Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Movie Quote of the Day (“High Noon,” on ‘How Much You Can Ask a Man’)

Deputy Sheriff Herb Baker (played by James Millican): “Time's gettin' pretty short.”

Marshall Will Kane (played by Gary Cooper): “It sure is.”

Herb: “When are the other boys gonna get here? We gotta make plans.”

Kane: “The other boys? There aren't any other boys, Herb. It's just you and me.”

Herb: [nervously smiles and chuckles] “You're jokin'.”

Kane: “No, I couldn't get anybody.”

Herb: “I don't believe it. This town ain't that low.”

Kane: “I couldn't get anybody.”

Herb: “Then it's just you and me.”

Kane: “I guess so.”

Herb: “You and me against Miller and all the rest of them?”

Kane: “That's right. Do you want out, Herb?”

Herb: “Well, it isn't that I want out, no. You see. Look, I'll tell ya the truth. I didn't figure on anything like this, Will.”

Kane: “Neither did I.”

Herb: “I volunteered. You know I did. You didn't have to come to me. I was ready. Sure, I'm ready now - but this is different, Will. This ain't like what you said it was gonna be. This is just plain committing suicide and for what? Why me? I'm no lawman. I just live here. I got nothin' personal against nobody. I got no stake in this.”

Kane: “I guess not.”

Herb: “There's a limit how much you can ask a man. I got a wife and kids. What about my kids?”

Kane: “Go on home to your kids, Herb.”—High Noon (1952), directed by Fred Zinnemann, screenplay by Carl Foreman from the magazine story “The Tin Star,” by John W. Cunningham

That most taut of classic westerns, High Noon, premiered on this date 60 years ago, in a place far removed from the film’s Hadleyville, New Mexico: New York City. Or maybe the remoteness only related to physical details: dusty vs. concrete streets, open frontier spaces vs. crowded urban squares. Because in the ways that people behaved--the desire to look away when something heinous was about to occur--not much separated Gotham from the film's precarious outpost of civilization on the frontier.

The pleasures of this film are manifold. My earlier post on Gary Cooper only began to hint at its riches, as did a fine piece by blogger Matt Barry that placed it in a trio of great “psychological westerns” along with The Ox-Bow Incident and Shane

The movie is, of course, superbly scripted, directed and acted. But what drew so many to the film at the time, and continues to do so, is the identification that so many people feel with the agonizing dilemma faced by Marshal Will Kane: the high cost of doing the right thing. In that sense, the movie shares a common theme with a later Fred Zinnemann classic as totally unlike it as you can get in terms of setting, dialogue and narrative pace: the Oscar-winning biopic about Saint Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons (1966).

Director Howard Hawks and John Wayne, aghast at the silly notion that a lawman would take on a gang of toughs alone, answered in 1959 with Rio Bravo. (Wayne, making no bones about his quarrel with High Noon's mostly liberal filmmakers, went so far as to call it "defeatist" and "un-American.") But a lawman taking on thugs with a hopeless alcoholic, a broken-down old man, and a callow youth doesn’t equalize the odds appreciably compared with the solitary man who will do his duty even when nobody else will.

What Zinnemann and screenwriter Carl Foreman realized so brilliantly here was the unexpected adaptability of cinema’s oldest genre in presenting a distant mirror of their own age of anxiety. Few suspected that this cinema form—even one employed by such masters as Hawks and John Ford—could, amid its venerable conventions, offer as many opportunities to comment on one’s own time and place as Italy presented in the plays of William Shakespeare.

The subject whose name could not be openly broached—particularly for Foreman, about to fall victim to Hollywood’s blacklist—was McCarthyism. Far too many people in America in 1952 would not directly confront the bullying U.S. Senator from Wisconsin—including a genuine war hero, Dwight Eisenhower, who was persuaded to delete from a speech his defense of one of Joseph McCarthy’s targets, General George C. Marshall.

“The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons,” goes the great line from Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. Everybody certainly has their reasons for not helping Will Kane: pacifism and fear of widowhood (his fianceé Amy), unwillingness to take part in another man’s quarrel, ambition (young Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell), disgust with the town (Kane’s former lover, the Mexican Helen Ramirez), cowardice, and, as in Herb Baker’s case, family ties. 

Kane’s reasons for avoiding the showdown with the Miller Gang are better than anyone else’s—he’s about to get married, his time as sheriff is up, and Miller is out to get him for putting him in prison—but he can’t turn away. His credo reflects the monosyllabic persona created over two decades in film by Cooper, but it might also be the most eloquent line in the whole movie: “I've got to, that's the whole thing.”

In films and TV series after High Noon, Hollywood would use the Western to draw parallels between 19th and 20th century America, in such areas as racism (Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge and John Huston's flawed but stirring The Unforgiven), misadventures abroad (The Wild Bunch), capitalism (McCabe and Mrs. Miller) and anti-Semitism (The “Look to the Stars” episodes of Bonanza, in which the Cartwrights aid the promising young Jewish science student—and future Nobel laureate--Albert Michelson). 

High Noon started it all with the question implicitly posed by Herb Baker: How much can you ask a man? In a small Western town desperately unsure about maintaining its hard-won stability, as with a 20th and 21st century superpower concerned about the survival of the democratic values it proclaims, the answer is: Near everything.

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