Now that George Lucas has finally discovered something resembling a political subtext for his heretofore interminable prequel trilogy, maybe he’d like to further hone his skills by checking out how some of the Hollywood masters pulled off the same feat. He’d do well to start with the ultimate allegorical Western, director Fred Zinnemann’s stark, daring and ultimately middle-finger-waving High Noon. Screenwriter Carl Foreman’s tale of a town marshal forced to single-handedly confront an impending bloodbath brought on by a mostly unseen enemy was intended as a response to the communist witch hunts of the ’50s, but has been used to describe everything from playground fistfights to the first Gulf War and its interminable sequel. Bill Clinton has called it his favorite film — then again, Eisenhower and Bush II have also claimed to be fans.
Elegant and economical, the story is instantly familiar to anyone who’s taken an Intro to American Movies course. The stoic marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is all set to retire into the sunset with his proud, blushing bride Amy (Grace Kelly) when he hears that loose-cannon convict Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) has been paroled from his murder charge and plans to wreak vengeance on the man who put him in prison. Kane is determined to stand up to his nemesis, but that’s where his similarity to the traditional Western hero ends. He proves impotent when he tries to form the townsfolk into a posse to fend off the black-hatted menace; everyone has reasons for their cowardice, some valid, some selfish. “I don’t have time for a civics lesson,” the town’s judge explains as he oh-so-symbolically takes his American flag off the wall and high-tails it out of town.
Of course, this film is a civics lesson, and an effective, entertaining one at that. Stepping into a role originally intended for Gregory Peck, the aging Cooper has a strong but doughy and fearful appearance that perfectly suits the conflicted Kane. He’s sympathetic and charismatic, but not enough to make the film’s climactic showdown a sure thing. And when both his wife and former lover (the fantastically strong-willed Katy Jurado) abandon him, we can understand why: He’s stubborn yet indecisive, honest but utterly incommunicative. It’s a radical contrast to the kind of cocky, badass John Wayne-style hero audiences were used to, which might explain why the Duke hated the film so much. The real-time gimmick — in which all of the action occurs between 10:30 and noon on one Sunday morning — made for a nifty selling point at the time, but, in retrospect, Zinnemann’s references to clocks and church chimes are surprisingly subtle. (The makers of Fox’s hyperventilated 24 could stand to learn a thing or two from his pacing.) All the while, Tex Ritter’s last-minute sound track addition, the corny “Do Not Forsake Me,” works in the background as a sort of low, thumping, heartbeat-like tension builder.
No matter what interpretations different generations project onto the film, it’s hard to ignore all the parallels with Sen. Joe McCarthy’s henchmen shaking down moviedom’s elite in search of “reds.” When Kane stumbles into Sunday services and sparks a debate over the townspeople’s duty to fight for the town or their right to hide in a closet, he might as well be addressing a meeting of the Screen Actors Guild, circa 1952. And when the conflicted mayor tries to rally the masses by crying, “This is our town! We made it with our own hands, out of nothing,” it isn’t hard to imagine the Hollywood sign off in the background. Who knows — with the culture wars the way they are right now, maybe even a mild Bush-basher like George Lucas has a reason to similarly shake in his boots.
Showing at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 27 and 28, at the Redford Theatre (17360 Lahser Rd., Detroit; 313-537-2560).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.