Canyon Passage (1946): Ole Buttermilk Skies

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Portland, Oregon 1856 could lead us to many places but in these circumstances, it guides us to an enterprising mercantile store owner named Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews). Though he’s the main driving force behind the story, there’s little doubt this is a tale of pioneering far grander than a single individual.

As such, Canyon Passage is the epitome of a hidden gem, lined with talents who generally does not garner enough credit today for their many fine attributes. First of all, is Jacques Tourneur the French director who made a name for himself in a career laced with genre pictures and this one is no different, boasting a spectacular visual vibrancy.

The opening is exemplary, showcasing his skills as a master world-shaper, taking a western town that we only spend minutes in and through torrential rain pouring down, streets of mud, and various interiors, he’s already created a space that feels tangible to our eyes.

He continues this yeoman work throughout the story, which is a credit to its hardy terrain. We have sumptuous outdoor panoramas with rolling plains and expansive skies above. Then, there’s the verdant underbrush of the forests captured, the lush greenery, and even the interiors of cabins and shops have a rustic beauty about them that feels real.

Our trifecta of leads all proved substantial stars at one point or another beginning with Dana Andrews, then Susan Hayward, and Brian Donlevy, yet for whatever reason, it seems their names (much like their director) get lost behind a host of far more visible faces.

Nevertheless, they earn their due and in all other regards, Walter Wanger’s production is knee deep with equally memorable supporting players like many of the greatest westerns of the age. Hoagy Carmichael meanders about doing this and that with his mandolin and donkey, singing an occasional song, such as the instantly unforgettable “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” which captures a bit of the folksy milieu wafting over the picture.

Canyon Passage is also ripe with love triangles beginning with Logan and the future wife of his best friend, Lucy Overmire (Hayward) who he has been tasked with bringing home. They share a mutual affection but Logan respects his buddy George Camrose (Donlevy) too much to steal his girl; they’ve been through far too much together for that.

Instead, he sets his eyes on the pretty young woman (Patricia Roc) who was taken in by a genial frontier family headed by Andy Devine and his wife. They would gladly welcome anyone into their fold and it’s no different with Logan as he looks to make strides with Ms. Caroline.

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However, if this was all Canyon Passage was about, it would lack a sizable conflict. But Logan must simultaneously deal with the local instigator of trouble Honey Bragg (Ward Bond as a burly villain) who has previously had more than a few run-ins with Logan and he’s not looking to make nice.

In fact, the whole town congregates in The Golden Nugget saloon after Bragg challenges his adversary to a showdown to have it out once and for all. The full brutality of such a society sets in with the men crowding around ravenously for a good show of pugilism to get their blood stirred up. A hint of lawlessness has been injected into the air.

But George also has demons of his own, namely, a gambling habit, which he can’t break, owing money all across Oregon to the point his friend bales him out only if he promises to quit. Still, the urge for wealth and constant comparisons with Logan’s continual success, make him continually discontent. He goes straight back to the cisterns that prove to be his undoing.

Like some of the best westerns by the likes of Ford or Hawks, this one feels, at times, like it’s about nothing much in particular and yet the paradox is it’s about so much that’s meaningful, speaking to the humanity at large. There is a local house-raising for a young couple just starting out and they marvel at all the folks who come to help them out. Because, for all the charitable neighbors, this is an investment in their own livelihood.

We see crystal clearly. What is going on, in front of our eyes, is the fleshing out and the building up of an entire community. Then, we receive a showcase for men of principle going against a world that seems so violent, brutal, and utterly untamed. Instead of cowering in fear or remaining apathetic, they look to confront it in some way.

However, beyond this, we have another broad conflict that’s age-old. The chafing between those who began with the land — The Native American tribes — and then the white man expanding westward with a belief they deserve a chance at a new life. In the eyes of those who started there, these newcomers are desecrating their home. In the eyes, of the pioneers, they are making it into more of a home.

When human beings wind up in close proximity, with varying viewpoints, beliefs, and practices, there’s bound to be repercussions and there are. Watching Canyon Passage you realize these very things were affecting real people, men and woman, families and the children within them. It feels like a truly eye-opening scenario.

