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The Women in High Noon (1952)

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Kathy Jurado, Grace Kelly and Gary Cooper on the set of High Noon

High Noon (1952) is an iconic Western; it enraged John Wayne, who thought it Communist propaganda, but it’s really nothing of the sort. It’s also a deeply ironic comment, in view of the fact that Cooper had testified before the HUAC on October 23, 1947, as a friendly witness, condemning supposed Communist influence in Hollywood.

It’s very, very bleak morality tale, in which small town Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) discovers, to his shock and dismay, that when convict Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) gets out of prison and comes gunning for him, no one — absolutely no one — will come to his aid.

What makes the film all the more depressing is that it starts out with a wedding — Kane marries Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), a Quaker, and plans to leave the town and start a new life working the land, removed from guns and violence. All Kane’s “friends” gather round at the wedding: the town’s mayor, Jonas Henderson (Thomas Mitchell), the judge Percy Mettrick (Otto Kruger, reliably despicable as always), Sam Fuller (Harry Morgan) the town’s retired Marshal, Martin Howe (Lon Chaney), and when word arrives that Frank Miller is on his way, all desert him. Their only advice; get out of town, fast, but Kane realizes that if he did that, he’d simply be running from Frank Miller for the rest of his life.

Complicating matters further are Kane’s former lover, saloon owner Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), who has also had an affair with Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), the Deputy Marshal, who covets both Kane’s job, and his past relationship with Helen. Amy, meanwhile, tells Kane she will leave him if he engages in gunplay with Frank Miller. As the clock ticks inexorably towards High Noon, and Kane’s options run out, it seems that there is nothing to do but face up to Frank Miller, even though Kane will likely be outdrawn.

What is interesting here to me is that the women are arguably the central figures in the film, rather than the men, although Gary Cooper’s performance won him the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1952. (The film also got, and deserved, the Oscar for Best Film Editing, to Elmo Williams and Harry W. Gerstad, for what amounted to a miraculous “save” job in the cutting room, but that’s another story; it also won Best Song – “High Noon [Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin']” by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, and Best Score for Tiomkin; Fred Zinnemann was nominated, but did not win, for Best Director; the film was also nominated, but didn’t win, for Best Picture [Stanley Kramer] and Best Screenplay [Carl Foreman]).

Katy Jurado brings to her portrayal of Helen Ramírez a dignity that’s missing from most 1950s portrayals of Latina women; she’s a figure of power, integrity, decisiveness, and a shrewd judge of character. As Amy, Grace Kelly seems overwhelmed by the turn of events that thrusts her newly wed husband back into the arena of violence, but in the end, as Brecht always advised, realizes that “only violence helps where violence rules,” and takes an active hand in ending Frank Miller’s reign of terror.

It’s really these two women, and the way they deal with the situation given to them, that informs the internal structure of the film. The townspeople simply cower; Kane tries to get help, but can’t; and for most of the film, Zinnemann keeps cutting back to the town’s lonely train station, where Frank Miller’s sidekicks wait for him to arrive on the noon train. So their roles are somewhat predestined by the narrative structure of the film; for Helen and Amy, the matter requires more thought, and how they react is crucial to the resolution of the film’s narrative.

What John Wayne — and others — probably objected to more than anything else was the film’s conclusion, when Kane throws his badge in the dirt after, against all odds, and with the help of his pacifist wife, Amy, he manages to defeat Frank and his gang. Heroes just don’t do that.

As director Howard Hawks told an interviewer much later, “I made Rio Bravo because I didn’t like High Noon. Neither did Duke [John Wayne]. I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good Western.” But in Kane’s case, he can’t forgive the town for folding up on him when he needed them most; these people were supposed to be his friends.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster wrote an interesting essay on this often-neglected side of the film, “The Women in High Noon (1952): A Metanarrative of Difference,” in the book The Films of Fred Zinnemann: Critical Perspectives, edited by Arthur Nolletti (SUNY UP, 1999). Definitely worth seeking out, and reading.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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