It’s kind of hilarious to read about American political factions laying claim to High Noon over the years. Carl Foreman’s script doesn’t exactly play like partisan rhetoric. Detailing a (roughly) 85-minute buildup to a shootout between a retiring marshal and a pardoned outlaw getting together with his buddies for some vengeance, there’s an overwhelming emphasis on the breakdown of ideals. Men projecting a stalwart image turning into opportunists and cowards. Written in the face of HUAC and blacklisting, which drove Foreman from the States, the film shows how quickly righteousness becomes impotent rage.
Hearing of the coming doom, Will Kane (Gary Cooper) decides to stay, compelled by a sense of obligation, over the protestations of his new wife. Given his popularity with the locals, he figures it will be easy to round up deputies and squash the threat with sheer numbers. A fleeing judge and a quitting right-hand man later, his certainty is shaken. The next hour is Kane scrambling around town, the refrain “Do not forsake me oh my darling” echoing somewhere (possibly his mind) as he seeks volunteers.
Refusal is absolute. Whether it’s a fear of death or reprisal, unspoken grudges, or belief the town would be safer if Kane simply left, residents who minutes earlier celebrated the marshal leave him to the wolves. Kane becomes disgusted, but insists on following through. He doesn’t go into the fray with grace, though: he skulks and slips into buildings for cover. Sneaks around to tip the odds in his favor. Compared with contemporary western heroes, Kane looks slimy. Fred Zinnemann even shoots action in small, fragmented bursts, unwilling to glamorize Kane in the slightest. Law and order, masculine pride, political stances all meaningless when the noon bell tolls.