High Noon: Why We Need Unconventional Heroes

There are movies that make history, and then there are movies that are history. Over the last century, few movies have reflected the era they were made in as vividly as Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon did back in 1952. Upon its initial release, the seemingly simple story of a small town sheriff having to confront of a pack of bandits all on his own resonated across the US like no other film did in those years. In a decade marked by fear mongering, oppression and palpable tension, High Noon had the guts to speak out against a powerful system that worked toward the destruction of people’s livelihoods and beliefs. Today, I want to tackle the film’s artistic and cultural merit, as well as explore our undying need for heroes.

The film opens with a ballad written by composer Dimitri Tiomkin and sang by country singer Tex Ritter. The lyrics to this monumental opening say a lot about the overarching themes of the movie;

I do not know what fate awaits me
I only know I must be brave,

And I must face a man who hates me
Or lie a coward, a craven coward
Or lie a coward in my grave

Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and his wife, Amy (Grace Kelly), on their way to a happier lifestyle.

The song, written and performed from the perspective of our protagonist, Marshall Will Kane, helps establish what’s at stake. Namely, a man’s honor and sense of duty. Like a soldier on his way to battle, Will Kane (played by a never-better Gary Cooper) is aware that whatever comes his way, he must face it. There is just no other way. The evil looming over the small town of Hadleyville in the form of a vengeful murderous ex-convict by the name of Frank Miller is no exception. It must be dealt with at all costs, whatever the consequences may be. However, that’s not entirely how it works. How life works, I mean.
After we learn of Frank Miller’s return to Hadleyville (released free despite having killed an innocent man), we are introduced to Kane himself. The Marshall is getting married. He is finally, for once in his life, doing what feels right. His plan is to set the tin star aside and quit town. Become just another regular Joe. Become simply Will Kane, without the expectations, regulations and local politics hanging over his head. And the town of Hadleyville is ready to set him free. His work contributed to a safer, friendlier environment. Hadleyville, we learn from Kane’s circle of friends, used to be wild and dangerous. He re-established order, and made sure that those that broke the law would not go unpunished. Inevitably, it’s time for them to part ways.

Frank Miller’s gang waiting for the train to arrive.

However, once Kane learns of Frank Miller’s return, something snaps. Something deep down tells him, despite his friends claiming otherwise, that he must stay. He must stay and fulfill his final call of duty. And it is here that one of the greatest allegories of all time starts to unfold.
The supposedly tight-knit community rapidly crumbles before our eyes. Friends turn into conspirators and Kane, desperate for help, realizes that everything he’s built and gathered over the years has amounted to nothing. All he’s got is the tin star strapped to his breast pocket. At the end of the day, that’s what separates him from the likes of Frank Miller. Miller, on the other hand, is still perceived as the man who made Hadleyville a place worth being in. A murderer? Yes. A violent and unpredictable man? Sure. But he made things happen one way or the other. He made small town life exciting. He put Hadleyville on the map, and had it not been for the Marshall, the town would probably still be there.
Before leaving, the town’s judge warns Kane of what will eventually turn out to be the crux of the story. Namely, that people are capable of welcoming with open arms even the worst oppressor of all. And after welcoming him, they are ready to support him, and watch as the oppressor continues to exercise his cruel rule. Kane at this point is still not buying it. His faith in friendship and belief in values like loyalty and duty make it impossible for him to think otherwise. In this moment of need, he is sure that the town will stand with him. He is confident that the moment the clock strikes noon, he will not be alone in his plight.

Will Kane soon learns of townspeople willing to bet on his life.

Following the film’s release, the director, Fred Zinnemann, emphasized that High Noon is not a Western. He explained that the only thing in common it has with a Western is that it takes place in the days of sheriffs and outlaws. Otherwise, the story itself was of contemporary nature, and the study of its principal themes was meant to reflect what was going within Hollywood at the time. In other words, the film reflected a community of artists rocked by the fanaticism of McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. A community of people willing to turn on each other and ruin entire livelihoods in the name of some madman’s political ideals. A community that turned its back on those unfortunate enough to be marked and labelled as enemies of the state. This was a time when actors, directors, playwrights and musicians were sent into exile because they were deemed to be traitors. Threats to society. Those that refused to comply were, similarly to Marshall Kane, turned into sacrificial lambs.
High Noon presents us with a wide range of supporting characters. There’s Deputy Harvey Pell, the Marshall’s right-hand man, whose own aspirations for the Marshall’s star prevent him from lending Kane a hand in the moment of need. There is the town’s mayor who stages a meeting at the local church in order to convince the Marshall that he is better off leaving. Avoiding unnecessary bloodshed will benefit both him and the community, and after all, Frank Miller’s not so bad.
Finally, there are the two women – Kane’s former lover, Helen Ramirez, and his wife, Amy. Both struggle to make sense of Kane’s determination to confront Miller and his gang. But Helen, through her own experience as a businesswoman, has learned of the same attitude the judge hinted at in the beginning of the film. She knows that if the townspeople are willing to turn their back on the Marshall, they will not hesitate to turn their back on others, too. All of a sudden, Hadleyville is overwhelmed by a sense of dread. The only thing one should do is get busy dying or get busy riding off.