Bloodshed ensues and against such beautiful exteriors, it only makes the scarring of the land and the bodies all the more inescapable. There’s something inside of us saying this is not the way it was meant to be.

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What makes Canyon Passage quite powerful, frankly, is there’s no single point of contention or an individual goal in mind. It’s this all-encompassing drama with grand themes — grandiose in both scope and scenery — that concern a whole host of people trying to make lives in the western territories. You can begin to understand most everyone’s point of view. Amid the destruction and unrest, it’s easy to recognize the problems at hand. Surely, the West was meant to be more than this. Fights and warring, razing and killing.

But the frontier has always been an arena for hardship. Death by any number of ways. It’s the resiliency people lived with that meant something. In Canyon Passage, there are the same kind of folks who don’t go skulking around in their troubles but instead rise up to make the best of the next day to come. One might wager a bet it’s one of the bygone markers of the American spirit. Hopefully, we haven’t lost it all yet. We could probably still use some of that just as we could still use ambition and love, friendship, and fellowship with an underlying empathy for our fellow man.

Only when “The End” flashed upon the screen did I realize, in my former days of channel surfing in vacation hotel rooms, I once caught the tail-end of Canyon Passage. There again was an indelible image I distinctly remember, Hoagy Carmichael ambling along on his donkey, through the forest, knocking back a tune. It made me distinctly mirthful like an old friend just recently discovered again. If this film isn’t considered a classic by now then it should definitely be in the running.

4/5 Stars

Wichita (1955)

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The more and more I get to know Jacques Tourneur the more it seems that he was content in making films on his terms no matter the budget or restrictions. His ambitions were not to win awards or garner acclaim yet he was a master craftsman painting in shadows, intrigue, and vibrant strokes.

Known in his early days for his lucrative partnership with producer Val Lewton on low budget horror movies that still stand the test of time as inspired works, the high watermark of his career is indubitably the noir masterpiece Out of the Past (1947). By the 1950s he had settled into making westerns, swashbucklers, crime pictures, and pretty much anything else handed him.

The striking realization is that he never really moved up the Hollywood totem pole which makes me suspect it was partially by choice. He was content with a certain stratosphere of production and when you watch a picture like Wichita you can understand why.

It takes many of the mythical staples of The West and insets them within the contemporary Hollywood framework that generated a lore of its own.The lineage that gave us a plethora of television classics like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Cheyenne, Bat Masterson, Wanted Dead or Alive, The Big Valley, Wagon Train, Sugarfoot, Have Gun Will Travel, and countless others that I either failed to mention or don’t know.

The tradition runs rich and deep. Where people address a hero like Wyatt Earp by his full name and there’s some sort of knowing comprehension. Where good and evil are unquestionable entities that we recognize outright. Where a final showdown is all but inevitable as is the town’s prettiest girl falling for our hero.

Wichita is such a picture and yet by some method of ingenuity and delight in his craft Tourneur makes it into something worth remembering. Part of that must be attributed to a script by Daniel B. Ullman which manages to have time for a big reversal and some social commentary in what otherwise could have been droll entertainment.

Meanwhile, though Joel McCrea might look a little decrepit and over the hill for such a role especially opposite a beaming Vera Miles, there’s still that same amiability and honesty that he was good for. James Stewart would look much the same opposite Miles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). But like that picture, the themes add a depth of character to the western making it a transcendent medium since it’s as American a genre as they come and it provides the perfect breeding grounds for allegorical tales.

Because before we meet our hero we meet a group of cowboys who are driving their cattle toward the rapidly growing destination of Wichita, Kansas. With the railroad turning it into a pitstop, the city shows no signs of slowing down and turning into a ghost town. Instead it aspires to be the next big Mecca in the Midwest bringing all sorts of people — the Babylon on the Arkansas River without the hanging gardens.

One such traveler rides as a solitary figure toward the cattlemen in one of the film’s most canonical shots and they oblige by offering him a meal. However, two of their band are mighty eager to swipe their visitor’s saddlebags when he beds down for the night.

What follows is a preview of coming attractions and even as Earp (McCrea) goes on ahead to Wichita we know intuitively that there will be another confrontation. In the meantime, he rides into town under the banner reading: “Anything Goes in Wichita” and local floozies waving giddily as they pass in covered wagons.

