Designed from the flowchart up to be a kind of monolithic American metaphor, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952)—restored and rereleased for a two-week run—is as simple as a film can be with this astonishing amount of ideological freight. The bad guys are returning to town; the retiring sheriff (a haggard, cancer-destined Gary Cooper) must do his duty; the ass-covering townspeople bail and leave the lonesome cowboy to face the music alone—Zane Grey would’ve strained to crank out a novella with such a framework.
Such is the wonder of the Hollywood genre factory: High Noon is possibly the most Rorschachian film of all time, a symbol-only text that effortlessly conforms to any political present, and finds a foothold in your social sphere whether you’re a free radical or reactionary wing nut. In its Cold War origins, of course, the movie is a parable of HUAC conformism—screenwriter/blacklistee Carl Foreman was literally evicted from the set by producer Stanley Kramer for fear of McCarthyite reprisal, a stunning instance of fiction becoming fact. In the ’60s tumult, Zinnemann’s lean, low-budget ode could be read as both an indictment of middle-class cowardice and as a conservative defense of martial force.
In the ’80s, High Noon became a glyph in the movie world in Ronald Reagan’s head, an iconic rationale for unilateral righteousness. Today, it could hardly be more so—if Bush II ever deigned to watch something so demanding as a black-and-white film, he might take it as a quasi-divine dictate for gun-toting global domination. In fact, a fresh look suggests that only demagogues could mistake the movie for a jingoistic ballad. The meat on the film’s bones is small-town Americans, not Cooper’s reluctantly self-sanctifying sheriff, who, once evil is vanquished, tosses his star in the dirt out of disgust. More than a half-century later, Foreman was right after all: High Noon is a scorching and sour portrait of American complacence and capacity for collaborationism. A depressed witness to the nation’s self-obsessed relativism, Cooper’s lawman isn’t heroic but resigned and bitter. Innumerable Oscars, hosannas, and AFI salutes later, it’s the movie that fooled the world.