Amy cannot comprehend Will’s stubbornness to stay behind and fight.

Before the movie’s climax, Kane pays a visit to his old friend and former Marshall, Martin Howe. Martin is old, his face cracked with age and years of hard work and disappointments. He can’t be bothered to get up from his chair and he’s certainly not picking up a gun and getting into a gunfight. Over the course of his life, he’s come to terms with the idea that there is no such thing as going out in the blaze of glory. As Kane desperately does his best to convince him otherwise, Martin tells him, “If you’re honest, you’re poor your whole life, and in the end you wind up dyin’ all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothin’. For a tin star.
The director stages this scene by placing the camera behind Kane and locking it on Howe. As Howe makes his grave confession, Zinnemann cuts to Gary Cooper’s face: a face of sudden disappointment, a face that has just learned a brutally honest lesson. This sacrifice that he is about to make, this burden that he is about to take upon himself, what good will come of it if it means him getting killed?

Former Marshall Martin Howe can only sit and pray for Kane’s sake.

And thus, we arrive at the central point of the film. Our need for heroes. At the time, Hollywood glorified and rewarded those that collaborated with McCarthy’s Committee by pointing out potential threats to the American way of life. In those years, as Orson Welles put it, it was fashionable to “celebrate the informer” with movies like On the Waterfront becoming classics of 50s cinema. All of a sudden, heroes were deemed to be the ones who took the easy way out. Those who accepted the status quo and acted accordingly. Those who conformed with the madness of it all.
Zinnemann’s High Noon defied that. The reality is that the situation called for a different kind of hero. A hero that refused to be boxed into the industry’s standards. And with major stars like John Wayne and James Stewart actively opposing the release of the film, High Noon accomplished what it set out to do in the first place. It shone a light on the immoral complicity of the ‘townspeople’ of Hollywood by introducing a hero that went against the (then) contemporary idea of what a hero should be.
As the clock struck noon, and as the train whistle blew and echoed across town, as the good citizens of Hadleyville looked up in worry or excitement, the truth came to light. The truth was that Marshall Will Kane was on his own, committed to face the impending doom.

One of the greatest crane shots of all time emphasizes the demoralizing reality of Kane’s sacrifice.

Street of Shame: Japan’s Answer to Italian Neorealism

When Roberto Rossellini decided to direct a film about children and the Italian resistance movement in war-torn, Nazi-occupied Rome in 1945, nobody could have predicted the lasting impact on cinema and legacy of Rome Open City (1945). What Italian neorealism did was give a voice to those that did not have it. Its entire philosophy revolved around using non-professional actors in real-life locations to present the stories of men, women and children of working class background, their preoccupations, fears and desires. The atrocities of war, and the long-lasting misery that came with it provided European cinema with a deeper, more nuanced insight into the lives of people who up until then had been marginalized and prevented from appearing on the silver screen. As Italian neorealism blossomed with the likes of De Sica (Bicycle Thieves), Visconti (La Terra Trema) and Fellini (La Strada), Japan witnessed the rise of a different kind of cinema. Established directors like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, who had been forced to make propaganda films to support the empire’s war effort were finally allowed to explore and develop their own ideas: Kurosawa was initially drawn to stories of organized crime and violence (Drunken Angel and Stray Dog), while Ozu grew to become an expert of family dynamics (Late Spring and Tokyo Story). However, the director I want to talk about today, Kenji Mizoguchi, went down a different path, at least until the final year of his life. Mizoguchi’s most known works include Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, stories of oppressed peasants set in feudal Japan and known for their theatricality, however his swan song, namely Street of Shame released the same year of Mizoguchi’s premature death, is the one that I consider to be, in a catalog of classics, his finest achievement. And here’s why.

