High Noon is another one of these movies that psyched me out, kinda like The Lavender Hill Mob, insofar as I couldn’t figure how to write about it, but also felt a lotta pressure to have something insightful to say, because, at the time that I saw it, there was a relatively recent book on the shelf called High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, which, from what I can glean outta the first chapter I read on Amazon, is about the political and the critical and the social hubbub surrounding the moviepicture’s subtext about McCarthy-era hypocrisy, betrayal, isolation, insurgency. I thought that High Noon, like Citizen Kane or The Bicycle Thief or The Grand Illusion or Greed, was gonna be one of these movies that broadcasts an irrefutable kind of genius and that it’s a canvas where any movie critic who’s worth a damn has to draw something savvy and clever and new.
Which is always a paralyzing feeling.
I maybe can’t wax with too much insight about the movie’s subtext or production but what I can and should say, off the bat, is that I don’t really like it. Not because I don’t like westerns (Winchest 73 and Red River are among my favorite pictures on the List so far) and not even because I don’t particularly like Gary Cooper (who rubbed me the wrong way with his performance in Mr. Deeds Comes to Town but then also kinda redeemed himself with Sergeant York)—I think I just…didn’t enjoy it.
The summary, quickly, is that cooper plays the sheriff of a small town who, on the day of his wedding, is also planning to retire. He goes through with the wedding ceremony (marrying a twentysomething Grace Kelly, whose youthful glow strikes a harrowing contrast against cooper’s liver spots) and then he learns, via telegram, that some vengeful dude he locked up years prior is coming to town and intends to kill him. That the dude’s packing heat and traveling ith henchmen.
Cooper decides to postpone his retirement. Straps his guns on and goes around town to see who among its residents will stand by him and help defeat these monstrous dudes.
What he finds is that literally nobody will stand with him. They all agree that he did the right thing by locking these guys up, they all agree that these dudes oughta be stomped out of existence, but nobody’s willing to actually go and take up arms against em cuz they’re afraid, naturally, of what might happen if—to use a cliché—you take a shot at the king and miss.
This was a pretty naked indictment of the hypocrisy surrounding the House of Un-American Activities Committee (operating under Senator Joseph McCarthy, which was bringing in various celebrities and grilling them about their affiliation with the Communist Party. Even the accusation of being a communist at the time was enough to ruin somebody (it’s not so different from our modern “cancel” culture).
If Joe McCarthy is, for you, just the vague historical figure that he was for me up until I watched this movie a little while back, here’s a crash course: in February 1950 McCarthy gave a speech to a Republican Women’s Club—of all places to insight national panic—called “Enemies from Within”. During the speech he held up a sheet of paper and said that he had here, in his hand, a list of some couple hundred communist insurgents who were working with the State Department to shape (and sabotage) American policy.
Scared the shit outta people.
Cuz remember the milieu: we’d just come outta World War 2, the country had made unprecedented sacrifices in order to wend our way through it, and now, finally, we’ve rebuilt our lives with suburbs and shit. Appliances. The veterans who could get acclimated again to civilian life were finally acclimated (the strain of that is beautifully portrayed in William Wyler’s Best Years of Our Lives)—and now here’s this authoritative dude in a suit holding up a sheet of paper saying that The Enemy has made it onto American soil. The horror of war was fresh on everyone’s mind. We got reactionary. Wanted to squash even the chance of shit heating up again.
Thing is, McCarthy was fulla shit. There were no names on that paper. When prompted time and again by reporter after reporter to give a name, or to tell them how many names he had, he went back and forth and bobbed and weaved. 200 names. 300. 205.
He was a worthless dishonest piece of shit and a fucking raging alcoholic. Several reporters and fellow politicians remarked that they’d never seen a human being consume so much alcohol as McCarthy would regularly consume at lunch. He was also allegedly in the habit of eating a stick of butter because he thought it helped him absorb his hooch a bit better.
Dude ruined so many lives with his fucking nonsensical anti-Communist mania—which he milked desperately because it made him an instantaneous celebrity, gave him a heroic sheen, and he got to look like somebody with deep governmental connections.
He wasn’t. He was nothing.
McCarthy was undone when he charged the United States Army with functioning basically as a Communist cell. When an Ary lawyer said to him, during the hearing, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” it put the kabash on what we now call the McCarthy Era. People saw him, finally, for what he was. And it’s kidna delicious tow atch footage from the hearing. McCarthy can clearly tell that he’s bitten off more than he can chew, can probably see tha this career is ending right here and now, but all he can do is adjust his glasses and sift his papers as though he’s…as though he’s got those figures somewhere…
I think it’s a virtue for writers to study a subject, absorb it, and use their resources with language to craft a comprehensive and unbiased narrative of events so that readers can understand it, enjoy it, and then reach their own conclusions. But when it comes to Joe McCarthy I see no sense in painting him here with the sort of nuance or complexity a writer might normally accord a human. Dude was garbage, monstrous, a hideous fucking turd merchant of the soul, deserving of pain, and when, in 1957, he drank himself to a premature death at the age of 48, humiliated beyond repair, I believe it was a Top Ten episode in Karma’s Greatest Hits.
The Hollywood Ten were a group of writers who were blacklisted for years, who lost their reputations and livelihoods and in some cases their freedom, because McCarthy, sanctimonious turd, found a way of exploiting the fears of a wounded nation for his own political gain; he accumulated some influence, some power, and then brought it down on people’s heads. McCarthy is like a natural disaster. A dustspout of senseless carnage that, to take an image from Blood meridian, ignites itself outta the earth and wobbles around and ruins a couple lives and dissolves back into itself as if nothing happened. All that’s left are ruins and pain and, ideally a lesson.
But how many times is history gonna teach us the lesson about demagogues?
Anyway. So High Noon is meant to reflect the McCarthy hearings in the way that cooper is a sheriff taking a lonesome stand against obvious mosnters. Even though the people around him are capable of stepping up, and even though they believe they should step up, they don’t, because ethere’s too much at stake for them.
Apparently this is Bill Clinton’s favorite movie (where’d I read that?). Ronald Regan’s, too. It’s the most-screened movie in White House history. I forget where I read this, but somebody wrote something about High Noon being the ultimate politician movie in that politicians, especially those in higher offices, always feel like they’re alone in championing some great fight against the forces of evil. That everybody’s betraying them, nobody’s got their back.
As for the movie: I honestly forgot, after the first act, that High Noon is famous for its political subtext. Which I guess is a a badge of accomplishment. I was immersed in the story and it didn’t feel so polemical as, say, Scarface. Or any of the rah-rah WWII stuff like Mortal Storm or Mrs. Miniver. But it just seemed so slow. Sure, the final confrontation is gratifying, with Cooper shooting it out against this whole gang by himself (with some last-minute help from Kelly), but it just felt pretty pale. Ahdunno. All due respect to its historical significance in the industry: it’s just not