An aging Gary Cooper’s star power wanes in Fred Zinneman’s 1952 western, High Noon.
Throughout much of the film’s scant 85 minute runtime, the characters often wonder aloud and in-depth to one another in anticipation of some event happening – some event no one is even sure will happen. This technique often does wonders for character-driven film, whose setting and plot always take a backseat to exposition, character development and relationship building and especially does magnificent work in the “western” genre, much of whose canon has boiled down to archetypal plot and character assignments. Couple this narrative with a tight budget and above-average writing, and you could have a winner on your hands – and this one almost was.
But in High Noon, this methodology falls short – the writing is too frank and too choppy; the acting is underutilized and overwrought with cliches. One or more of these faults can create accidental genius (see: Good Will Hunting) and none of these faults creates sterility, but both of these faults create a trainwreck. Gary Cooper is old enough, experienced enough and weather-worn enough to force his character, Will Kane, into believable, but the villains aren’t “real” enough and his supporting cast is dull. This movie is known for helping to launch Grace Kelly’s career, but her evident talent is largely wasted, as her character Amy, threatens to leave on the “noon” train with or without him. Trouble is, Cooper as Kane is believable as a tenacious sheriff but not as Amy’s white knight; so you don’t care if she leaves or not. What a tremendous waste.
Let’s talk a bit about what this movie does right, thought, because it’s still worth watching as a piece of history and as a well-shot Point A To Point B narrative. Mexican actress Katy Jurado is great as a foil to many of the important male leads and some of her dialogue adds an unintentional bit of comedy (in Gen Y standards); her fiery passion helped to break up an otherwise monotonous plot. Yet because of this relatively straightforward story – especially for a western – the film was a box office success and allowed the development of important actors in Kelly and Jurado.
While there probably is no direct correlation between the quality of a film and how much the film earns, it does showcase the strength of frugality and how far a director might be willing to stretch his dollar to accomplish his vision. This is an important quality for a filmmaker to master, and while the frugality does rear its head onscreen (minimal set changes, no SFX, no actual train scene) it is of no consequence; Zinneman is able to make it work. High Noon does spectacularly well in per-minute and per-dollar earning; its $8 million domestic take in 1952 compares to approximately $59 million in 2013 dollars. Compared to a 2013 budget of approximately $5.3 million, the film was able to earn over $10 for every $1 spent, or over $680,000 for each minute of screen time. These are gigantic numbers. For comparison, the top grossing film of all time, James Cameron’s Avatar (released in 2008) spent over $254 million dollars (converted to 2013 dollars) and grossed over $2.8 billion – a similar ratio in strict budget terms. The modern film does almost 30 times that of its ancestor’s per-minute take; while that number (a mind-boggling $16.2 million per minute) seems to weaken the comparison, in fact it does just the opposite. We can see where big-budget films were headed; at two times the length it earns fifteen times the “expected” number. The film business, as it were, was headed in the right direction.
The relative dearth 0f competition in 1952, especially against eventual winner The Greatest Show on Earth afforded High Noon a sharp push to notoriety in a year that adds to a long list of head scratchers (see: 1994 Forrest Gump over BOTH Shawshank Redemption AND Pulp Fiction and 1976: Rocky over BOTH Taxi Driver AND Network.) Yes, Greatest Show was fantastical, whimsical and studded with industry stalwarts. But the 1950s were mired with machine gun Hollywood blacklisting (see: Elia Kazan), shameless political finger pointing (see: Joe McCarthy) and the rapid continued ascent of color film and perhaps the Academy demanded a “harmless” film to win. Who knows the real motivation of the Academy when handing out these awards. Nineteen fifty-two was a weak year and perhaps the Academy wasted the ability to immortalize High Noon and like the movie at 85 minutes, even 1 is too many to waste.