As best as I can describe it the town is alive. Positively bustling with activity and it makes everything in the frame more interesting with this ever dynamic ambiance playing out in the background. I’d like to think that is what Tourneur is able to offer the material.

While we bide our time we watch Earp looking around for something to invest his talents in. He befriends the towns newsmakers a stodgy old veteran (Wallace Ford) and his ambitious understudy Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen).

Earp also ends up thwarting a bank raid raising the eyebrows of the local big whigs for his prowess with a six-shooter. Sam McCoy (Walter Coy) the man responsible for bringing the railroad to Wichita offers him the job of Marshall which Earp gently refuses on multiple occasions.

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Twice already we have seen him use his gun but he embodies the archetype, an agile marksman who is hesitant to use his firearms and only under extreme provocation. But the final trigger comes when the cowboys from before roll into town with a hearty welcome. However, when their merrymaking devolves into belligerent hooliganism that leaves a young boy as collateral damage, Earp is finally ready to pick up the badge.

It ends up being a battle between the business-minded community members with political clout and a man whose number one priority is public safety. Others like Doc Black (a wily Edgar Buchannan) and even McCoy are willing to make concessions for what is termed progress but Earp once he’s taken his post is a hardliner.

He won’t budge an inch which is an admirable trait even as it doesn’t buy him many supporters. But sometimes that’s what the great men do and it is what few men seem willing to do now. Conceding their popularity for the greater good. However, I can hardly criticize any man for such a stance unless I convict myself too. As McCrea asserts it’s, “Not a question of who’s right but what’s right.” That’s the bottom line and he sticks to it.

In the final shot of Wichita as husband and wife ride off in their carriage together the image is all too familiar evoking for me High Noon (1952) one of the first westerns that truly moved me on a human level. This picture did much of the same though on a lesser more inconsequential scale. It caused me to place a magnifying glass to issues that we still see the U.S. confronted with right at this very moment.

“If men aren’t carrying guns they cannot shoot each other.” This common sense comes straight from the film and yet you can easily see how it becomes clouded with personal ambitions and polarizing politics. There’s no denying that. Sometimes it takes a personal tragedy to shock us into some form of action. The question remains what is the greater good? I feel like it comes into clearer focus when you get hit where you’re the most vulnerable.

4/5 Stars

“Serving God and serving the law are two different things.” ~ Bat Masterson

“To do either one, takes a dedicated man.” ~ Arthur Whiteside

 

 

 

 

Review: Moonrise (1948)

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It’s like being in a long dark tunnel…the way you look and act and talk. ~ Gail Russel as Gilly

From its very foreboding outset, there’s no question that Frank Borzage’s Moonrise could be characterized as film-noir. Everything suggests as much from the scoring to the stylized imagery and even the subject matter. We have hangings, brawls, fistfights, and murder all under 5 minutes of celluloid. But equally important, the film delves into the psychological depths of despair and more than any of Borzage’s films it seems invested in the mental well-being of its characters.

Dan’s personal narrative is brought to us early on. His father was hung for some inexplicable reason. The kids in school brutally tease him about the ignominious shame of his family which he has no control over and all throughout his life thereafter he carries a chip on his shoulder. We don’t quite understand him but at least we begin to empathize. We meet Dan (Dane Clark) again as an adult at a local dance.

That’s where the next chapter in his story begins as he tries to bridle his anger and keep the reins firmly in check. It doesn’t always work so well for him. After all, he is the man with a constant death wish driving cars on wet roads like it’s the Indy 500. He is the man who is prone to strong-arm tactics. He is the man who trusts no one to be his friend and expects very little from others. But he does have one thing going for him.

Her name is Gilly (Gail Russell), she’s the local schoolteacher, and if nothing else her very presence humanizes him. She formerly ran with the local hotshot (Lloyd Bridges) but she has found some quiet decency in Dan and if she sees it, maybe we can see more in him as well. In some ways, he’s still a little boy and she reads him like one of her students with thinly veiled observations. His frumpy Aunt Jessie pins him as a good boy but that doesn’t make up for the absence of his parents or the anger that he still harbors from boyhood.

