This is the Western from which every other Western – even those that came before it – feels born. Gary Cooper, in the final, grimacing stage of his career, won an Oscar for his portrayal of Will Kane, the outgoing marshal in a small town who is about to start a fresh life with his new wife (Grace Kelly). When he learns that a criminal he thought he had put away is returning with three other men to once again terrorize the town, Kane decides he has to stay. Much of the movie’s mythic potency comes from its hero’s resolute sense of right and wrong. “It seems to me I’ve got to stay,” Kane matter-of-factly observes, even after his wife begs him to flee and almost all of the turncoat townsfolk refuse to sign up as deputies. And so we get the picture’s defining image: the lone lawman standing on dusty, barren Main Street, stoically facing unfavorable odds.
Most of High Noon proceeds in real time, as everyone waits for the criminal’s arrival on the noon train. It’s a daring structure, and a challenging one for director Fred Zinnemann, who nonetheless manages to turn the time constraint into a suspenseful advantage.
As the minutes tick away, Kane scours the town trying to round up support. When the effort proves futile, Cooper’s trademark stride – that long, purposeful gait – begins to take on just the slightest twinge of panic.
Not that he ever really considers fleeing. When his AWOL deputy, played by a shockingly young Lloyd Bridges, tries to force him on a horse, Kane responds with a knockout punch. High Noon has the essential building blocks of any good Western, which is why the movie feels familiar even when you’re watching it for the first time. But whether it’s expanding on earlier conventions of the genre or cementing new, iconic images, the film elevates familiarity to classic status. It makes clichés sing.