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Do not forsake me, Oh my Darlin'
—The Ballad of High Noon
Perhaps the most famous film western, despite omitting or subverting many of the genre's tropes. High Noon is in some ways a gentle Deconstruction of The Western, depicting a hero mired in moral complexities, rather than the simple black-and-white of the traditional western.
Town marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is planning to retire and live happily with his new wife Amy (Grace Kelly), two sure signs of impending doom. On his last day the whole town learns that Frank Miller (no, not that one), a criminal Will had arrested, will arrive on the noon train with his gang, looking for Revenge. Will seeks support from the townsfolk, but none of them will stand with him, not even his deputy. Amy, a pacifist, urges him to leave, but he refuses, choosing to fight Frank alone.
In the end Amy kills one of the gang, sacrificing her principles to do the right thing and save her husband. Frank then takes her hostage, telling Will to put his gun down, but Amy struggles, allowing Will to kill Frank. Victorious, he throws his badge into the dust and walks away.
High Noon was written by Carl Foreman, while he was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he was subsequently blacklisted. The film can be seen as a parable about US society in general, and US intellectuals in particular, abandoning those summoned to appear before the committee, leaving them to face Senator McCarthy and his gang alone; which caused no end of confusion, since Senators don't normally head House committees.
High Noon is the film most requested for viewing by the U.S. Presidents. Bill Clinton named it his favorite (allegedly having it screened in the White House a record 17 times), but Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower also liked it.
- Bloodless Carnage: Used inconsistently: a fistfight leaves Kane covered in blood, but people who're shot just fell over.
- Broken Aesop: This film's message is supposedly about innocent men (ordinary citizens) being treated as criminals (communists) by a legal authority (Joe McCarthy) abusing its power and being abandoned about their friends (The American public). This film's content is about a legal authority figure (Joe McCarthy) losing the support of his friends (The American public) because they won't help fight a band of obvious criminals (communists).
- Children Are Innocent: The children dismissed from the church aren't the least bit upset about Miller's impending return, which they've just heard about, and are content to cheerfully play around. (It's possible they don't really know who he is, though.)
- Cowboys and Indians: Kane runs into kids who imitate the battle between him and Miller, with him shot to death.
- Crapsack World: Hadleyville. Marshal Kane ask the town's help for stopping a returning villain and his gang. Only a 14-year-old, a half-blind old man and his pacifist wife tried to help him. His deputy wanted to help... but only to get Kane to appoint him as the next marshal. Lampshaded by...
The Judge: This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important. Now get out.
- Deliberately Monochrome: While it doesn’t hurt that color wasn’t in vogue for serious/art films at the time, the black-and-white color schemes are suggestive of a good-vs.-evil conflict in a morally-complex story. The photography was intended to look 19th-century, and especially intended to resemble the solemn palettes from photography of the Civil War. When the idea of colorizing black and white films turned to High Noon, Word of God was, in essence, "No, thank you."
- Divided We Fall: Will's deputy refuses to help him unless Will agrees to him being the next marshal.
- Expository Theme Tune: "The Ballad of High Noon."
- Extremely Short Timespan: The film is in real-time; there are clocks in almost every room, constantly keeping track.
- Good Scars, Evil Scars: Frank Miller sports some evil scars.
- Guns Akimbo: Colby, a member of Miller's gang (Lee Van Cleef), rushes into the barn blazing wildly with two guns. Kane picks him off neatly with one gun.
- Hair of Gold: Amy, initially depicted as naive and innocent; she insists that she is familiar with violence and ultimately becomes Kane's only supporter.
- Hero Looking for Group: Tragically subverted. See Posse below.
- Honor Before Reason
- Implausible Synchrony: There's a clock prominently displayed in every house in town, and they're all showing the exact time, just so there's no doubt as to how soon the big showdown will take place.
- Insignia Rip Off Ritual: Kane takes off his own badge.
- In the Back: Amy shoots one of Miller's man, Pierce, in the back through a window.
- Knight in Sour Armor: Will Kane
- Light Is Not Good: Frank Miller dresses in white in contrasting his goons wearing black.
- Lock and Load Montage: Subverted. Two minutes before he faces Frank Miller alone at noon, Kane sits down in his office and begins preparing by writing his will. Enter Dimitri Tiomkin's score and a montage of Kane at his desk, the omnipresent clock, Amy and Helena in the hotel, Miller's goons at the depot, and pretty much everybody else in the whole town at the saloon or church.
- Offstage Villainy: Frank Miller for most of the movie.
- Magic Countdown: Subverted; the hour before the train arrives is done in real time.
- May-December Romance: Gary Cooper was 28 years older than Grace Kelly.
- Meek Townsman: Just about everyone in town.
- The Missus and the Ex: Amy and Helen. Although Helen Ramirez clearly still carries a torch for Kane, she helps persuade Amy to be the partner she knows he deserves:
Helen: I don't understand you. No matter what you say. If Kane was my man, I'd never leave him like this. I'd get a gun. I'd fight.
- Name's the Same: Frank Miller
- Neutral Female: Subverted. Amy vows not to support or help her husband fight the thugs, but ultimately she is the only person to help him fight. She shoots a bad guy and is even able to break free of Miller's hold so her husband can shoot him.
- Played straight by many of the female townspeople. Some seem disgusted at their husbands' refusal to help Kane, but do nothing themselves.
- Politically-Correct History: It's typical for a lot of Westerns to gloss over or stereotype Hispanic characters, but this film averts it. Helen faces prejudice over her ethnicity, and is only able to help run a store by being a silent partner. The other owner of the store refuses to be seen with her in public.
- Posse: Subverted; Kane tries to get one, but unsuccessfully.
- Put Down Your Gun and Step Away
- Real Time: Kane's one hour deadline ticks down in real time.
- Recycled in Space: The sci-fi film Outland is often dismissed as High Noon IN SPACE!, but it isn't really.
- Retired Gunfighter: Will Kane, trying to hang up his guns to marry his Quaker bride.
- Riding Into the Sunset: Will and Amy at the end, though it's not a sunset.
- Right on the Tick: The passage of time is extremely important in this film.
- Rousing Speech: Subverted in the church.
- Showdown At High Noon: Of course.
- Throw It In: When Miller's train is coming in, the smoke is very black. This was not intentional but because of a problem with the train coming in too quickly and it almost crashing, it produced that effect.
- Training the Peaceful Villagers: Subverted. Kane tries, but they aren't interested, even when their town is at stake.
- Violence Really Is the Answer: Many people urge Kane to run away rather than fight, including his pacifist wife, but he stands his ground, and his wife forsakes pacifism to save his life.
- The Voiceless: Colby, the harmonica-toting thug played by Lee Van Cleef, has no lines.
- Wedding Day: The entire movie takes place on Will's wedding day.
- The Western
- What the Hell, Townspeople?: Kane shows his contempt for the cowardly townsfolk after he wins; when they gather around him, he drops his badge and leaves without a word.
- When the Clock Strikes Twelve: Twelve o'clock Noon, in this case. We are constantly given shots of the clock and pendulum to remind us of Kane's supposedly imminent comeuppance.
- See Recycled in Space for more.