But a small town setting and a purported crime prove to be an ever-intriguing synthesis of Americana and the ugly underbelly which if it doesn’t rear its head through gossip alone, then murder certainly fits the bill in a pinch. It’s summed up by dances, carnivals, and coon hunts with an undeniable undercurrent of darkness.

As far as I can tell Charles F. Haas had few other feature scripts to his name but his work in Moonrise offers up some interesting figures full of witticism and unique voices that help to differentiate each from the diverse pack.

The bullied mute Henry Morgan is at one time befriended and also berated by Dan. Rex Ingram proves to be a landmark African-American actor for the era, full of a quiet strength and wisdom. As local keeper of the bloodhounds, he addresses his canines as Mr. Dog surmising that everyone is entitled to a certain amount of dignity. Just as importantly, he rightfully asserts that man is a communal being (Man oughta have a woman. Man oughta live with other folks).

The Local Soda Jerk has the jive talk down pat and Lloyd Bridges and Harry Carey Jr. fill in for a couple relatively minor spots. Of course, Ethel Barrymore is in the coveted keynote cameo as Daniel’s  sagely Grandma. But aside from Ingram’s significant turn, Alyn Joslyn is one of the more entertaining characters as the sheriff who waxes philosophical. One of townsfolk even notes as much that he should have been a preacher man instead of a lawman.

Cinematically speaking, Moonrise proves that the finest places to meet your best gal seem to be darkened interiors and if nothing else it’s a feast for the eyes and a treat for the audience. And it’s true that with its quaint country backwoods and swamps, Borzage’s picture shares some of its world with Joseph L. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950). But for Borzage, in particular, this feels very much like a departure which is by no means a bad thing. Here the love story is still present but it seems to ultimately have a different functionality altogether from many of the director’s most remembered entries.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: High Noon (1952)

highnoon1Drums softly beating. A voice mournfully bellowing,”Do not forsake me, oh, my darlin‘.” It can only mean one thing, the beginning of High Noon, a western that has grown near and dear to my heart in the recent years. And yet how can a western of under 90 minutes mesmerize and cause goose bumps to form time after time? That opening ballad sung so wonderfully and folksy by Tex Ritter is one great reason. It’s a mournful dirge of a song which nevertheless draws us into this film, and personally, I cannot help but belt out a few lines now and then (I’m unashamed to say I know the whole song). After all, it’s this song that reflects the story of our main character Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and reiterations of the tune can be heard throughout for the following hour as we all wait for the noon train.

The song makes it clear that Ben Miller is coming after Kane for sending him to prison. He’s got revenge on the mind and three of his buddies, including his brother, are waiting for his arrival, along with everybody else in town. Meanwhile, the Marshall is about to hang up his badge as it were, because he’s gotten hitched to a pretty young quaker (the estimable Grace Kelly), and they look to settle down with a store in some sleepy town. He’s well-deserving of it after all he’s done and the town stands behind him.

But the news of Miller’s return is no way to start the honeymoon. Still the couple sets off, but Kane turns around realizing he cannot run (I do not know what fate awaits me. I only know I must be brave. For I must face a man who hates me, Or lie a coward, a craven coward; Or lie a coward in my grave).

Thihighnoon4s is the backdrop that he’s trying to scrounge up a posse with. Others getting out of town, some telling him he should get out of town too, and a general commotion about what they should do about the whole mess. There are numerous cross sections and enclaves all with different motives and most importantly excuses. They all turn down a chance to help Kane for one reason or another (even his closest friends). It seems so easy to pass judgment, but then again what would we do in such a situation? In fact, it brings to mind the Hollywood Blacklist which this story was supposed to be an allegory for. This is not just some fictionalized parable, it was mirroring real life to some extent.