Kenji Mizoguchi on the set of Street of Shame.

Street of Shame is a film about prostitutes in the Red Light District of Tokyo as the country is trying to pass an anti-prostitution bill. Dreamland, the brothel which houses the women, is a place cut off from the rest of the world, a place that, if entered, offers different sets of rules that do not necessarily apply to the external world. For one, family members are not allowed inside, and clients who visit regularly are nothing but strangers when stumbled into outside the brothel’s doors. Dreamland is a place of endless debt: the women that work there are all in debt to each other and ultimately, to their pimp and manager. Their money is subject to increasing interest rates and is, in a way, what prevents them from leaving this place. The women working at Dreamland are, like in all of Mizoguchi films, real, fleshed-out characters: aging mothers still supporting their grown-up children, devoted wives working tirelessly to pay rent for their unemployed husbands, teenagers running away from home, hoping to make a name for themselves. Their evident differences in age, background and beauty are often subject to fights, acts of betrayal and feelings of hopelessness and despair in the face of a society that treats them purely based on one thing – their bodies. This society, having been driven to the ground by the devastating effects of war, now desperately trying to come back from the dead, has created and consistently reinforced a culture of misogyny, where it is okay for these women to openly admit to themselves ”I’m nothing but an object for sale.”

Everything on display is for sale.

What becomes apparent when watching Street of Shame for the first time is how modern it feels. It never attempts to be anything other a study of oppressed women. Whereas Kurosawa and Ozu were busy making movies steeped in genre (Kurosawa with film noir, and Ozu with classical melodrama), Mizoguchi directed Street of Shame similarly to Rossellini with Rome Open City; the line separating these two films and the reality they present is razor thin. Mizoguchi’s Japan is busy rebuilding itself and its reputation. And reputation goes a long way. Reputation is what leads the son of one of the prostitutes to push her away after years of sacrifice and care. Reputation is also what drives the husband of one prostitute to try and hang himself. The oppression and abuse these women have endured over the years is constantly being swept under the rug in the name of a man’s reputation. Mizoguchi’s watchful eye sees this cruel irony, and lets it patiently unravel. He makes the male characters in Street of Shame stand in for Japan’s patriarchal society: the suffering these women undergo for them is taken for granted, and to them it is never a matter of lack of choice. In their minds, this is the profession these women wanted all along. Thankfully, Mizoguchi unmasks the hidden mechanisms that enable this cruel, endless cycle of oppression. When the father of one of the younger prostitutes, Mickey, announces he’s there to disown her after her shameful conduct, it is revealed that he is one of the brothel’s most frequent customers, known for his preference of younger flesh.

Victims of a power-hungry system.

The cruel twists and revelations in the film are often served as vignettes. There is no real plot to be found, only a sad string of sequences that put the life of each woman on display. One of the more devastating instances occurs when Yasumi, one of the older prostitutes, tries to escape Dreamland in search of happiness in the form of marriage. Gathered outside, some of her friends and colleagues wave at her speeding car with evident envy. Yet, soon enough, Yasumi returns with tears in her eyes. Her marriage was as much of a trap as prostitution, because a woman is not supposed to have dreams and passions; a woman like Yasumi is to serve. At least at Dreamland she gets to charge for the service she provides. It is this realization, of a sealed destiny within the confines of the brothel, that makes Mizoguchi’s film feel timeless. This cast of characters, so vibrantly unique in their own right, are shoved into a corner and told outright: You don’t matter. Whatever change the country is undergoing, they are not part of it.

Mizoguchi’s scarce use of long shots is quite haunting.

The reason movies like Street of Shame are so important is that their vision goes beyond the screen. In fact, Mizoguchi’s final film acted as a further motivator to pass Japan’s anti-prostitution bill in 1957, the year following the film’s release. The Japanese government considered Street of Shame a catalyst in the matter, and as a consequence introduced laws meant to protect sex workers from trafficking, punish third parties involved in the trade and rehabilitate women who chose to evade prostitution by setting up guidance homes in all regions of the country. In such instances, the power of cinema is undeniable, and it seems only fitting for a director of Mizoguchi’s skill and influence to leave this world by inspiring an entire society to strive toward progress. Neorealism, after all, was meant to do just that. Directors like Rossellini and De Sica wanted to inspire audiences to consider the movies they were watching as stark observations of everyday life. All of a sudden, the people they chose to ignore on the street were the same people they paid to watch on the screen.

”You’re bound to lose your virginity, you might as well charge them for it.”