Tuesday, August 5, 2008

D*#k Flicks: High Noon

There are simply some things that a man has to do, some situations he cannot back down from. And so, The Common Man finally sat down and watched High Noon, the 1952 classic Western starring Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, and Lloyd Bridges. It's hard to believe that, in 30 years (almost half of which he's had access to cable), The Common Man hadn't seen the film until now. It is, after all, one of the most important and iconic films of the 1950s, perhaps of all time. It boasts perhaps the best example of a real man in a starring role. And it isn't that long anyway, clocking in at less than an hour and a half. You'd think The Common Man could have spared an 90 minutes at some point in his life for such a juicy film. But no, you'd have been wrong.

You can tell from the start that things will go poorly for Cooper's Will Kane, an aging town marshall who is giving up his badge after succeeding in restoring Hadleyville to a measure of peaceful law and order. In the first scene, Kane is getting married to a Quaker, played by Grace Kelly in her first starring role. Any story that starts with a wedding can't go well, even if that wedding is to Grace Kelly (mmm...Grace Kelly). As the supposed pinnacle of love, devotion, and happiness (hi, honey!), the wedding is a culmination of good, it is the end point. If it's the journey's beginning, everything must go downhill from there.

Indeed, word soon comes that local ruffians, who Kane sent to the gallows, have been pardoned and are on their way back. Kane's friends, the town's most prominent citizens, scoot he and his wife out the door, hoping there will be no trouble. But Kane can't run. He tells his wife, "It's no good. I've got to go back.... They're making me run. I've never run from anybody before." And so he turns around. His wife demands to know why he'd risk his life, knowing that she abhors violence and that he's inviting a confrontation. He tells her, knowing she won't understand, "I've got to. That's the whole thing."

Indeed, Kane knows that a real man cannot run from his responsibilities. He knows that trouble will follow him unless he meets it head on. He knows that there are simply some things a man has to do. And he returns to Hadleyville to do it.

Knowing he'll need help, he turns to his friends and asks them to become deputies, but they, one-by-one deny him. Some are cowards. Some are greed and covetous. Some deny that the problem exists or hope it will pass them by. And some just don't care. His mentor, who also refuses to fight, tells him that "People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep they don't care. They just don't care," and, in this case, he's right. Even his wife abandons his cause, boarding the first train out of town with Kane's ex-girlfriend. He becomes a Christ-like figure, wandering through town, trying to find anyone to stand with him. But no one will.

Kane faces down his demons and prevails, of course, because he's a bad-ass and because he's a real man. He realizes that often, in the end, men must stand alone and fight their own battles, and he does so with integrity, resilience, bravery and intelligence. In the end, his wife comes back to him and decides her love is stronger than her convictions, and she kills one of his attackers. But as the curtain closes, Kane tosses his badge in the dirt. His faith in humanity and its virtue are gone. Indeed, he is alone. Hemingway must have loved this movie.

Unlike most Westerns, the film is short on action, which occurs in two short bursts at the end. But it ratchets up the suspense by being shot in real time, constantly freezing on clock faces as the seconds tick down to the villains' noon arrival. And it builds its tension by making Kane's situation seem increasingly hopeless as the minutes tick away. He becomes more and more pathetic as he walks through the town, virtually pleading with the townsfolk to do the right thing. But no one will. Finally, at his lowest, he considers leaving, but returns, writes a last letter at his desk, and releases the town drunk from jail. To the end, he remembers his responsibilities and calmly meets his fate. By the time he hits the town streets, letting trouble find him, he has recovered his dignity and is prepared for the inevitable showdown.

By today's standards, perhaps this film would not be a hit. But it shows manhood at its finest, using one of the great manly actors to do it. Kelly's character serves as the prototypical wet blanket female, the forerunner to Talia Shire's Adrian in the Rocky movies. And the brisk, downward spiral may end with Kane's victory over evil, but his soul's defeat at the hands of cowardice and apathy. It's a classic for a reason, a true d*#k flick, and The Common Man awards it two very big balls for modeling true manliness for the rest of us.

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