliche to comic effect).

The cast here is appealing, with a good relationship between American everyman Fonda and the young Tony Perkins.  Palmer is attractive and straightforward as Fonda’s romantic interest.  John McIntire is his usual avuncular self as the town doctor, but he’s basically the same character as Walter Brennan in At Gunpoint.  McIntire was a Mann favorite, and shows up more colorfully in Winchester ’73 and The Far Country, too.  Villains Brand and Van Cleef do exactly what they’re supposed to do.

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Anthony Mann directs Fonda and Perkins in a scene.

This is the better one of the two good westerns directed by Anthony Mann that don’t feature James Stewart.  (The other is Man of the West with Gary Cooper.)  Mann was more interested in psychological and social issues than some directors of westerns in the 1950s, but he knew what he was doing.  This is in black and white, at a time when most movies with ambitions (even westerns) were in color.  But it doesn’t suffer for all of that.

For another movie featuring Fonda as an experienced ex-lawman helping a younger and greener peace officer, see Warlock, made a couple of years later.

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Rio Bravo

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 11, 2013

Rio Bravo—John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan, John Russell, Claude Akins (1959; Dir:  Howard Hawks)

Well, John Wayne, yes, of course.  But Dean Martin?  Ricky Nelson?  Who’d be able to make this work at all, let alone make it memorable?  Director Howard Hawks, that’s who.  Rio Bravo’s initial commercial success and the enduring respect in which it is held are usually credited principally to Hawks, with considerable justification.  Hawks was one of the great directors of his long era, from silent movies to the 1970s, and he didn’t work in westerns all that often.  Rio Bravo was a commercial sort of movie, not held in great critical regard at the time of its release in 1959.  But that respect has increased over the ensuing 60 years, and it still scores high in re-watchability.  Various of the elements of the casting and film shouldn’t work, but they do. 

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The title apparently comes from the fact that Mexicans refer to the Rio Grande as the Rio Bravo.  The central plot is fairly common.  Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) of Presidio County, Texas, is holding the local land baron’s brother in his jail on a murder charge, and faces insuperable odds in trying to keep him there until a U.S. marshal arrives to take custody of the miscreant.  Tension builds as Chance puts together his beleaguered team, strategy develops on both sides and the odds against Chance rise.  Subplots involve the rehabilitation of his alcoholic deputy Dude (Martin) and an unlikely romance between Chance and young gambler/dance hall girl Feathers (Angie Dickinson).

rio-bravodude Dude battles his demons.

This was a first film for Martin and Nelson, and very early in Dickinson’s career.  Wayne was in the stage of his career (after The Searchers) where his characters became frankly middle-aged.  Martin and Nelson were both better known as singers than actors, and for commercial purposes (and presumably to show male bonding), there had to be a scene where song breaks out.  It’s the cheesiest moment in the movie, but surprisingly it doesn’t undercut the development of the film.  Martin is excellent, as he was in another, later western (The Sons of Katie Elder).  Nelson didn’t have much of a film career, but he was fine in this as youthful gunfighter Colorado Ryan.  Dickinson was remarkable as the young gambler Feathers in a May-December romance with Chance.

There are lots of moments that stick with you:  Chance giving the most threatening “Good evening” greeting you’ll ever see on film as he passes a suspect character on the street at night.  In a saloon, an angry Chance turns, bashes a bad guy with his rifle and then says of the bleeding thug on the floor, “Aw, I won’t hurt him.”  In the villain’s saloon, a frowzy, despised Dude rubs his stubbled jaw, spins, draws, shoots and drops a killer in the shadows above him who’s been dripping blood into a beer on the bar.  Chance’s tough love to the recovering alcoholic deputy:  “’Sorry’ don’t get it done, Dude.”  Any of three exchanges between Chance and Feathers in her hotel room.  Walter Brennan’s incessant cackling and complaining as Stumpy, the lame jailhouse guard.  Colorado finally buying into the big fight by tossing Chance his rifle in the street while the bad guy’s thugs have the drop on him.  The constant playing of the Deguello, the threatening Mexican trumpet and guitar music (composed by Dimitri Tiomkin) emanating from the bad guy’s saloon, supposedly meaning “no quarter will be given.”  John Russell’s tall, smooth and impeccably dressed villain verbally spars with Chance at the jail.  (This was Russell’s most memorable role in a modest career.)

riobravo1 Arresting brother Joe.

And there are lots of small touches that work well in retrospect:  The way Wayne’s character favors a rifle (as he did in Hondo and several other movies) as his weapon of choice, and how he handles it.  Martin’s sloppy attire and convincing degradation when his character is a drunk.  The use of roll-your-own cigarettes throughout the movie, as an indication of male bonding.  Wayne’s convincingly battered hat, which he used from 1939’s Stagecoach for the next 20 years of movies (see, for example, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Hondo), tilted forward on his head with the front brim bent slightly up.

A few touches don’t work as well:  The singing scene is not universally beloved.  And the stock-Mexican portrayals of the hotel keeper and his wife don’t play as well today as they may have 60 years ago.  But the movie is remarkably sure-footed, and what seems to be a leisurely plot development seldom drags.

Rio-Bravo-chancefeathers Chance and Feathers

Hawks said that one of the interests for him in making Rio Bravo was to make a counter-statement to Fred Zinneman’s High Noon, released six years earlier and nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.  Instead of trying to get help from townspeople and cattle drovers (as does Marshal Will Kane in High Noon), Chance here prefers to rely instead on a very small group of professionals for his support.  Hawks was also not impressed with the drawn-out slow-motion violence of Peckinpah’s influential The Wild Bunch a decade later; he thought that violence was more effective if it was over quickly as in real life, instead of glorifying it in extended slower sequences.

Hawks was known for stealing from himself, re-using material that had worked in his other films.  The Chance-Feathers relationship is very reminiscent of the middle-aged Bogart and young Lauren Bacall in Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944).  Even some of Feathers’ lines are virtually the same, and she shows a very similar aggressiveness in the relationship.  Walter Brennan was also a principal supporting character in To Have and Have Not.  There are similar pop musical touches in both movies, with Hoagy Carmichael in To Have and Have Not and Martin/Nelson in Rio Bravo. 

riobravohawks Director Hawks and Angie Dickinson

Later, Hawks would remake Rio Bravo twice more, with diminishing success each time.  1966’s El Dorado featured Wayne again, with Robert Mitchum in the Martin role and a young James Caan in the Nelson role.  It worked, but not as well as Rio Bravo.  Rio Lobo in 1970, again starring Wayne, used many of the same plot elements.  It was Hawks’ last film and not one of his more successful in a number of ways.  John Carpenter took the plot as the basis for his 1976 urban action film Assault on Precinct 16.

Some credit for the enduring success of Rio Bravo should go to excellent screen-writing by two frequent Hawks collaborators:  Jules Furthman (a screenwriter since 1915, with Mutiny on the Bounty, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, The Outlaw, Nighmare Alley) and Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep, Hatari, El Dorado, Rio Lobo, The Empire Strikes Back).  As with most great films, however, a number of elements worked together well to produce something worth remembering.

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