High Noon • Hollywood Antitrust and McCarthyism

Greenscreening Series #16

December 9, 2022

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High Noon (1952) directed by Fred Zinnemann

*High Noon*


Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is looking forward to his honeymoon with his new bride Amy (Grace Kelly). But as he and his wife prepare to leave town, Kane is informed that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), his former nemesis, is out of jail and on the way to Hadleyville for a showdown with him. Not one to back down from a confrontation, Kane decides to postpone his honeymoon and face the murderous outlaw and his gang. However, as the lone sheriff attempts to enlist some of the townspeople to help him, he quickly discovers that no one is willing to risk their life beside him. As the minutes tick away toward the final showdown, Kane prepares to meet his fate alone. - TCM

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Why High Noon?

As we have discussed throughout the series, films exist in conversation with one another. High Noon is a counterargument to the vision of the West in John Ford’s work - like Stagecoach. The creative team of director Fred Zinnemann, producer Stanley Kramer and screenwriter Carl Foreman devised what's become known as the first revisionist Western, eschewing a lot of the genre standards and taking a different perspective on the question of duty, bravery, heroism, and community. A lot of the tropes of the genre are there, especially the stock characters making up the town of Hadleyville, but beneath the surface of this prototypical Western community, we have bitterness, envy, cowardice, and a lot of self-interest. Instead of the strong male protagonist protecting civilization against the uncivilized/outlaws, in High Noon, civilization has been corrupted, and the hero stands outside of it.

Subsequently, the old guard of Western auteurs and stars, most vocally John Wayne, hated High Noon. Howard Hawks and Wayne made a film, Rio Bravo (1959) in direct response to High Noon. Both films are classics that tell essentially the same story with a different philosophy, and with a different outcome for the protagonist. And so High Noon (and Rio Bravo along with it) provides a case study in films as arguments about the world, society, human nature, and more made through stories. And importantly, as moviegoers, we don't have to agree with a film's message or politics to appreciate its artistry, or even to enjoy it, just as we don't have to enjoy or appreciate the artistry of a film just because we might agree with its message or politics.

Contextually, High Noon arrived at a major pivot point within Hollywood.

  • First, the rise of television during the 1940s decimated movie ticket sales. With a rival screen now embedded in people’s homes, they had a reason to stay in and not go to the movies. Movie attendance never recovered to its prewar peak, and the studios began paring back development, as well as experimenting with ways to lure people back. We'll discuss this more with subsequent films, but this paved the way for greater spectacle (color, widescreen cinematography, 3D movies and films of epic length), as well as for more serious content and unique stories.

  • Additionally, the Second Red Scare came for Hollywood. The Red Scare was America’s widespread cultural and political fear of socialism and communism spreading in postwar America, also known as McCarthyism, after its chief spokesman, Joseph McCarthy. Beginning in 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began investigating connections to the Communist Party within Hollywood, calling numerous actors, directors, screenwriters and other industry talent to testify and share what they knew. Hollywood bosses were largely compliant with the investigations, wanting to avoid anything that might further disrupt business. Walt Disney founded a political action group, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, in response to a strike at his animation studio, and helped rally other studio bosses to agree to support the HUAC proceedings. Ultimately, the studios agreed that anyone within the industry who appeared before HUAC and refused to name names of anyone with ties to the Communist Party would be blacklisted from working in Hollywood for 10 years. High Noon's screenwriter and producer, Carl Foreman, was blacklisted for refusing to name names, and as a result, was under-credited for his work on High Noon and other films, until decades later.

  • Finally, antitrust suits ended the studio system’s monopoly power over the industry. Known as the Paramount Case, the Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that studios could no longer control the entire end to end business from production to exhibition (vertical integration), and couldn’t force independent theaters to rent an entire season of material (block booking). This meant studios had to sell or spin off their theaters, and material would be rented to theaters more individually. As a result, the Hollywood Studio System, which had developed in the 1920s began to decline, and never fully recovered from this decision’s effects.

With the shifting power balance in Hollywood, independent producers like High Noon's Stanley Kramer and Carl Foreman began cropping up, taking advantage of unused production facilities and talent. Kramer and Foreman in particular focused on telling unique stories of individuals struggling against societal mores; the story would drive the audience just as much as the star. This new breed of independent producers led to more diverse perspectives and styles within American film, and laid the groundwork for the Hollywood Renaissance of the 1960s.

Additionally, stars gained more freedom from the weakening of studios. Instead of multi-year contracts with a specific studio, stars could negotiate for a smaller bundle of pictures, or for specific projects. Star Gary Cooper accepted a lower salary in exchange for a percentage of the gross receipts from High Noon, helping make the film more affordable for its independent producers. Cooper didn't invent this model (James Stewart was the first major star to do so, a couple years earlier), but Cooper benefitted greatly, as High Noon was a major hit, and he won Best Actor for his performance. Estimates put his earnings at $600,000 for the film, equivalent to about $6.5M today. This compensation model is fairly common today, both in major studio productions (hello, Tom Cruise), and independent film.

