High Noon: How Life Mirrored Art
Many fans of the Western genre revere the 1952 film High Noon directed by Fred Zinneman, as one of the best ones ever made. Over time, the film has essentially been boiled down to the iconic image of Gary Cooper strolling down a deserted street, wearing his tin star, ready for a showdown. However, audiences often overlook how High Noon's producer, Stanley Kramer, and screenwriter, Carl Foreman, developed this film when the United States of America feared the threat of the Soviet Union abroad and political persecution at home as anti-communist sentiment ran rampant. Therefore, High Noon's emphasis on courage, loyalty, and betrayal takes on a deeper meaning within the context of the 1950s American foreign and domestic policies and Foreman's position as a Blacklisted screenwriter amid the film's production.
To defend capitalism against communism, the United States Congress and other conservative entertainment professionals worked together to stigmatize a group and label them as unpatriotic. They stereotyped actors, screenwriters, directors, musicians, and other entertainment industry professionals as a danger to American society because they were a communist or suspected of being one. Those who were part of the American Communist party at the time saw themselves as "responding to the inequalities and deprivation of the Great Depression by working to create a fairer and more egalitarian society through peaceful means" (Frankel xi). However, the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) took to the Hollywood film industry to weed out agitational propaganda. Before the congressional committee, they called people suspected of communist loyalties or subversive actions and questioned their political affiliations.
Eric Johnston succeeded Will H. Hays as president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in 1946. Johnston believed "film was 'the greatest conveyor of ideas—the most revolutionary force in the world' and sought to match a corporate strategy of 'dynamic capitalism' to an ideological agenda promoting the American way of life" (Lewis 17). In search of subversive ideologies, HUAC dissected films made from 1946 to 1960. Some filmmakers used the medium to reinforce American societal norms while others critiqued these American values such as equality and freedom to cope with the political turmoil of the time. Consequently, filmmakers criticized the Hollywood Blacklist in a more ingenious, creative, and subtle fashion.
Foreman was a native to Chicago, Illinois but a son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He began his career as a freelance journalist and publicist. Foreman joined the League of American Writers in 1938 for their training program to try to make it as a screenwriter (Drummond 13). What began as an anti-fascist organization comprised of artists, authors, and poets under the Communist Party USA, the group "evolved to take an anti-war position during 1939, and was eventually terminated in the early 1940s" (Jankowski). Foreman debuted his screenwriting talents during the 1940s.
Foreman and his wife were members of the Communist Party from 1938 to 1942, but he quit the party and interrupted his screenwriting career when he served in the United States Army Signal Corps with Frank Capra's unit (Ceplair and Englund 312). Foreman met Kramer while they served on the U.S. Army film units making documentaries and shorts. Kramer was born in New York and worked in the film industry as a researcher, film editor, and writer during the 1930s. After Kramer's military service, he became a producer and founded a "mini-studio at the Motion Picture Center, based on a small team of regular contributors" (Drummond 15). Between 1948 and 1951, Foreman wrote five films for Kramer's production house and eventually became a partner with his company.
Kramer's independent studio turned out impressive low-budget, socially conscious, yet extremely popular films. Foreman became one of the most well-renowned screenwriters by 1951 for his work with Kramer. The Stanley Kramer Company attracted talented directors (Fred Zinnemann), composers (Dimitri Tiomkin), and actors (Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Marlon Brando, Jose Ferrer, Teresa Wright) who took pay cuts to work with the production house (Frankel xiv). Kramer's newfound success caused him to sell out his production company and sign a deal with Columbia. However, under Kramer's old contract with United Artists, he was required to make one more film. This film became what is now known as High Noon.
While writing and producing High Noon, Foreman turned on his television to hear Martin Berkeley identify him among others as a communist. Thus, HUAC subpoenaed Foreman in June 1951 but delayed his hearing until September. Meanwhile, Foreman continued to evolve his screenplay, which became an allegory about the Hollywood Blacklist. Loosely based on the short story, The Tin Star by John W. Cunningham, Kramer bought the rights to this story to avoid copyright violations (Anderson).
During the 1950s, Western movies were at the height of their popularity, with stars like John Wayne and Gary Cooper embodying the heroes of the new frontier. In its final form, High Noon has many tropes of the traditional Western: hostile enemies, the lone wolf protagonist, the pretty girl, and the climactic shoot-out. However, the values and politics imbued throughout the film reflect the period of the Hollywood Blacklist era and Foreman's decision whether to cooperate or not with HUAC.
Just past 10 a.m., Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the longtime marshal of Hadleyville, New Mexico, and his new bride Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) prepare to leave town. However, trouble rolls in as three outlaws wait at the railroad station for convicted murderer Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), who had been pardoned and due to arrive on the noon train. Miller is back with a vengeance as Kane sent him to prison years earlier. When Kane turns to the community (which he's protected for so long) for help, he finds them too cowardly to stand beside him to face Miller and his henchmen. Bound by his moral principles, yet against the wishes of his newly wedded wife, Kane walks through the town square toward his showdown with Miller.
