High Noon (1952)

2015 #50
Fred Zinnemann | 81 mins | streaming (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U / PG

On the day marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) marries his young bride Amy (Grace Kelly), hands in his badge and plans to leave town, word reaches Hadleyville that a criminal he arrested, Frank Miller (presumably Will read DK2 and arrested him for crimes against literature), will arrive on the noon train, bent on revenge. Afraid that Miller and his cronies will terrorise the town and/or hunt down the newlyweds wherever they go, Will elects to stay and face the gang. But will any of the townspeople stand alongside him to defend their home?

Well, you probably know the answer to that — it’s one of the film’s more (in)famous facets. If you somehow don’t know and want to remain spoiler free, look away now, because the answer is: no. No one will stand with Will. Interpreted by the American left as an analogy for people being afraid to stand up to McCarthy’s HUAC witch-hunt, some on the right were less impressed: John Wayne and Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo as a direct riposte. Both are regarded as classic Westerns, so in that respect there’s no ‘winner’ there. Besides, High Noon was eventually embraced by the right as well, turning it around to see it as a celebration of one man’s dedication to his duty.

Some would contend it’s impossible to engage with High Noon and ignore that political allegory; others, like Mike at Films on the Box in his eloquent take on the film, would say it’s more than good enough to stand apart from such concerns. I have sympathy with both sides: the parallels are surely there, but it’s also a fine Western thriller in its own right. You certainly don’t need to know about the contemporaneous events it was reflecting to enjoy it. As to whether that subtext is a beneficial added dimension or a needless distraction, that’s down to personal preference.

There’s plenty else going on to keep a viewer engaged, anyway. It’s not an action-packed Western, the style many people at the time were accustomed to: according to Wikipedia, it faced criticism for its shortage of “chases, fights, and picture-postcard scenery”. In its place there’s the slow-burn tension of the clock ticking towards midday and the inevitable confrontation, as well as the moral and emotional dilemmas of the townsfolk, who’ve been happy to rely on Will’s marshalling ability for so long but refuse to help when he needs them.

There are personal relationships to contend with too: Amy is a Quaker and so a pacifist, and just wants to leave rather than face a violent confrontation; Will’s deputy, Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), refuses to help because Will refuses to recommend him for promotion; and then there’s hotel owner Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), who’s currently Harvey’s lover, but used to be Will’s, and before that was Miller’s. She’s planning to flee town too because, well, wouldn’t you?

To top it all off, the film takes place in near-as-damn-it real time. Regular readers will know this is a plus for me, for reasons I still can’t quite fathom. In a narrative such as this, however, it only adds to the tension: you know it isn’t going to jump from 11:30 to the titular time, for instance — you’re going to live every one of those minutes with the characters; that’s exactly how much, or little, time Will has left to get ready.

Then it all culminates in a strong extended action sequence. Surely anyone feeling deprived of such thrills was satiated at that point? Maybe the now-more-familiar structure of building to a single big sequence at the end was less accepted back in 1952.

And the attitudes of 1952 do continue to surround the film. The activities of HUAC had a serious, enduring impact on Hollywood (you only have to see the footage of Elia Kazan receiving his honorary Oscar in 1999, and the varying reactions it provoked from the audience, to appreciate that), so it’s no surprise that a film that engages with those events, however allegorically, can’t wholly shrug off such an association. For those who aren’t interested in those affairs, however, it still has a tense story and powerful character drama. Either way you look at it, High Noon is a rich, well-made, rewarding picture.

5 out of 5

High Noon is on Film4 this afternoon at 2:55pm.

His Girl Friday (1940)

2010 #2
Howard Hawks | 88 mins | TV | U

His Girl Friday is an acknowledged classic — 19th on the AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs, 58th on Empire’s 500 Greatest, 106th on They Shoot Pictures’ 1,000 Greatest, 245th on IMDb’s Top 250, preserved by the US’s National Film Registry, and countless other such accolades — so you probably don’t need me to tell you why it’s so good. But it really, really is.

The dialogue flies at phenomenal speed, dragging an ever-changing plot along with it, the funny lines at times literally on top of each other as they tumble to get out. No modern comedy would dare move so fast. It’s clever and witty, the characters apparently in on the joke too, and despite some black plot points it’s always hilarious and, somehow, never disrespectful.

If you ever meet anyone who claims all old black & white films are slow, simple and boring, show them this. And if you ever meet anyone who hasn’t seen this, show them it; and if you haven’t seen it, watch it; because it’s brilliant, and, despite being on so many lists, one wonders if some rate it too lowly.

5 out of 5

His Girl Friday placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2010, which can be read in full here.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

2008 #56
Howard Hawks | 87 mins | DVD | U

Gentlemen Prefer BlondesIt’s easy to see how Gentlemen Prefer Blondes helped launch Marilyn Monroe as a sex-symbol superstar — her ditzy, breathy blonde, who may just be cleverer than she looks, is clearly the star of the film.

For starters, she gets the lion’s share of the best bits. Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend has justifiably become a classic song and there’s a solid routine attached, but the rest of the musical numbers are disappointingly weak. Jane Russell does get her fair share of good lines, but the most memorable comedic moment is Monroe’s: climbing out of a window, she gets stuck halfway and has to enlist the help of a little boy — and a big coat — to pretend she’s standing outside in the cold. That last one makes more sense in context…

Frankly, it’s all a bit sillier than I expected, more in line with the likes of Texas Across the River and the Road to… series than my memories of Some Like It Hot. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (I enjoyed both those examples), but it didn’t gel with my expectations of a film that’s got a greater reputation than they do.

I suspect said reputation is founded on Monroe’s career-making performance. I don’t have anything against her, but I’m not especially a fan either; yet despite my indifference she’s easily the best reason to watch this. Famously, when told she wasn’t the star of the film Monroe replied, “well whatever I am, I’m still the blonde.” The clue’s in the title, people.

3 out of 5

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is on More4 today, Monday 6th April 2015, at 12:45pm.