The film is told almost in real time with the camera regularly cutting to shots of clocks with the hand growing ever closer to noon. This ticking clock approach gives the film an unbearable level of tension that permeates throughout most of the runtime with it reflected in Cooper’s performance that grows ever more desperate, before it all ends in a terrifying crescendo as the clock strikes noon and we hear the whistle of the train bringing the villainous Frank Miller to town.
Then there is the film’s much mimicked final scene in which Cooper, after almost single handily defeating Miller’s gang, throws his Marshall’s badge to the ground in disgust at the town he has protected but that wouldn’t help him. It’s a moment that works well and has become so memorable because of Cooper, who manages to convey so many powerful and raw emotions without saying a single word, with his furious silent condemnation serving as a fitting and powerful climax to what is a powerful film.
Now, if this film is so great why did it not win Best Picture? Well, as I said, it’s because of politics. High Noon was written by former Communist Party member Carl Foreman who infused his script with a distinctly left-wing political message, which ruffled more than a few features in what was then a more conservative-leaning Hollywood still in the midst of the “Red Scare” of the early 1950s.
The film was also hurt by screenwriter Foreman’s refusal to “name names” regarding other possible communists in Hollywood and thus faced the prospect of being blacklisted, which he eventually was. So, quite simply High Noon had little chance of winning of Best Picture no matter how brilliant it might have been. Although oddly enough, for a film written by a former communist, the film was not loved in the Soviet Union who disliked the film’s “celebration of the individual”. Guess you can’t please everyone.
Perhaps the most famous rejection of High Noon came not from the Academy but from John Wayne who had turned down the role of Kane and later called the film the “most un-American thing he had seen in his life”. Ultimately Wayne would be so enraged that he teamed with Howard Hawks to make Rio Bravo as an answer to the earlier film with a healthy dose of right-wing conservative politics injected for good measure.
However, in the long run, it is High Noon has had the last laugh. The film was not only one of the first films selected for preservation by the National Library of Congress, but it has been cited as a favourite film of several US Presidents from across the political spectrum from conservative Republicans like Eisenhower and Reagan, to liberal Democrats like Clinton and Obama.
Regardless of its political message though, High Noon is just a great film all around. With a great lead performance from Gary Cooper and a ticking clock plot that doubles as an intense thriller and subtle political commentary, High Noon is undoubtedly one of the finest films of its era and it is my pick as the film that should have been named as Best Picture of 1952.