Thursday, September 22, 2016

Adventures in Blu-ray: High Noon (1952)

This past Tuesday (September 20), Olive Films officially introduced its “Olive Signature” series on Blu-ray and DVD.  “Highlighting cult favorites, time-honored classics, and under-appreciated gems,” the company states in a press release, “each Olive Signature edition boasts a pristine audio and video transfer, newly designed cover art, and an abundance of exciting bonus material.”  (Think of it as a second Criterion for the classic movie fan.)

The inaugural Olive Signature release is High Noon (1952), the Oscar-winning Western (including a second Best Actor trophy for star Gary Cooper and Best Original Song for High Noon [Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’]) that has been a longtime favorite here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (Noon was my contribution to The Chaney Blogathon back in 2013, celebrating the cinematic achievements of Lon, Sr. and Lon, Jr.).  Why, I hear you ask?  (At least…I hope that’s you, and not the little voices returning to cavort inside my head…)  Well, I’ve long had an affinity for those oaters that turn what is an admittedly conservative film genre (rugged individualism, strict adherence to a strong moral code, etc.) on its head with a bit of subversive tongue-in-cheek.  Carl Foreman, who penned Noon’s screenplay, never made any bones about the fact that the movie served as an allegory about Hollywood and the motion picture industry (Foreman would later fall victim to the blacklist) and the result so infuriated director Howard Hawks that he purportedly made Rio Bravo (1959) in response to Fred Zinnemann’s film.  (Bravo’s star, John Wayne, stated in his infamous 1971 interview with Playboy that Noon was “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”)

You know the story by heart: on the day of his wedding to Quaker Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), ex-Hadleyville marshal Will Kane (Cooper) receives word that convict Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) has been paroled and is headed his way…and he’s not bringing a fondue set.  No, Will sent Miller up on a murder charge five years earlier, but apparently Frank has slipped through the cracks of the justice system and is returning to Hadleyville to settle the score.

As his gang (Sheb Wooley, Lee Van Cleef, Robert J. Wilke) wait at the depot for the train to arrive at noon, Will attempts to round up a posse to help him take care of Miller upon his return.  Kane doesn’t have to do this—and he’s told that by several townspeople, including judge Percy Mettrick (Otto Kruger), who’s already high-tailing it out of town, and mayor Jonas Henderson (Thomas Mitchell).  But Will Kane is a man bound by his sense of duty…and besides, what’s the point of running away?  Miller has all the time in the world to track him down in whatever town he and Mrs. Kane decide to settle.  Deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) is of no use—he’s upset that Kane didn’t recommend him for Will’s job—and one by one, the townspeople reveal their true colors: they’re either deathly afraid of Miller (and more than a few are worried that the confrontation will give the town a bad name) or welcoming him back (many Hadleyville businesses enjoyed having Frank and Company around—it was good for the economy).

The underlying plot of High Noon—there’s a psychotic killer headed for town and its inhabitants can’t or won’t do anything to stop him—has been one that has fascinated me since the first time I sat down and watched the movie with my father.  (I’ve logged any number of visits with the movie since.)  No one expresses this inaction in the film better than the character of Martin Howe (Lon Chaney, Jr.), the man who was marshal of Hadleyville before Will, and who recommended him for the job.  Howe wants nothing more to help Will in his time of crisis, but reasons that Will would be so worried about protecting him in the fight (Howe’s lawman career has left him with “busted knuckles” and arthritis) that Will would wind up getting killed.  As for the rest of the town?  “It’s all happenin’ too sudden,” observes Martin.  “People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it.   Maybe because down deep…they don’t care…they just don’t care.”  It’s a powerful political message that is still frighteningly relevant today.

The Olive Signature transfer of High Noon (mastered from a new 4K restoration) looks razor-sharp and positively pristine—it’s the best I’ve seen this film looking in years.  The bonus materials are abundant and most entertaining; I never noticed that cinematographer Floyd Crosby paid homage to a shot of a swinging clock pendulum from Noon in his later work on Roger Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961)—a feature with a considerably larger pendulum—until film editor Mark Goldblatt (The Terminator) pointed it out in “The Ticking Clock.”  “Oscars and Ulcers: The Production History of High Noon” is a nice overall look at the making of the film narrated by Anton Yelchin, and I particularly enjoyed “Imitation of Life: The Blacklist History of High Noon,” which features historian Larry Ceplair and Walter Bernstein, the blacklisted scribe who wrote one of my favorite films on the subject, The Front (1976).

I’ll admit a little bias and confess that my favorite feature on the Noon Signature Blu-ray is “A Stanley Kramer Production,” because my good friend (and Facebook amigo) Michael Schlesinger holds forth on the career of the producer-director.  Because I was watching this with my mother, I said to her: “Mike is going to proclaim It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World the greatest movie of all time at some point during this.”  (He did not disappoint.)  There's also an accompanying original essay, "Uncitizened Kane," contributed by Sight and Sound editor Nick James.

Something else that will not disappoint: a purchase of this Blu-ray for your classic film library.  I know it’s been released several times before, but the transfer in this edition is worth the price of admission; it’s that breathtakingly beautiful.  Tomorrow in this space: I’ll look at the other Olive Signature release from this week—and not coincidentally, another one of my very favorite Westerns.

Many thanks to Bradley Powell at Olive Films for providing Thrilling Days of Yesteryear with the High Noon screener.


John/24Frames said...

A great film that I did not appreciate until I watched it and then wrote about it a few years ago. Interesting enough both liberals and conservatives has used it as political fodder interpretating it in various ways.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

John mused:

Interesting enough both liberals and conservatives has used it as political fodder interpretating it in various ways.

I must reluctantly confess my view of High Noon veers toward the former, in so much as I first read about the film in that great book by Peter Biskind, Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties.

Caftan Woman said...

My late dad saw High Noon in the 50s while stationed in Germany (Canadian Army). He was broke and had to walk the long walk to the cheap seats in front. He loved the movie. He passed it on to his daughters in his ongoing classic movie legacy. Recently, I finally shared it with my daughter Janet. What impressed her most on this viewing, you ask? The character of Helen Ramirez stood out for her as atypical in the era. She (Janet) will be visiting that movie again.