June 10th, 2008
11:10 AM ET

'High Noon,' forevermore

“A simple little Western,” Frank Langella intones in the narration to the documentary “Inside ‘High Noon,’ ” one of the bonus features on the new “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” of the 1952 classic, out Tuesday.

And, indeed, “High Noon” does seem to be a Western stripped down to its most basic elements: the reluctant lawman, ready to leave town with his bride, called back for one last showdown with a group of outlaws as his townspeople desert him. The film even looks basic, with minimal scenery, terse dialogue and black-and-white photography.

But, as the documentary notes with deliberate irony, "High Noon" isn't "a simple little Western." There’s a reason the film has become one of the all-time classics, its very title a synonym for a moment of decision: There’s more than meets the eye.

There’s the script, for one thing. Carl Foreman’s screenplay is often taken to be an anti-McCarthy allegory - though, as one film historian says, you can also read Gary Cooper’s Marshal Will Kane as Joseph McCarthy, with Frank Miller and his gang as the Communists. (Similarly, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” can be read as a film that argues against ‘50s conformity - or a horror film about the Red Menace.)

There’s Fred Zinneman’s direction, carefully calibrated to heighten suspense with its tightly drawn scenes and cuts to the ticking clocks.

And, of course, there’s Gary Cooper, whose stolid acting style - Harrison Ford is probably the closest analogue - works to the film’s great advantage, as his every emotional expression deepens the film’s power.

His performance is all the more striking considering that Cooper, 51 at the time of the movie’s release and a dimming star, wasn’t the first choice to play Will Kane, who was supposed to be in his 30s. The role had been pitched to Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Gregory Peck and Kirk Douglas, among others. But the film was made by Stanley Kramer’s independent production company, and Kramer could only get the cash from an investor who insisted on Cooper.

Cooper won an Oscar for his performance. The film, however, was beaten by “The Greatest Show on Earth” for best picture. (Oscar historians have long believed that “High Noon” faced anti-liberal bias - Foreman was blacklisted during production - and split the vote with competitors “Moulin Rouge” and “The Quiet Man,” allowing “Greatest Show” to slip through.)

“High Noon” isn’t on everybody’s short list of great films. The great director Howard Hawks called it “phony,” and many fans of Westerns prefer their genre with less allegory and more, well, West. But it’s cast a long shadow. The film has made the American Film Institute’s two lists of top 100 films (most recently at No. 27) and is allegedly a favorite among U.S. presidents. (One of those presidents, Bill Clinton, offers commentary in “Inside ‘High Noon.’ ”)

For those who purchased the 50th anniversary "Collector's Edition" DVD of “High Noon” six years ago, the new set doesn’t offer much fresh material. But if you haven’t added “High Noon” to your library, the new edition is a good place to start.

- Todd Leopold, CNN.com Entertainment Producer

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