In contrast to many Western films, which scatter violence and action throughout, not much action occurs until the last ten minutes of High Noon. The film is shot in real-time, so each minute on-screen equals one minute in real-time. The countdown is on as Kane fails to unite the townspeople. Foreman and Zinnemann included many scenes featuring a clock to show the passage of time to build tension for the climactic gunfight (Blake 24). Images of clocks appear throughout the film to heighten the sense of impending doom closing in on Kane. Foreman wrote Kane's character as a reluctant hero, which becomes more apparent as the story transpires.
The American Western hero lives by a code of honor where they stay faithful to their promises and stand up for justice. Although Kane wants nothing more than to pack his things and run away with his wife before Miller's arrival, his overwhelming sense of duty and assumption that Miller will eventually track him down pulls him into executing a heroic act. Unlike traditional Western heroes, "Kane is neither infallible nor completely stalwart," as he admits his real feelings of fear and doubt (Blake 52). Freeing oneself from self-doubt and one's inner negativity is very common to the human experience. These fears Kane grapples with throughout the film allow the audience to identify with him more personally. The story of Foreman's protagonist up against "an apathetic community turning on an honorable man, reflected his own political persecution with the blacklist in the 1950s Hollywood" (Prince 63). Like his character Kane, Foreman just wants to overcome an obstacle while remaining a respectable person throughout.
Just as the film humanizes the protagonist, the villain largely remains an unseen threat. According to Julian Hanich, an Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of Groningen:
A conspicuous elision and a filmic evocation simultaneously set in motion the viewer's sensual imagining of the visual or aural kind. Their imagining fills in and enriches what the film's visuals or its soundtrack both conceal and allude to at the same time (Hanich).
Miller's concealment evokes the fear of the unknown in the audience. One can compare this character to the omnipresent threat of HUAC looming over Hollywood during the Blacklist era. Once the "Red-hunters" condemned the "films that explicitly supported the alliance with the Soviets and sugarcoated the evils of the Soviet system, they would have to stretch interpretations or search for odd snippets of conversation to make their case" (Byman 54). Therefore, socially conscious actors, writers, directors, and producers were at risk of being driven out of Hollywood for a few years or even for life. The suggestion of an alarming, menacing figure draws on the audience's imagination. It increases their anticipation for Miller's reveal as he disembarks the train in the final 15 minutes of the film.
High Noon is a story about loyalty and betrayal. Despite all the townspeople deserting Kane, he remains loyal even though this action may cost him his life. Many people of Hadleyville owe Kane a debt of gratitude. Still, they betray him by not standing alongside him because, in their eyes, standing up to Miller is futile. Some locals even welcome Miller back to town. The people Kane considered as trusted friends abandon him in a time of need, at which point he realizes psychological egoism outshines altruism. However, Kane's faithfulness to the people is a matter of personal honor and a social commitment (Prince 66). This broader societal and political statement is one in which Foreman aligns himself in the story. One can liken Kane's choices to either muster up the courage to fight or forfeit his societal membership within his community to Foreman's personal experience tangled up in HUAC's Hollywood witch hunt.
Everyone called before HUAC faced a painful decision: supply the names of communists or their sympathizers, thereby betraying their colleagues, or refuse to name names and face unemployment. According to Ceplair and Englund, “The blacklist and the hostile political atmosphere no only impaired the confidence and creativity of left-wing screen artists, it also deprived them of the social relationships within the radical subculture which had nurtured them in the period before 1947” (399). HUAC especially targeted the screenwriter community with "nearly sixty percent of all individuals called to testify an equal percent of all those blacklisted were screenwriters. Only twenty percent of those called and twenty-five percent of those blacklisted were actors" (Dhomhowski 498). Moreover, screenwriters have substantial control over their scripts and the ideas expressed in them.
Foreman knew he had to inform his production team of his subpoena to testify before HUAC. A study on stigma by association during the Hollywood Blacklist era found that "The thinnest of social connections with the stigmatized was enough to damage artists' careers. This uncontrollable process fosters anxiety, leading to broader discrimination" (Pontikes et. al). Despite the risk of also losing one's career for associating with Foreman, his collaborators remained loyal. For example, Zinnemann, and Cooper told Foreman he could count on them to stay by his side. Although Cooper was a conservative, anti-communist, he believed Foreman was no longer involved with the Communist party (Frankel 170). In fact, Cooper was willing to endorse Foreman's loyalty to America, but his lawyer dismissed the idea.
