The Western classic High Noon was an instant success upon its release in 1952 and seems to get more impressive with each passing year, thanks to its timeless themes and expert craftsmanship. The story of a lawman (Gary Cooper) who stands alone against a gang of thugs when his neighbors turn their backs on him is utterly straightforward, though its simplicity allows for a multitude of political and social interpretations. For screenwriter Carl Foreman, it was a parable about McCarthyist anticommunism; and critics in years since have found the film to contain additional insights into race, gender and social identity. On top of this, it’s a riveting suspense tale with a great ticking-clock premise (emphasized by the film’s mostly faithful adherence to a real-time structure) and a gallery of colorful supporting players.
Like Casablanca and Gone With the Wind, High Noon represents a serendipitous intersection of diverse talents at the peak of their powers. In addition to screenwriter Foreman, there was producer Stanley Kramer, a filmmaker committed to social progressivism, whose stature was solidified by High Noon’s success. In an act of exceptional good taste, Kramer chose his talented friend Fred Zinnemann to direct, thus propelling the former art-house auteur onto Hollywood’s A-list. Although he would go on to direct several more lavish productions, Zinnemann’s background in shorts and independent productions gave him a tendency toward both economy and neorealism, which infused High Noon and allowed it to address profound moral and ethical issues with stripped down visuals and a brisk 85-minute running time.
High Noon largely eschewed the lush, pictorial style of many Westerns of its era and looked forward to the grittier realism of Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman and Arthur Penn. It’s a technique that came naturally to Zinnemann and cinematographer Floyd Crosby, ASC, who based their images on the Civil War photographs of Mathew Brady and aspired to a newsreel look. Crosby’s juxtapositions of a black-clad Gary Cooper against white backgrounds emphasize the character’s isolation and loneliness, and his avoidance of filters and soft focus reproduces what Zinnemann described in his autobiography as “the flat light, the grainy textures” of Brady’s work.
Although High Noon has achieved nearly mythic status as a film, with references to it permeating pop culture and politics over the last five decades, its actual content is strictly down-and-dirty naturalism. The streets feel well trodden, and there’s a grimy look to many of the sets and costumes — an approach that would reach its apotheosis in the revisionist Westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood.
Lionsgate’s razor-sharp DVD transfer faithfully preserves the contrast and harshness of Crosby’s photography as well as its occasional lyrical beauty (as in the famous opening credit sequence). The disc is a vast improvement over the washed-out, overly bright Artisan DVD from a few years back, and the Dolby mono soundtrack is equally flawless. (An “enhanced” 3.1 soundtrack is included as well.) The first disc in this two-DVD set includes the commentary track from the Artisan edition, an affectionate running narration by Maria Cooper-Janis (daughter of Gary Cooper), Jonathan Foreman (son of Carl), Tim Zinnemann (son of Fred) and John Ritter (son of Tex Ritter, who sang the movie’s Oscar-winning theme song). The commentary is somewhat superficial, but the participants’ enthusiasm for the film is infectious.
A second disc contains a generous package of extras, starting with “Inside High Noon,” an excellent 49-minute examination of the film’s production history, cultural legacy and political subtext. There’s also a six-minute tribute to Tex Ritter, along with his Academy Awards ceremony performance and a radio interview. In addition, the DVD contains special features from previous video releases of High Noon, including the 22-minute “The Making of High Noon,” and the 10-minute “Behind High Noon.” Although there is inevitable overlap between the featurettes, “Making” includes conversations with several men (Zinnemann, Kramer and Floyd Crosby’s son, legendary rocker David Crosby) who were not interviewed in the 2008 documentary and therefore makes a nice complement to the more recent piece. On the commentary track, John Ritter notes that High Noon is a rich film that yields new pleasures on each viewing. He’s right, and the exemplary transfer and supplements on this edition make it an essential edition to any DVD library.