…There Were People Here

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High Noon (1952)

In the morning it was all going so well. Will Kane was the groom in an altogether lovely wedding. He’d been a good sheriff for a good while, and he led the town to a new dawn. He even made it through the days before his retirement, the most fatal time for his kind. We see a happy place, at a happy time, and he made it that way. He hangs up his badge and his gun after stealing a kiss from his new bride, ready to make a life with her.

But then the news comes in. It’s a report from somewhere else, at first incomprehensible. A murderer sent to the hanging post by the sheriff has been pardoned. He’s on a train, and he’s heading into town. The town had caught wind of the notion, before, they’d heard a man who should have hung got his sentence commuted, to life in prison. But they hadn’t paid it much mind, hadn’t reckoned on a pardon. It wasn’t something to bother them. Then the telegram arrives, too late to do anything about it, and there’s a specific time now you can point to when the consequences are going to show up. It’s printed on a train schedule, and it’s for certain – the kind of truth you hear in stories. The kind you can rely on. A man is coming to town at high noon, and he’s going to kill a man who got married that morning.

Curiously, things in the town remain pretty calm. There’s no great flight to the plains. People retreat indoors, if at all. Folks don’t panic; they accommodate. They rationalize. No one really wants any part of it, unless there’s a reason to care, or money to be made. The barber, who builds coffins in the back of the parlor, picks up production, gauging that business might increase. New information is always an opportunity. The town reacts like the coming of certain evil is something to size up, not to reject out of hand. There’s even a small delight in the spectacle, and in the whispered talk that the sheriff really had been asking for it over the years.

Kane isn’t sure what to do. He thinks about leaving, but decides he can’t. He seeks help from a judge, his co-equal partner in the administration of justice, the accomplice to what was not a crime. They arrested and sentenced a murderer for what he was. It must have stood for something, the sheriff suggests. The judge neatly folds an American flag, stows the scales of justice, and gathers his law books, before heading out. He thinks staying is stupid. The judge has everything he needs to set up shop somewhere else. He leaves town, in search of the next retail storefront. One place is as good as the other for what he has to sell.

The judge is one of a long series of people who decline to offer Kane help. We still haven’t met the villain, who we keep being told is on a train, coming from somewhere else.

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High Noon is, not subtly, an allegory for Hollywood’s response to the red scare. With Joseph McCarthy riding high, Hollywood picked its sides, and backed a craven bully. Blacklisting ensued, the denial of work to people because of their political leanings, or their perceived political leanings, or for little reason at all. It was a brazen sell-out, made all the more painful for how unnecessary it was for a powerful institution to bow its head so low. High Noon, written by one of the men targeted, is a protest film, its message cloaked just enough by its setting to let it pass into theaters. Hollywood can’t resist a great message, at least when it is safe to do so, and when the madness had passed the industry canonized High Noon just as confidently as it had it caused it. The critique became a new self-congratulation.

Even though the film was made clear enough for people to see themselves reflected, there’s a lot more in High Noon than just watching a diagram fill itself in. More than anything, in High Noon, we encounter people. It’s nearly the whole of it, the tour of the town, and we meet damn near everyone. High Noon‘s town is a big enough place for there to be parts in it that don’t fit the text, and don’t serve the story, despite the allegory’s insistence. Helen Ramirez, a woman in a frontier town with no husband at her side, and a hotel to her name, learns what’s coming the town’s way. We see her interact with a series of visitors, who’ve learned the same, in parallel to Kane’s procession through the town. Like Kane, she has a certain distance from the rest. She loved Kane once, but it’s behind them now. Her interactions with Kane’s wife, the film’s only conversation between women, are understandably filled with barriers. She doesn’t fit in neatly, whether in aims or identity, but people keep wanting to draw her in to the organizing principle. Her lover jealously accuses her of pining for Kane, and Kane’s wife accuses her of being the reason he stayed. They can’t seem to define her beyond reference. She rejects the imposition at every turn. She says nothing but true things, and no one particularly listens to her.

Eventually, she’ll leave town, because she can. You get to do things or you don’t. Money is the difference-maker, for Ramirez, and maybe the most interesting aspect of her relationship to everyone she leaves behind. Keeping the money flowing is the pressing task for everyone left. When Kane, our sheriff, arrives to ask the help of the respectable portion of the town, interrupting a church service, a man of stature stands up and insists the adults reason it out. He sends out the children, the first clue he’s seeing a few steps ahead. The impromptu town hall features the few moments in the whole film when people express something like morality. They’re more articulate then the sheriff himself in describing why it matters to stand up, to not be cowed. Their words are moving, and they make you hope. But nothing anyone says matters, it’s merely a sham prelude. The self-appointed moderator listens to divergent views and then delivers a flip consensus. The sheriff did well, he says. Things are good here. We thank him. But we don’t want to get a reputation as the kind of place where this happens. You understand, Will. And the sheriff leaves, with no one to follow him.

