Well, one more ceremony, and Will's a free man, more or less.
Context is everything. In High Noon, there's a repeated shot of the train tracks outside Hadleyville, stretched through the center of the frame and vanishing into the wide horizon of the West. Such a shot, alone, is open to interpretation — that promise of a white frontier so many Westerns espoused, the arrival of industry, new beginnings. But for writer Carl Foreman and director Fred Zinnemann, those tracks only ever meant one thing: the worst was coming, any second. Murderer Frank Miller's taking the noon train, meeting his men, and marching on the city. And alone among the cowards and dissemblers of Hadleyville, Marshal Will Kane will face them all.
To journalist and film historian Glenn Frankel, High Noon has itself been an exercise in context. Some critics named it a masterpiece of the psychological Western; others dismissed it as a morality play in borrowed cowboy hats. John Wayne condemned it for anti-American cynicism; Pravda condemned it for being too American, "a glorification of the individual." But for Foreman, the movie only ever meant one thing: the Hollywood "Red Scare" and the blacklist that shook the industry to its foundations.
Frankel meticulously traces the fraught production and tug-of-war for credit that took up decades, a conflict intertwined with Foreman's blacklisting and his acrimonious split with producer Stanley Kramer. But High Noon was too pointedly a political allegory to be anything but a thesis statement about the House Un-American Activities Committee and the industry politics that made the blacklist possible.
The real parallel in Frankel's book, then, isn't between High Noon's production and its culture; it's between then and now. Hollywood was a target because its stories had the power to shape public opinion, and their interrogations were meant to be humbling. Frankel paints a devastating picture of a powerful force crumbling under oppression — a cautionary tale in borrowed cowboy hats.
At the heart of this history are Foreman, Zinnemann, and Kramer, whose fortunes and friendships would be dictated by the hunt for Hollywood communists, but Frankel collects a vast array of depositions, correspondence, and memoirs that highlight how deeply HUAC split the community. And when the web's so tangled, every aside's a revelation. (A publicist told actress Marsha Hunt, "This is a time for expediency, not integrity," which despite this year's intense competition might still be one of the more chilling PR suggestions I've seen.) Frankel makes the most of the extensive parallels, laying blame at the feet of the press — whose "willingness to print the phony or exaggerated allegations of public officials and 'friendly' witnesses without holding them up to scrutiny or challenging their assumptions" gave HUAC the veneer of legitimacy — and occasionally presenting something so pointed he might as well have slipped it under the door.
Using the production and cultural impact of High Noon as a microcosm of Hollywood's wider unrest, Frankel details the impossible choices facing those summoned — refuse and be blacklisted or possibly imprisoned, cooperate and betray friends — with equal parts sympathy and irony. In the short run, "uncooperative witnesses" often fled the country, but were welcomed back into the fold more readily than those who "stooled." (Think of the last man to disappoint Kane: militiaman Herb, who realizes what his chances are and begs off for the sake of his family: "I got nothing personal against nobody — I got no stake in this." One understands him ... and yet.)
High Noon is a sharp social history that reminds us just how common for a broken system to abuse its power and cause deep human damage — the worst is coming, any second — but also that a little cynicism can be useful. Kane defends a worthless city; Kane wins. There are no clean endings, except in the movies.
Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.