Obviously it wasn’t by design, but the early-1950s renewal of the western genre, aided in large part by the success of Winchester ‘73, which heralded a career second act for both its director, Anthony Mann, and its star, James Stewart, was answered in other quarters of the industry by multiple endeavors to take the once disreputable genre, previously dismissed as Roy Rogers/Saturday-matinee bunkum, all the way into the hallowed halls of state-sanctioned, capital-A art. And, as it happened, the two westerns that made a big runner-up showing at the 1952 and 1953 Oscars, High Noon and Shane, respectively, also served, by virtue of holding what wide swaths of the future cinephile demographic would come to view as Vichy letters of transit, as high-value targets for skeptics of the official cultural narrative.
These auteurist critics and film buffs, whose philosophy acquired definite contours some 10-odd years later, observed a different watershed moment: Rio Bravo. Howard Hawks made the 1959 western directly in response to Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon; in interviews, he spoke ill of the film, especially its central conceit (that is, besides the “plays out in real time” gimmick), in which Gary Cooper’s just-married Marshal Will Kane is seen running all over town, vainly seeking help to face down a quartet of ruthless outlaws. Hawks’s disgusted response to this was unfettered by ambiguity, and while Rio Bravo is about as different from Zinnemann’s film as Unforgiven is from Shane, Hawks and his screenwriters plainly depict Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) guarding against invaders with the help of precisely the same “types” that Kane either overlooks or declines: a drunk, a derelict old feller, and a kid—even his sweetheart. None take his side without a proving process of a kind, whether the approval is sought from Chance, or us.
Put all that in a bowl, and add a dash of Pauline Kael’s now-famous “sneak civics lesson” barb (even if, despite some mistaken recollections to the contrary, she actually ended up giving the film a pass), and you have the recipe that more or less sealed High Noon‘s fate. Not entirely without justification: The Hawks diss is infinitely renewable when you entertain the notion that the act of commissioning a modestly scaled, 85-minute black-and-white horse opera, only to “validate” it by giving it a proto-Stanley Kramer script, top-heavy with ill-fitting speeches, and underwritten by timely, metaphorical references to the ongoing McCarthy business, is exactly the sort of thing somebody in the studio front office, who maybe read a pamphlet at some point, would think was a great idea. The movie ought to be something, this fellow says, to lift the genre out of the muck and make it worthy of what those New York theater folks are doing. Not “merely” a western, but real art, with that Barton Fink feeling. And so on.
So, yes, the film is, genetically speaking, a bit too Wal-Mart for any auteurist cinephile who’s acquired his sea legs in the company of Hawks, Ford, André De Toth, or even Charles Marquis Warren. A little while after High Noon, that same “sneak civics lesson” would become an eight-week course of study with Edward Dmytryk’s hugely ambitious Warlock, a 1959 western so burdened with ethical and philosophical discussion and lecture that it acquires a film maudit-grade strangeness that could hardly have been envisioned by Carl Foreman’s comparatively modest script for High Noon. Furthermore, key collaborators emerge blameless—even triumphant. Cooper gave, and would give, greater performances, but he was rarely quite so Gary Cooper as he is here: forthright, kind, unwavering, indestructible, and impossibly awkward. In a word, a star in the firmament. Top-drawer work is done by cinematographer Floyd Crosby, the production-design department, and Oscar-winning editors Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad.
Zinnemann was classical Hollywood’s own Ang Lee—that is, a fastidious journeyman director who rarely, if ever, worked in the same genre twice, and whose devotion to expectations and professional comportment paradoxically make it both easy and hard for anyone to dismiss him simply as an order-taker. Auteurism, which rarely looks to redeem the Zinnemanns and the Seatons and the Dmytryks, throws in with personality, and that was his personality, so where does that leave you? His direction of High Noon seems resolutely by-the-book, only it’s a book that never existed, but even if the expressionist punches he throws seem somehow impersonal, and secondhand, he still lands more than he misses, and the Gregg Toland-influenced cinematography, by Floyd Crosby, is rich with angular detail. In the last analysis, I would characterize High Noon as a small western, overinflated with Big Ideas (or the presumption of same), but not without its small pleasures. Sure, it probably wouldn’t even make a list of the 10 greatest westerns of 1952, but it’s arguably Zinnemann’s best film, it features a great cast of genre regulars (including Jack Elam, Thomas Mitchell, and Lee Van Cleef), and the overall construction is sound. At the end of the day, it might be time to retire some of the extreme perspectives it’s been, ahem, saddled with, and turn our attention to more deserving works.
An official classic from the start, High Noon remains one of the best-preserved artifacts from Hollywood's 1952 roll call, and Olive Films's 1080p transfer gives the western a dazzling, crystal-clear presentation appropriate to its status. With a near-flawless print as its source, the Blu-ray looks terrific, with outstanding detail and impressive contrast levels. The DTS mono track, with a simple layering of dialogue, Dmitri Tiomkin's theme song and score, and the occasional burst of gunfire, doesn't call attention to itself, but it's nicely done, just the same.
The package says "60th Anniversary Edition," but it's a meaningless commemoration, going by the disc's supplements. There's only one, besides the trailer: "The Making of High Noon," ported over from the 1998 Lionsgate DVD. It's worthwhile for recollections by many of the film's principals—host Leonard Maltin's broad, relentless enthusiasm, less so.
Olive Films's Blu-ray of Fred Zinnemann's film, the alleged western for people who don't like westerns, is light on contextual supplements, but nearly immaculate on a technical level.