Style's Stephen Hunter writes, "it sure is nice to see this old classic on a screen the right size, in perfect focus, and with its heroes and villains bigger than life, as they were."
Jul 24, 1952
Fred Zinnemann's revered 1952 Western, which is opening today in a dandy new 35mm print at the AFI's cathedral to the religion of the Old Movie out in Silver Spring, remains, now as then, a terrific piece of filmmaking. It's taut, believable as it unspools. It's charismatic, with a slow buildup of tension in near-real time that finally explodes into a blast of violence. Then it's over; then it goes away.
Regarded as '50s melodrama, it's nearly perfect: I love the strokes of the deceptively simple plot, the way each incident magnifies the dramatic situation without waste or frill. I love Gary Cooper's tight, controlled performance, which achieves mythic poetry without a single moment of hamminess or self-indulgence. I love the formality of Zinnemann's camerawork until he reaches a key moment and then abandons formality for pure German expressionism -- I'm thinking of a weirdly angled shot of the clock's pendulum, photographed so that it looks like a descending blade from a Poe story, lowering itself to slice our noble hero in two.
The premise is simplicity itself: Will Kane, the retiring marshal of a town called Hadleyville, somewhere in the West, is about to marry a pretty Quaker gal (the luminous Grace Kelly) when he learns that three men are in town, awaiting the arrival of the fourth on the noon train (an hour and a half away). The four men will kill him to settle an issue of vengeance. His first reaction is to flee. Then he returns, believing in the power of community to stand together. But the community, faced by naked force from the outside, disintegrates and the sheriff is left alone to face the four as high noon draws ever closer. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
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