High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and The Making of An American Classic
By Glenn Frankel
In producer Walter Mirisch’s 2008 memoir, I Thought We Were Making History, Not Movies, the then 87-year old industry veteran confessed to complete surprise when revisionist critics classified his 1956 sci-fi sensation Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a metaphor for America’s Red Scare. The suspected subversion of America’s most iconic institutions, from government and the military to popular entertainment, was at no point, according to Mirisch, on the minds of any of the talent involved. They were out to create chills, not dialogue.
Not so, though, another film from that polarizing period, the classic High Noon, a low-budget Western underwritten by a hungry, maverick producer, conceived and written by a no-name screenwriter, helmed by an overlooked director, and starring a fallen icon and an inexperienced ingenue. It became that oft fabled Hollywood thing, the proverbial ‘sleeper,’ garnering gushing reviews, boffo box office, and, ultimately, the status of ‘classic.’
First and foremost, though, it was a political allegory, deftly converting the real-life drama of the modern West to the fictional drama of the Old – namely, the sad scramble for supporters on the part of subpoenaed screenwriters, in the face of a posse of unstoppable Red-baiters.
Carl Foreman, the writer, was ailing from his first scrape with HUAC – the notorious House of Un-American Activities Committee, whose heyday ran from 1947-54 (though it lasted until 1991!) – when he began to craft the simple tale of Will Kane, the small-town marshal whose honeymoon is interrupted by the onset of the dangerous Frank Miller, a man he thought he had firmly put away. As Miller and his boys converge on the hapless hamlet of Hadleyville, Kane attempts to conjure a posse of his own. After Foreman was called before the committee a second time, however, an occasion with more dire consequences, any notions of a fair fight were definitively dispelled. Kane, like Foreman, would be facing the future alone.
Not that Foreman, at that stage, had lost all support. His producer, the hungry, enterprising Stanley Kramer, stood by him well into production…Fred Zinnemann, the curt, courtly European plucked from obscurity to direct, perpetuated a mutually creative partnership with him…and Gary Cooper, the film’s washed-up star, forever afforded him brotherly respect.
Shortly before the film’s release, however, the scandal hit its well-chronicled heights. With reservations, Kramer forced Foreman’s resignation from their production company, relegating him to a common plight among the blighted: a stint in semi-forgiving England, where there was work (of a lesser kind) under a pseudonym.
Bad timing. Almost immediately upon the film’s release, subtext be damned, critics and audiences succumbed to it like Frank Miller at the point of Will Kane’s gun. Most of the credit went to Foreman’s central gimmick – that the action take place in real time – Elmo Williams’ taut editing, and Tex Ritter’s haunting rendition of the theme song (the Oscar-winning Do Not Forsake Me.) Whatever political subtext existed was as overlooked as the fact that Cooper was too old for Grace Kelly, his porcelain paramour.
Ordinarily, Westerns would seem an unlikely and unimportant subject for one such as Glenn Frankel, the Pulitzer Prize winning international journalist. But as his 2013 book on John Ford’s The Searchers attests, the urban, Jewish, intellectual Frankel is an unabashed fan of the genre (maybe it was his 2010 stint as a professor at the University of Texas?) And High Noon, as embedded as it is with Frankel’s career-making subjects – politics, conflict, persecution – fits him like a shining badge on a weathered vest.
The rise and fall of HUAC is, expectedly, well-chronicled, as are its shades of anti-Semitism (as Frankel points out, six out of the famous Hollywood Ten were Jewish.) And why not? It’s been 40 years since Victor Navasky’s definitive Naming Names. But Frankel is equally adept as a diarist of the titular production. We learn many novel things: that it enjoyed two weeks of pre-camera rehearsal (rehearsal – for a Western?)…that dibs are still being called on the film’s famous emphasis on time, in spite of evidence that the notion was clearly Foreman’s…that the metaphorical mojo was actually toned down by director Zinnemann, the unique reversal of a European sanitizing Hollywood.
Though the above-the-line team is a rogue’s gallery of Hollywood characters, most of which are given due with conservative humanity, the most fascinating character is the film’s star, Gary Cooper. For all that Foreman was put through, it is Cooper who, in these pages, resonates as the frailest subject. Half cowboy-half sophisticate, Cooper could function in any world – and did. He ably skirted his way through his own HUAC hearing, helped himself to women of all social classes and age brackets, and continually bested the critics, despite a deep personal conviction that his acting was, at best, “just fumbling.” They could have skewered him good, too, for his Will Kane, but the opposite happened. Cooper’s performance won kudos (and an Oscar,) revived his career (briefly,) and both affirmed and reframed what he had always represented. Thanks to High Noon the film, Cooper became modern, relevant, poignant – and ultimately, iconic.
Not that his performance, nor the film, didn’t have its detractors. John Wayne, with whom Cooper enjoyed a cordial but complicated relationship, saw right through it, calling it an insult to both the onscreen West and contemporary America. In time, of course, his own films followed suit and too became political playthings, if for the opposite end of the spectrum. This is lost, somehow, on Frankel, more pure film fan than cinematic authority. As further proof, he leaves much of the more critical contextualization to discredited New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther.
It’s a minor violation. Frankel’s High Noon is likely the most comprehensive, revelatory book we’re going to get on that film. Unlike its writer, Foreman, with whom he most identifies, but like its hero, Cooper, whom he still holds in boyish wonder, Frankel can walk with his head held high.