*High Noon*

The film's supporting cast is excellent. We get another solid performance from Thomas Mitchell, the great character actor who played the doctor in Stagecoach. We get Grace Kelly's screen debut, just 22 when the film was made, and while it's not necessarily a breakout, star-making performance, the seeds of stardom are there. Lloyd Bridges is great as Kane's bitter deputy. We also get an early performance from Lee Van Cleef as a member of Frank Miller's gang - Van Cleef was a regular heavy in Hollywood Westerns and became a star later with the rise of Spaghetti Westerns, which we'll discuss later in the series.

*High Noon*

In addition to its thematic differences with conventional Westerns, High Noon also stands out stylistically. Zinnemann and co use spare imagery, real-time storytelling, lots of dialogue, and an almost claustrophobic setting within the town of Hadleyville rather than the epic scale of the iconic Monument Valley, and chases and gunfights of the "Cowboys and Indians" B Westerns.

*High Noon*

Thus far in this series, we've seen stories span a few days, weeks, or an entire lifetime, told linearly or jumping back in time through flashbacks (Citizen Kane, Double Indemnity, and Hugo). High Noon unfolds in real time, over about 100 minutes, as Marshal Will Kane awaits the arrival of the noon train. This storytelling device was unique for the time, and is occasionally used, but nowhere to better effect, creating a high level of suspense and urgency in the film.

High Noon was one of the first films to use a theme song alongside the musical score’s main theme, the Oscar-winning "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling." The song became a hit and helped launch the trend of utilizing a song to help market a film, and vice versa, that we now see used everywhere from Oscar-bait to the Bond series.

Many critics have called High Noon the first feminist Westerns. The film's major female characters, Amy and Helen Ramirez, are more fully developed than the more stock characters we saw in Stagecoach. Amy isn't a traditional Western wife; she insists that her marriage with Will is egalitarian. But in particular, Helen Ramirez is among the most interesting female characters we've seen in this series, as she transcends the traditional roles for women in the Old West, namely those we saw in Stagecoach of wife and prostitute. Ramirez is economically independent, as the town's saloon owner. She's had sexual relationships with Frank Miller and Kane, and is currently the deputy's lover. She's the one with power in these relationships - we learn that she's just as much the pursuer as she is pursued by the men in the story. The script notes that "Helen had herself selected [Kane], and Helen still cannot forgive him for ending their liaison" and "she has allowed herself to drift into an affair with Harvey Pell." And she possesses more character than any of the other men alongside Kane, telling Amy that if she were still with Kane, she would get a gun and fight alongside him rather than leave.

*High Noon*

Note: While John Wayne expressed hatred for High Noon, and it makes for a great origin story of Rio Bravo, he also at times expressed admiration and admitted some jealousy over the film. Cooper couldn't attend the Oscars and asked Wayne to accept the award on his behalf. During his speech, Wayne praised his friend Cooper, and lamented that he hadn't gotten the part.

Note 2: Interestingly, in late 2020, the Department of Justice convinced a judge to end the Paramount Decree. Streaming has completely changed the distribution game, so it made sense to change a 70 year rule governing the industry. With his recent decision, movie studios are once again able to create their own distribution channels, like streaming services, and can own theaters. It will be interesting to see if this saves movie theaters, accelerates their ultimate demise, or morphs them into something completely different.

Questions to Consider / What to Watch For

The recurring use of clocks throughout the film, driving the real-time narrative and increasing tension. The AV Club once noted, "if there was an Oscar for best performance by an inanimate object, the clocks in High Noon would win in a landslide."

*High Noon*

Gary Cooper's performance. During filming, Cooper was in poor health and fighting an ulcer, which he uses to add to Kane's emotional anguish, and makes his odds of defeating Miller and his men more improbable.

Pay attention to the various institutions that the characters represent, and what their actions mean.

Compare and contrast this film with Stagecoach. Both end with a dramatic, heavily-anticipated gunfight. Which film did you appreciate more, and why?

What do you make of the representations of men and women in the film?

Further Viewing

Rio Bravo (1959) directed by Howard Hawks Quentin Tarantino once said this film was his litmus test for whether he could date someone. Hawks and John Wayne teamed up to make a retort to High Noon. It's also excellent, and was so successful that they loosely remade the film twice. Dean Martin gives a solid performance as an alcoholic deputy trying to sober up in time for the showdown. Dimitri Tiomkin's score is super effective as well.

Johnny Guitar (1954) directed by Nicholas Ray Another major feminist Western, which also shows progressions Hollywood would make over the years after High Noon, with a full color, widescreen Western.

Spartacus (1960) directed by Stanley Kubrick Dalton Trumbo wrote the script for this gladitorial epic, starring Kirk Douglas. A not-so-subtle critique of McCarthyism and Hollywood conformity.

Hail Caesar! (2016) directed by Joel and Ethan Coen Hilarious Coen brothers comedy about a studio boss struggling to keep things together during the late Studio System and the Red Scare. Some awesome tributes to classic Hollywood genres throughout, and one of the funniest scenes recent memory.

Trumbo (2017), directed by Jay Roach Bryan Cranston portrays blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was part of the Hollywood Ten who were held in contempt of Congress. Trumbo famously said the conviction was justified, as he did have contempt for Congress.

Read More About High Noon, the Paramount Decision and McCarthyism

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