Ready for his inquisition, Foreman, made his way to downtown Los Angeles on September 24, 1951. It was as if High Noon was happening to him. Foreman metaphorically became the marshal, the committee members of HUAC manifested as the gunmen coming to execute him, and the cowardly people of Hadleyville represented his Hollywood colleagues who stood by silently or turned traitor during the hearings (Byman 75). HUAC deemed those who invoked the Fifth Amendment (or a variation of the Fifth) as an "unfriendly witness."
Some witnesses chose to stonewall and declined to provide any information besides their name and address to HUAC. Foreman pleaded a "diminished Fifth" in which he was "willing to tell HUAC that [he was] not now [a] member of the Communist Party but unwilling to answer the question of whether [he] had ever been [a] member, or any other questions about the party" (Ceplair and Englund 383). Additionally, some people spoke exclusively about themselves but resisted discussing anyone else. Due to inadequate cooperation with HUAC, the Motion Pictures Industry Council blacklisted 28 people, including Foreman, two days after his testimony (Getlen).
Not everyone involved with High Noon's production was supportive of Foreman. Kramer just wanted to finish the project to work on what he perceived as more "high status" work. However, with Foreman's subpoena thrown into the middle of production, Kramer also had to decide to cut ties with his friend and business partner or face his own social isolation from Hollywood. Kramer supported Foreman at first, but as time went on, he changed his mind and "broke with Foreman immediately following the hearings: Foreman saw Kramer's refusal to discuss matters with him in person as 'the ultimate betrayal'" (Drummond 37). Perhaps due to stigma by association, Kramer thought Forman's refusal to cooperate with HUAC would jeopardize his deal with Columbia. As a result, Foreman negotiated a severance agreement with Kramer's company and lost the associate producer credit for High Noon but kept the screenwriting credit.
Throughout High Noon, Foreman sprinkled his anger and disloyalty toward Hollywood into his screenplay. He incorporated the events and conversations from his life at the time to shape the conflicted marshal. Foreman said this script was "the only time I consciously wrote a polemic. It was my story of a community corrupted by fear—the end of Hollywood" (Foreman qtd. in Buckley). For example, Kane grows more irritable, his hope dwindles, and his anger bubbles to the surface as his friends refuse to stand up to Miller. Foreman also revealed the film's dialogue "was almost the dialogue that I was hearing from people and even in the company…You could walk down the street and see friends of yours recognize you, turn, and walk the other way” (Frankel 170). At the end of High Noon, Kane tosses his badge to the ground and leaves town. This act symbolizes the end of both Kane and Foreman's careers, as well as the social relationships they established within their respective communities.
By the time High Noon reached American audiences in 1952, Foreman had already lived in England. With his passport revoked by the State Department, the Blacklisted writer lived and worked in London for three years (Ceplair and Englund 403). Variety ranked High Noon as the number eight film on the "Top Grossers of 1952" list at $3.4 million. According to the Motion Picture Herald's "Independent Film Buyers' Report on Performance," the film's "engagements rose steadily from seven in August to 68 by the end of 1952 as its qualities were recognized by audiences and by exhibitors" (Drummond 43). Although few recognized Foreman's references to the Blacklist at the time, some people, like the conservative, anti-communist actor, John Wayne, noticed the political connection.
As an American, Wayne found the portrayal of a desperate lawman asking others for help to take down a common enemy troubling. In 1959, Wayne collaborated with director Howard Hawks on Rio Bravo to deliberately respond to High Noon (Byman 7). In Rio Bravo, Wayne plays a fearless sheriff who never abandons his commitment to his community and only enlists help from competent people even though other characters offer him help. Moreover, in a 1971 Playboy interview, Wayne said he would "never regret having helped run Foreman out of this country" and that High Noon is "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life" (Playboy). Although some perceived High Noon as evidence of subversion, the film received critical acclaim.
High Noon was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1953. Cooper could not attend the ceremony because he was working on-location for a different project, so he requested Wayne to accept his Best Actor Oscar on his behalf. Despite expressing his envy of Cooper during his speech at the Oscars, Wayne belittled the film and dubbed it the work of communist traitors in later interviews (Drumond 39). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Foreman for his screenplay. Essentially living in exile in London, Foreman continued to work as a Blacklisted screenwriter. He used his friend's names on scripts and did not receive credit for his screenplays. According to Foreman, "It hurt like hell not getting credits and accolades for the films I wrote," who co-authored the Academy Award-winning The Bridge on River Kwai (Ceplair and Englund 406). High Noon was Foreman's most celebrated script, but it was the last project with a Hollywood studio until the early 1960s.
High Noon is a film about conscience and the extent to which Foreman identified with Will Kane as a figure who refused to compromise. At the core of the film, one can draw a parallel between the plot and Foreman's lived experience through the socio-political context of the Red Scare and the Hollywood Blacklist. Nonetheless, High Noon's legacy lives on with each generation reinterpreting its social metaphor to represent other instances of political repression.