What really resonates about this film is the resolve of one man, because when it comes down to it, Kane did not need to stay, he did not need to do what he did, but he stood by his guns, literally, when no one else would stand with him. It’s easy to conform, easy to go with the crowd. It takes real courage to walk out on your own — although the Marshall did have a little help. So whether or not John Wayne thought this film was wholly “Un-American” or not, I think I would have to disagree with him on this one. Maybe what Kane has is reluctant courage, and I could see how the Duke would be disgusted by such a “spineless” individual. But for me, he’s all the more relatable played so aptly by Gary Cooper.

highnoon7It continues to amaze me that a film of this length can have so many wonderful characters who leave an indelible mark on the story. Certainly, you have the hero and the villains, but then we have character actors such as Thomas Mitchell, Harry Morgan, and Lon Chaney Jr. playing some of Kane’s buddies. There’s the gang at the bar and the hotel clerk, who are no friends of the Marshall. There’s his former flame Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado) and his hot-headed deputy (Beau Bridges). The rest are filled out by men, woman, children, town drunks, and churchgoers. Zinnemann does a wonderful thing aside from just using the clock as a plot device and tension builder. He also calls back all these many characters as the noon train comes in with smoke billowing black. The audience and all these people know what that shrill whistle means. Things are going down, and Kane is going to face it all alone.

highnoon2The isolation is so wonderfully conveyed by an aerial shot where the camera moves up to show the stoic Marshall standing in the middle of a ghost town. No people around and no one showing their faces. Then of course, when it’s all over, the floodgates open and all the folks rush into the center of town. Fittingly,  Kane drops his tin star in the dirt in disgust as the refrains of Tex Ritter’s ballad continue.

Put High Noon up against other films and it could be criticized as nothing more than a western, but perhaps that’s why I like it. I cannot help but gravitate towards it. In some ways, it reminds me of growing up and it allows me to forget about any sort of deeper meaning for an instant so I can be fully enraptured with this story, this song, and these characters. It’s a worthy incarnation of the mythic west, that also leaves a little space for some humanity.

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.” – Martin Howe (Lon Chaney Jr.)

5/5 Stars

Moonrise (1948)

MoonriseHere is a low budget yet artistic film from Frank Borzage. I will be honest that I had never heard of Borzage before a year or two ago and he seems to have lost some of the respect he had early on in the 20th century. The same can be said for his stars Dane Clark and Gail Russell who are unknowns to most unless you hailed from those times. I was saddened to find Russell struggled with alcoholism which contrasts with the surprisingly hopeful ending of this melodramatic noir.

Ultimately, Danny Hawkins (Clark) was able to let go of all his hatred and accept justice. Instead of throwing away his life he got the girl and came to terms with reality.

Perhaps the most striking moment of this film was the highly stylized and dark opening showing the hanging of Danny’s father and his early childhood afterwards. In only a few minutes Borzage told us so much about Danny. Thus, during the entire films those images stuck with us and we could still feel a sense of empathy for him.

Despite there small parts, I was excited to see Lloyd Bridges, a young Harry Morgan, and Harry Carey Jr. All in all this was an interesting film and it causes me to want to see more from Borzage.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Airplane! (1980)

754a5-airplane2In the wake of Jaws came another film almost just as riveting in its intense thrills and human drama. Let’s hear it for Airplane! Okay, well it may be the farthest thing from a real melodrama, but that does not take away from the good ol’ fashioned fun of it all. It’s quirky. It’s goofy. And it has the prototypical ZAZ humor laden with sight gags and boatloads of puns with an accompanying score courtesy of everyone’s favorite comic composer Elmer Bernstein.

The faux drama stems from former war pilot Ted Striker (Robert Hays), who has an aversion to flying due to his devastating experiences and a drinking problem to boot. Now all he does is drive a taxi, and it has cost him his love, the airline stewardess Elaine (Julie Hagerty), who lost all faith in him because he lost confidence in himself. Things used to be so marvelous when they first met in the throes of romance and yet…

Who am I kidding? This film hardly has any plot, but instead, it’s one big excuse for often childish, sometimes innuendo-filled, off the wall antics. Seriously though, Airplane! rifts off a lot of things from gushy romances, to disaster films, and old Hollywood serials. But this plane is only a vehicle for gags. There’s a whole scene about a little girl who is deathly ill just so Captain Oveur (Peter Graves) can say over the telephone resolutely, “Give me ham on five hold the mayo.”

