Plot: Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) marries Amy (Grace Kelly) and turns in his badge. She is a Quaker, and he has promised her to hang up his gun and become a shopkeeper. But they get word that Frank Miller is coming to town on the noon train. Kane arrested Miller and sent him to jail, and Miller swore he would come back and kill him.
Will and Amy leave town quickly. But he cannot run away, and he turns around. He knows that they will never be safe; wherever they go, Miller will follow them. And he has a duty to the town. Their new marshal does not arrive until the next day.
Will seeks help from everyone, finally going to church, where services are in session. But he is turned down, over and over again. Amy says she will leave on the noon train. Will’s former deputy, Harvey (Lloyd Bridges) refuses to help, because he is resentful that Will did not recommend him as the new marshal. Will’s former girlfriend, Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), now Harvey’s girlfriend, will not help him, either. She sells her business and leaves town. Others say that it is not their problem, or tell him to run, for the town’s good as well as his own. The previous marshal, Will’s mentor, says he can’t use a gun any more. The one man who promised to help backs out when he finds out that no one else will join them. The only others who offer to help are a disabled man and a young boy. Will must face Miller and his three henchmen alone.
At noon, Frank Miller gets off the train. The four men come into town. Will is able to defeat them, with Amy’s unexpected help. As the townsfolk gather, Will throws his badge in the dust, and they drive away.
Discussion: This outstanding drama ticks by in real time, only 84 tense minutes long. Will gets the message about Frank Miller at 10:40, and we feel the same time pressure he does, as he tries to find someone to help him. We see and hear clocks throughout the movie, and as noon approaches, the clock looms larger and larger, the pendulum swinging like an executioner’s axe. In the brilliant score by Dimitri Tiomkin (sung by Tex Ritter) the sound of the beat suggests both the train’s approach and the passage of time.
This is like a grown-up “Little Red Hen” story. Will cannot find anyone to help him protect the town. Everyone seems to think it is someone else’s problem (or fault). Teenagers may be interested to know that many people consider this film an analogy for the political problems of the McCarthy era. It was written during the height of the Hollywood “red scare.” After completing this screenplay, the writer, an “unfriendly witness” before the House Un-American Activities Committee, was blacklisted. But this unforgettable drama of a man who will not run from his enemy, or his own fears, transcends all times and circumstances.
Questions for Kids:
· Everyone seems to have a different reason for not helping Will. How many can you identify? Which reasons seem the best to you? Which seem the worst? What makes Amy change her mind?
· Why does Will throw his badge in the dirt?
· Do you think the screenwriter chose the name “Will” for any special reason?
· How do you decide when to stay and fight and when to run? How do you evaluate the risks? What should the law be?
Connections: This movie was the first attempt at an “adult” Western, its stark black and white images a contrast to the gorgeous vistas in the Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks. It was included in the first list named to the National Film Registry, established by the Library of Congress to identify films that are “culturally, historically, or esthetically important.” It has had tremendous influence, and has inspired many imitations and variations. “Outland,” starring Sean Connery (and rated R) is a not-very-good attempt to transfer this plot to outer space. “Three O’Clock High” moves it to a high school, with a new student challenged by the school bully. Despite some directoral pyrotechnics, it is not very good, either. “The Principal” has another “High Noon”-style confrontation in a school, but this time it is the title character who must show his mettle. “The Baltimore Bullet” moves the confrontation to a pool hall.