High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic

Critic Andrew Sarris once called High Noon “the favorite Western for people who hate Westerns.” That Bill Clinton supposedly screened it a staggering twenty times in the White House says a lot about his fantasy life, not to mention Hillary’s and/or Chelsea’s tolerance for skull-melting tedium. But Bill’s passion for Big Macs didn’t win him many plaudits from gourmets, either. Although it’s still a touchstone to everyone who grew up on it and even won star Gary Cooper an unlikely Best Actor Oscar, this 1952 movie about a frontier marshal stubbornly facing a pack of killers alone after everybody else in town refuses to help him has never been especially beloved by serious fans of America’s defining screen genre.

In fact, purists like to say High Noon isn’t really a Western at all. Producer Stanley Kramer’s specialty was socially conscious, stacked-deck message movies, and this one’s stilted reliance on six-shooters and cowboy hats to add novelty is midway between a convenient device and a fraud to people who revere the complex folk poetry of John Ford’s Stagecoach or the exultant obsessiveness of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Even Cooper, whose presence does lend the movie some badly needed horse opera cred, thought so. “I hate to disappoint a lot of customers, but High Noon wasn’t new or especially genuine,” he once said. “There was nothing especially Western about it.”

Glenn Frankel, whose last book combined the making of Ford’s masterly The Searchers with the story of the actual nineteenth-century Indian kidnapping that inspired it, would certainly like everybody to think better of poor old High Noon. But you don’t have to agree with him to find High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic engrossing. Frankel is a lively and original social historian first and foremost, and this is an expertly detailed, occasionally revelatory reconstruction of a time (1951), a place (Los Angeles), and a fraught political milieu (the Red Scare traumatizing movieland’s idealistic if foolish Commies, ex-Commies, and liberals alike).

It’s also a sympathetic but trenchant set of portraits of the key players involved in bringing High Noon to the screen: Kramer; writer Carl Foreman; director Fred Zinneman; Cooper; his then twenty-two-year-old costar, Grace Kelly; and composer Dmitri Tiomkin, among others. Now all but forgotten, Foreman is the central figure here. That’s not only because he cooked up the movie’s premise, or thought he had — its belatedly recognized resemblance to John W. Cunningham’s magazine story “The Tin Star” recast it in the credits as an adaptation — but because he found himself living it.

He and his wife had joined the Communist Party in their younger years, drifting away after the 1939 Soviet-Nazi pact. But he’d been too minor a toiler in movieland to attract the witch-hunting attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, when the unfriendly witnesses known as the “Hollywood 10” went to jail for refusing to testify about their Communist associations. By the time HUAC came back for a second bite, however, Foreman had teamed up with independent producer Kramer on a few probing, scrappy postwar movies, from Champion (Kirk Douglas’s breakout role) to The Men (Marlon Brando’s screen debut). He was subpoenaed just as he completed High Noon‘s script.

From then on, the movie’s production played out in tandem with Foreman’s decision not to “name names” — the pound of flesh the committee ritually extracted from witnesses who wanted to avoid being blacklisted by the movie industry — and the legal and professional mare’s nest of maneuvers and negotiations he faced as a result. Since he was also discovering who his real friends were, he reworked the screenplay into an ever so slightly vainglorious metaphor for his own beleaguered situation. “I became that guy,” he was to recall. “I became the Gary Cooper character.”

What makes the book compelling is the rich texture of everybody’s back-stories and Frankel’s rendering of the larger picture, from the appeal of Communism in the 1930s to the looming demise of the studio system and the politics of hysteria that gave the HUAC clout. Even readers broadly familiar with the era’s history will enjoy Frankel’s knack for the right summarizing detail or revealing quote as he sets the scene. It’s one thing to be aware of Hollywood’s virtual monopoly on the popular audience’s imagination before television came along, another to learn that “there were more movie theaters in America than banks.” As for the Depression-era Chicago of Foreman’s youth, here it is in a nutshell: “Even Al Capone opened a soup kitchen to feed the hungry.” The social (as opposed to socialist) side of Hollywood Communism’s appeal is captured in screenwriter Philip Dunne’s remark about a colleague who joined simply to make friends: “To her, the Communist Party was a sort of glamorous Lonely Hearts club.”

Partly thanks to the benefit of almost seventy years’ distance from its subject, Frankel’s High Noon is also more compassionate than the movie it celebrates. With understandable bitterness, Foreman’s final script reduced the townspeople who abandon Marshal Will Kane to his fate to a cardboard gallery of hypocrites and poltroons. Sullenly resentful of his appeal to their consciences, they aren’t even allowed any grace notes of ambiguity or remorse. Nor is Kane’s resolve ever in any real doubt, though Foreman’s may have been. (Some people still think he did cough up a few names later on to broker his return from exile.)

By contrast, Frankel keeps showing us people who want to do the right thing and are mortified when they fall short. Perhaps the saddest case is Kramer, a staunch liberal who nonetheless had to choose between turning his back on Foreman and wrecking his own career to — as Frankel makes clear — no purpose whatsoever. Admirably, despite his own political conservatism, Cooper let it be known that he’d back Foreman’s bid to set up his own independent production company once he and Kramer parted ways. But Cooper, too, ended up buckling under pressure from, among others, John Wayne: “Even Gary Cooper couldn’t stand up to the blacklist,” Frankel writes.

Foreman ended up relocating to England, eventually — and notoriously — writing the Oscar-winning script for David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which the novel’s author, Pierre Boulle, who didn’t speak English, got the official credit. By 1961, with the blacklist all but moribund, he was able to write and produce The Guns of Navarone under his own name. But aside from that one hit, his return to Hollywood’s good graces never panned out as he’d hoped; he’d lost a decade that otherwise might have been his creative peak. Even so, the loss to us, as opposed to him, is hard to gauge. Ultimately, what he and Kramer had most in common was a fatal hankering to be judged for their noble ambitions, not their artistry — and, yes, that includes High Noon.

The case Frankel tries to make for the movie’s greatness is unlikely to sway skeptics. When it comes to 1950s political allegories in Western disguise, some of us will always prefer Nicholas Ray’s deliriously feminized Johnny Guitar, with Mercedes McCambridge — the future voice of Satan in The Exorcist — sensationally parodying Joe McCarthy decades before Melissa McCarthy’s gender-bending Sean Spicer. By comparison, High Noon looks awfully creaky today, aside from Katy Jurado’s cynical sizzle as Kane’s mysteriously cast-off mistress. (Even Cooper’s fabled stoicism is unconvincing; he’s almost neurotically stoic.) Once acclaimed as an innovation, Foreman’s suspense-inducing stratagem of having everything play out in real time from 10:40 a.m. until Kane’s nemesis arrives on the noon train mostly conceals how repetitive the material is: another doleful trudge down the street in search of allies, another floridly craven rejection, another insert shot of a clock ticking away.

Instead, the book is most impressive in how skillfully it turns High Noon into a many-faceted, still resonant cultural artifact, as well as a signal moment in the careers of everyone involved: Cooper’s last hurrah as a box office draw, Grace Kelly’s first prominent screen role, Foreman’s ideological crucible, and Kramer’s goodbye to his wishful self-image as a crusading idealist. Beyond his acute sense of the interplay between political beliefs and character, the depth of Frankel’s research into every stage of the movie’s genesis and production is formidable, but he’s also mastered how to use it, to the point that there isn’t a dull page here. Just about all that’s missing is so much as a mention of “Hah! Noon!,” the biliously funny Mad magazine parody that some of us knew by heart before we ever saw the original, but that’s all right. So far as I can tell, he didn’t miss anything else.