There’s signs like this, all around, of the sheriff’s failure to tend to the flock while he was focused on the grass. The policy’s been great – the town is on the mend, it’s upwardly mobile, it’s safe to walk the streets, to raise a family, to believe in things. But now that the gains are there, the town worries about losing them. They just don’t want to mess up a good thing.

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It’s not like they’d get to feel heroic, even if they had joined. High Noon never much tries to sell us on the hero, after what we first learn of him. Kane doesn’t look cool anywhere past the first stretch. He doesn’t inspire our confidence, doesn’t win over the town. He’s increasingly desperate, clinging to hopes and long-shots. He asks an old lawman for help, or counsel, or deliverance. It goes the way these visits tend to go. “Sometimes prison changes a man” – Kane says, denying what’s coming, though seeming to know that’s wishful thinking. “It’s all for nothing, Will” is the lawman’s advice, when Kane walks out the door, still trying to do it for something.

His odds never get worse, even if they never get better. He can’t even grow in our eyes by comparison. There’s no collaboration, anywhere; no one, ever, anywhere in the whole town hands a gun over to the bad men. No one tells them where Kane is, no one betrays him. The most conveyed is a drink, to one of the outlaws, when he scouts out the town in search of some liquor. The town isn’t Kane’s enemy, but it’s not his friend, either. It’s just a place he realizes he never really knew.

When you watch High Noon today, you learn about the 1950s from what they thought about the 1860s. The post-Civil War west was the specific time chosen for High Noon‘s specific message, and it resonated more clearly to its specific audience. All we can know for certain is that it was meant to make you feel ugly, sitting there in the 1950s, seeing somewhere long ago and realizing you’re making the same mistakes. Precise pasts ground us in that way, what’s been ugly and what still resonates.

When Kane’s wife, Amy, speaks of her own past, one we never see, she says her father and brother were killed from gun violence. She mentions it to explain why she can’t care now about who is right or who is wrong. It isn’t any way for a person to live, surrounded by the kind of disagreement that leaves people dead. She’s Quaker now, committed to it enough to cause Kane some of his problems. When he came to the church door, only to be sent away empty-handed, the first thing the priest says, being a priest, is that he doesn’t come to the church very often anymore. Kane says he didn’t because his wife’s a Quaker. There isn’t a church in the town who says what she believes, or maybe there isn’t a church that wants her around. And here she is, just wanting her husband to leave the town to its own devices, a person with a genuine set of beliefs, indisputably correct in her version of what a good world would look like.

The priest takes a similar view, but with an important difference. He makes no call for non-violence, he just won’t endorse killing. But he’s in a Western, and he ignores what’s around him. In that environment, rejecting the idea that violence has context means right can no longer call things wrong and be heard. And the result is that in the home stretch, the great shoot out, there’s no one left to help but Amy, who shoots someone through the back, through a window. Not someone, mind you – a man come to town to murder. But also someone, a person. She throws her beliefs away, for reasons of her own, in a town that discards principles for reasons that are all too clear. She acts because no one else would. It doesn’t register as a triumph.

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When they told him the train was coming, and the time it was due, Kane learned everything important. He keeps getting asked what he’s doing, what he’s after. The one time that Kane adequately explains himself, he says something amazing. “… I came here for help because there are people here.” He thought more of the town, it’s why he took the time saving it in the first place. The pained expression he encounters are what life looks like when that belief no longer has common purchase.

It’s all like this, in High Noon, in the town, elsewhere, the weird evasions and justifications. And we see, on the screen, how little Kane can call on, when his town is put to the test. Through it all, as the town fails to prepare, or prepares for failure, the posse waits at the edge of town, given the leisure to check their shoes, check their guns, plot their moves, size up what’s new, get drunk on the job. They get bored. They’re given time to get bored, in a movie whose plot lasts about an hour. We’re given time to see it.

The barber was right, and four coffins are ready for use at the end. The sheriff won’t be in one. But when he lives there’s no meaning to it. The collective purpose that murderers don’t get to run things has been abandoned. His existence matters not to the people around him but to the people watching him a century later, secure in their seats. But the sheriff is as distant from the audience as he is from his own town. He’s just a scared man who lucks out, and any relief he feels is not ours. He planned to leave town as a concession to his new marriage, before he learned what was coming. He bolts now without the slightest hesitation. There’s no new round of goodbyes. The sheriff drops his badge, and a man leaves town.

There’s a lot to dislike about stories demanding to be read one way. But they make it easier to see what you’re seeing. And sometimes allegories jump the tracks. Sometimes things repeat themselves. Commentaries come unstuck in time. An hour becomes a lifetime, a past becomes a present. They forget that, we forget that, and how can you blame them, us, for thinking differently? In the morning it was all going so well.

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