May 15, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon

High Noon. 1952. USA. Directed by Fred Zinnemann

These notes accompany the screenings of Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon on May 16, 17, and 18 in Theater 3.

Fred Zinnemann (1907–1997) fits comfortably into a group with such directors as Rouben Mamoulian (Applause), Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), and William Wyler (whose Roman Holiday will be shown June 27–29.) Andrew Sarris, in American Cinema, dismissed this group as “Less Than Meets the Eye.” All of these men were highly regarded by their peers, and I would prefer to recognize them for their legitimate accomplishments when they were matched with suitable projects. How genuinely we can recognize them as auteurs comes into question when one considers the dearth of thematic consistency over the course of their careers. In Zinnemann’s case, Sarris finds that films like High Noon and his other major work “vividly reveal the superficiality of Zinnemann’s personal commitment.”

Beginning as an assistant cinematographer in Weimar Germany before coming to America in 1930, Zinnemann first made a significant mark in the mid-1930s by directing (with the great photographer Paul Strand) the Mexican documentary Los Redes (The Wave). Heavily under the influence of Robert Flaherty, Zinnemann developed a reputation for realism. From 1938 to 1946, he directed a number of shorts and minor features in Hollywood. However, with The Search (1947), The Men (1950), and Teresa (1951), he attained a level of status as a serious but somewhat humorless director and, incidentally, introduced Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and Rod Steiger. I would suggest that Zinnemann’s subsequent work (beginning with High Noon) became diffuse, and that the realist baton was passed to Elia Kazan, who would shortly make major films with all three of these discoveries—films that were more deeply felt than anything in Zinnemann’s range.

High Noon was one of a string of anti-Romantic, anti-populist Westerns following William Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident and Henry King’s The Gunfighter, films that used the Western form to present a social message in a cynical and heavy-handed manner. There was little regard for either the nobility of the Western myth or the cinematic potential of the imagery of the American West. High Noon seems to explicitly contradict the work of John Ford (Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, The Cavalry Trilogy) and Howard Hawks (Red River). Hawks, in fact, was so unhappy with Zinnemann’s film (and leftist screenwriter Carl Foreman’s portrayal of the beleaguered sheriff trying to maintain law and order) that “we made Rio Bravo the exact opposite from High Noon.” (Hawks was referring to his 1959 masterpiece starring John Wayne.) High Noon camouflages its purposes by using traditional Western actors: Thomas Mitchell (Stagecoach, The Outlaw, Silver River) and Gary Cooper (The Virginian, The Plainsman, The Westerner, and many others). Cooper’s Oscar-winning performance was a signature moment for him, wrought as it was from pain and exhaustion. The film contradicted the Romantic Western image he had cultivated for a quarter-century, although Cooper maintained that he was unhappy that the movies had not depicted the West more realistically. His last important Western, Anthony Mann’s Man of the West (1958), is even bleaker in its outlook than High Noon.

A few words about Cooper are in order. Although other leading men of his era (such as James Stewart, Cary Grant, John Wayne, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Henry Fonda) were more idiosyncratic and better actors, I have become impressed with Cooper’s versatility. In addition to being John Wayne’s main rival in Westerns, Cooper provided a love interest for Marlene Dietrich in Morocco and Desire, a comic muse for Ernst Lubitsch and Howard Hawks, an Everyman for Frank Capra and Sam Wood, a swashbuckling hero for Henry Hathaway, William Wellman, and Cecil B. De Mille, and a Randian superman for King Vidor. And this just skims the surface of a career that lasted from silents to Cinemascope.