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When Art Imitates Life

By: Evan Peter Smith
April 30, 2018

ecades later, as he looked back upon the most highly regarded film of his career, Hollywood producer Stanley Kramer was at a loss for what made it so successful. “I can’t tell you why,” he recalled, “and that’s as honest as I can be.”

The film, High Noon, was a low-budget Western shot on a rushed schedule in just a few weeks in the summer of 1951, starring a washed-up actor making a fraction of his normal wage. Kramer and his fellow producers saw it as merely an afterthought—a means of filling out the tail-end of a contractual obligation. That High Noon would go on to become a critically-acclaimed box office smash, earning four academy awards, including a best actor nod for its aging star Gary Cooper, came as quite a surprise. The film is now widely considered one of the greatest works of Hollywood’s golden age, ranking alongside Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz and Singing in the Rain.

What made this cheap rush-job of a movie so successful? It’s a question Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and former-Washington Post reporter Glen Frankel examines with page-turning enthusiasm in his new book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. Much of the book is focused on the film’s conception and production, which makes for a surprisingly engaging tale about a ragtag group of outsiders who came together to create one of the greatest films of all time…and then quickly disbanded, mired in bitter disputes over who was most responsible for the film’s brilliance.

“There are widely conflicting claims over who deserves credit for the film’s powerful storytelling, the stark visual beauty, the suspenseful use of real time, the evocative music, and the superb acting,” Frankel writes. “All of those conflicts were rubbed more raw by the toxic politics of the blacklist era.”

Frankel contends that that paranoid, fearful, duplicitous era, in which Hollywood fell under a shade of suspicion, made the film what it is—quite literally. First conceived in World War II's aftermath, the film’s writer Carl Foreman had initially dreamed up a tale of a lawman and the citizens of a town called Hadleyville standing together against a gang of violent criminals. Inspired by the newly formed United Nations, this first version of the film dripped with lessons about the need for international law and order in the face of aggression.

But by the time Foreman put pen to paper, the optimism in the immediate aftermath of the war had evaporated, replaced with a chilly unease and creeping paranoia. The Cold War changed Foreman’s outlook just as it changed America. We became a nation of darting eyes and tense grips, Frankel writes, constantly on the lookout for the enemy within. By 1951, the House Committee on Un-American Activities had ridden into town to hold hearing into the alleged Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry. It was not the first time HUAC had poked around Hollywood—the committee first held hearings there in 1947—but it marked the beginning of an inquisition with real teeth, as hundreds of actors, screenwriters, directors and film workers were called in to testify—to name names—or risk losing their livelihoods.

Foreman, who had briefly dabbled in Communism before WWII but quickly turned away from it, was in a tough spot. Called to testify before HUAC, he faced a grueling choice: either sell out his peers or lose the career he’d been working his entire life to achieve. This painful dilemma was exacerbated by the isolation Foreman encountered, as nearly all his friends and co-workers shunned him.

But that isolation also sparked a creative impulse. While considering what to do, Foreman began to rethink his earlier version of High Noon. He returned to the pivotal final scene—in which a lawman and his town come together to confront the criminals—and made a key change. The lawman hero would now confront the criminals alone, Foreman decided, just as he himself would confront HUAC alone. “The marshal was now Foreman himself,” Frankel argues, “the gunmen coming to kill him were the members of HUAC, and the hypocritical and cowardly citizens of Hadleyville were the denizens of Hollywood who stood by passively or betrayed him as the forces of repression bore down.”

In this reimagined version, the heart of the film boiled down to a simple but devastating choice: fight or flight—the same choice Foreman himself faced.

“As I was writing the screenplay, it became insane, because life was mirroring art and art was mirroring life,” Foreman would later recall. “It was all happening at the same time. I became that guy. I became the Gary Cooper character.”

Frankel successfully outlines how Foreman’s decision to address his own specific moral dilemma is what makes High Noon one of the greatest allegories in cinema history, a classic good-versus-evil tale into which each new generation reads its own politics, values, and moral reasoning. At the time of its release, many audiences saw right through the film’s Western façade and noted the allegorical scaffolding within (particularly right-wing actor John Wayne, who called the film “the most un-American thing I’ve seen in my whole life”), but decades later, as the anti-blacklist trimmings have faded from memory, what remains is a clean vessel that can hold any iteration of that classic human story: good versus evil, strength versus cowardice, danger versus ease.

“When faced with what they perceive to be an existential threat to their security, Western democracies have often responded by repressing human rights with alarming energy and self-righteous rhetoric,” Frankel concludes. “High Noon asks the question that history demands of each of us: if we were confronted with the same terrible choice that these people faced—in this case, between betraying our principles or losing our livelihoods—what would we do?”