High Noon was responsible for setting the career of Gary Cooper moving again and is considered by many the single most important film in his career. However, no one knew or thought the film was destined for big things when it was first conceived.
Cooper was not producer Stanley Kramer's first choice to play Marshal Will Kane. In fact, he was fairly far down the list below Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. Charlton Heston was also offered the role. The chief financial backer of the film, however, a Salinas lettuce tycoon, wanted Cooper. The backer threatened to pull his money out and Kramer couldn't change his mind about using Cooper, so the script had been sent to Coop. Later Cooper said he took the film, even though he was ill and emotionally troubled, because it represented what his father had taught him, that law enforcement was everyone's job.
In an interview, Fred Zinnemann gave his recollections of Cooper and High Noon: "His recurring hip problem bothered him on one or two occasions. It made it difficult for him to do the fight with Lloyd Bridges, but it didn't stop him from working very hard and very long hours under some trying conditions. If I remember correctly, we made the entire film in 31 shooting days. Not once were we delayed or held up by him for whatever reason. For most of the time he had seemed in good health, and it was only two or three months after shooting had been completed that he became ill.
"He did in fact look quite haggard and drawn, which was exactly what I wanted for the character, even though this was in contrast to the unwritten law, then still in force, that the leading man must always look dashing and romantic. If I remember correctly, we used a minimum of makeup for Coop, which was perhaps a bit of a novelty in those days.
"Cooper seemed absolutely right for the part. It seemed completely natural for him to be superimposed on Will Kane."
According to Zinnemann, High Noon "is the one picture I directed which more than any other was a team effort. There was a marvelous script by Carl Foreman, a brilliant job of cutting by Elmo Williams, an inspired musical score by Dimitri Tiomkin, a solid contribution by Stanley Kramer. And Gary Cooper was the personification of the honor-bound man. He was in himself a very noble figure, very humble at the same time, and very inarticulate. And very unaware of himself." (Interestingly, in a 1979 interview in American Film, Carl Foreman claimed that he and Zinnemann had made the film apart from the Kramer company. According to Foreman, "neither Kramer nor anyone around him had any use for the film from the beginning.")
In the film, Coop's first line is the same as the first line he had ever uttered in a film back in 1928 in Shopworn Angel – "I do." Kane is marrying Amy on a Sunday morning. It is just past 10:30 when the tale begins, and it ends a few minutes after noon. The length of the story and the length of the film almost coincide. The film is filled with reminders of the passing time, time that brings Marshal Kane closer to having to face Frank Miller when he gets off the noon train in Hadleyville and seeks revenge against Kane, who sent him to prison. Clocks in the background show the time and tick ominously. People refer to meetings in five minutes. One by one the people whom Kane assumes he can count on in the battle against Miller and his gang find reasons or excuses to stay out of the coming fight. Only the town drunk comes forth, but Kane turns him down, realizing he is more of a liability than an asset.
At one point Kane, alone in his office, puts his head down on his desk, possibly to weep, and then wearily pulls himself up again. In the final confrontation with Miller and his gang, Kane does stand alone until the last moment, when Amy saves his life by shooting Frank Miller. Kane then throws down his badge in a sign of contempt for the town and rides out with his bride.
For his performance in High Noon, Cooper won his second Academy Award. Yet it is a performance in which he does less with the character than he had done with almost any of his major roles before. His walk is stiff and pained. His arms remain at his sides through most of the film. He hasn't a single extended speech. What audiences apparently responded to was the look that Zinnemann had captured and that Cooper, with years of experience, had played on. They also responded to the simple story of a man who is not supported by his community in a time of mortal crisis and who triumphs alone through courage and determination.
Will Kane and Gary Cooper were tired, sick men of 51. Cooper's performance is basically put together in relatively short takes and scenes. This was exactly what Zinnemann wanted and what he got, and it was interpreted by a public that loved Cooper as a supreme performance.
Cooper later said that when High Noon was finished, he was "acted out," and that pained weariness is exactly what is seen on the screen. Perhaps for the first time, he had truly become the character he portrayed, for Gary Cooper and Will Kane were the same persona. Kane's pain came from fear and his betrayal by others. Cooper's was a result of illness and domestic and career worries.
As he got older, Cooper tended more and more to be concerned about the West and its portrayal and tended to be disturbed by the lack of historical authenticity in western films. Since his own career as a western star had helped to reinforce the myth of the American fictional West rather than a re-creation of historical data, it is ironic that Cooper should turn to that position.
High Noon is indeed not a tale about the true West, but like so many westerns a presentation of contemporary ideas in the most durable popular genre, the western. In a sense, the myths of the West – and Cooper as an actor is one of them – are as culturally important as what actually transpired on the frontier a century ago. Will Kane tells us more about how we view our history and myths than any real data we might find out about Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid or Buffalo Bill. Cooper's career as a western figure lasted 35 years, as long, in fact as the time between the end of the Civil War and the start of the twentieth century, as long as the historical time of the real West.
Release Date: 1952
Starring: Gary Cooper, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Grace Kelly, Otto Kruger, Ian MacDonald, Lon Chaney, Harry Morgan, Eve McVeagh, Harry Shannon, Lee Van Cleef, Bob Wilke, Sheb Wooley, Tom London, Ted Stanhope, Larry Blake, William Phillips, Jeanne Blackford, James Millican, and Jack Elam
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Writer: Carl Foreman
Source Citation: Kaminsky, Stuart M. "High Noon." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 524-527.