The last time I watched “High Noon” was 60 years ago. And that’s a sentence that seems odd to write. But a dear friend kept telling me I should watch it again, that it had (unlike some other once popular films we discussed) stood up well to the passing of the years.
Not easy to get hold of, but I suddenly spotted it the other day on one of those cheap remainders tables in the DVD store and so here we are.
And indeed it has stood up well. But I don’t really want to discuss the craft that makes it, or should make it, somewhere up among the all time film classics. When I saw it 60 years ago I would have watched it as I did any other cowboy movie. Thought it a bit slow-moving perhaps, long time to get to the gunfight showdown which was the set piece of any cowboy movie. But then, bang, bang, bang, and bang, and it was the baddies who would be, of course, occupying the newly made coffins.
But now, a sadder man and wiser, with a lot more miles in the saddle, the gunfight is incidental, a necessary chore to get through, while the rest of the film is, astonishingly for a cowboy movie made in 1952, an extended metaphor worthy of, say, Bergman.
And a metaphor, what’s more, about life and death, something that I as a child knew nothing about, but now, with an almost near death experience or two under my gunbelt, can identify with instinctively.
Gary Cooper is everyman. Fate is coming for him down that ominous rail line stretching into the future. Something wicked that way comes, inexorably. Is it on time, yes it’s on time, is it on time, yes it’s on time. Oh, yes, it’s a cowboy movie, so the wicked thing is a gunslinger in real life, but imagine that it is cancer, say, or a diseased heart. The clock is ticking, this is the deadline, no escape.
Should everyman run from his fate? Well, he could, but he can’t hide, it will catch up with him (like an appointment in Samarra), all he can do is face it and either survive or not. Bravely facing your worst fear may be suicidal, but the alternative is worse. But wait, not to worry, he won’t be alone, he can face this with his own strength of character, all the character resources he has built up, his reserves of mental health and strength..
But then everything is stripped away from him, bit by bit, one by one. He is on his own, or, as Mrs Soprano said, “in the end we all die in our own arms alone”. And all the time the clock is ticking, the deadline fixed. Death is in the air and the coffins are being made, the hammering of coffin nails matching the ticking clock.
Finally the clock will strike twelve (though oddly it doesn’t audibly), and everyman is out on the street, alone. That long dusty street, the final stage of life’s journey heading towards the wickedness which has now arrived by rail and is covering the last little distance, potentially the last moment of life.
Finally the battle is on for his life. Face your demons, fight hard, bravely, win through against the odds, survive. Live to fight another day.
Or maybe that interpretation is biased by my own recent demons. What do you think? But if you haven’t seen it, or not since you were a child, take another look, this lean, pared down gem of a movie is a real classic. My friend was right.