Then there’s co-pilot Kareem Abdul-Jabbar moonlighting as Roger Murdoch. He eventually breaks out of character following the nagging of a little boy named Joey (You try dragging Walton and Lanier down the court)! Why is he even in this film? We don’t know and it doesn’t matter because it’s hilarious.

There’s a kiss parodied straight out of From Here to Eternity, an appearance by the always loud-mouthed Ethel Merman, and even a jab at incumbent president Ronald Reagan. And of course who else would know how to speak jive with the two African-American passengers but June Cleaver or Barbara Billingsley? I’m not sure which one is funnier.

What stands out most about this film is all of its old vets playing this insanely wacky film straight. From Peter Graves to Leslie Nielsen on the plane, to Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges down in the tower, their performances are priceless.

By the way, what ever happened to that guy in the taxi? If I’m not mistaken the meter’s still running.

4/5 Stars

“We have clearance, Clarence.”
“Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor?”

Airplane! (1980)

15556-airplaneStarring Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, with Kareem Abdul Jabbar, this is a funny if not quirky parody and comedy. The story opens with the break up of a former pilot who is scared of flying, and his flight attendant girlfriend. She leaves on her flight and he also boards unbeknownst to her. In the air many passengers get food poisoning, but it also affects the pilot and co pilot. After a doctor diagnoses everyone, the attendant messages the control tower and is instructed to activate the autopilot. But someone needs to land the plane so the fearful Ted is called upon to face his fear. Despite the anxiety and some engine trouble, his former commanding officer is able to talk him down. After these events, the couple is back together once more. Airplane has memorable lines, sight gags, puns, and a plot that parodies other films. It takes a normally dramatic and serious situation and makes it utterly hilarious. I think it works so well because the gags infiltrate the story in every instance creating this tongue-in-cheek humor.

4/5 Stars

High Noon (1952)

14bd7-high_noon_posterThis may not be the greatest film of all time, but it is certainly one of the greatest westerns gifted to us so generously by Fred Zinnemann. It tells a very simple story, yet it is, in fact, so powerful simply, because of the hero it depicts. In its time it also served as a condemning allegory of the finger pointing going on in Hollywood.

*May Contain Spoilers

The film tells the story of Marshall Will Kane, who is willing to face his foes even when no one else will help him. Gary Cooper plays the newlywed lawman, who must flee town or face the killer coming on the noon train. He resolves to do just that, despite the pleas of his loving wife (Grace Kelly). The sheriff scrambles against the clock to get help. However, no one is brave enough to face the enemy with him. Even with the odds against him, he faces them in a showdown. Cooper is outgunned, but not outmatched — heroically prevailing.

This film is so powerful, because it is full of human emotions, and it feels so real since the events unfold almost in real time. The somber ballad, sung by Tex Ritter, also helps to create the mood right from the opening credits. In fact, I must admit that multiple times I have found myself humming or crooning the words, but then again I suppose it makes sense since the song is woven into the very fabric of the film.

The score by Dimitri Tiomkin utilizes the tune throughout to complement the images of the town. In that respect, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'” is not just a song, but an important piece of this story. It is easy to forget the supporting players since Cooper often steals the show. Nevertheless, there’s Lloyd Bridges, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, Thomas Mitchell, Lon Chaney Jr.,  Harry Morgan, and even a young Lee  Van Cleef. Many have pasts with Kane that we cannot expect to fully know. All we can understand is the here and now that causes a person to weigh their options, and either follow or go against their conscience. Kane and then his bride both did what they thought was right even when others would not follow suit.

It struck me how simple the story is, and yet on the other side, it is a complex allegory that critiques humanity. Will Kane is a man, who helped make the town what it is, but when trouble comes and the odds are bad no one is willing to help him. Besides the obvious positives like a good story and a heroic protagonist, this film stands out because it feels so human. Here we are as an audience watching the events unfold almost minute for minute. Then we see the various town folk and their fear of getting involved, and to make matters worse a lot of them are Kane’s very good friends. It makes us question what we would have done in their position. Because some of them were obviously good people, who were scared to be involved. Of course, during this time McCarthyism was prevalent and it is suggested that this film alluded to that. However, whatever you think it is still unquestionable that High Noon is a powerful film, a love story, and at its simplest a classic western.

5/5 Stars