Encroaching, inevitable evil with a score to settle is surprisingly untouched in the spaghetti western strain. We often follow characters who are down and devilish as soon as the opening credits roll. For grudges, or at the very least, strong grudges embedded into the story, we must turn to the 1950s, and embrace Hollywood with open arms. High Noon depends entirely on the bone of contention found at its core between a sheriff and outlaw. It is the classic scenario, with all the setpieces and gun-toting bravado expected of the genre. The determined sheriff, an unmovable object set on defending the townsfolk he shepherds, butting heads with an old enemy.
If it weren’t for western staples and director Fred Zinnemann leading the charge, High Noon would be something of a lost cause. While it has an interesting story at its heart, he is not entirely sure how to tell it. This is a problem Zinnemann would be inflicted by for years to come. His story within A Man for All Seasons suffers many of the same drawbacks as High Noon. Interesting characters and a good story are mired by Zinnemann not knowing what to do with them. Gary Cooper and company are certainly well placed in this terror-gripped western town, but their impact is questionable as they go about their usual humdrum lifestyle, waiting for the inevitable villain to trundle on in.
But the villain of the piece is of little impact, or at least, his presence isn’t. What the real impact of this role has is on the town itself and how their lives are changed. Hadleyville is a small town, and the ripples of rage and conflict flow through it with rapid, unequivocal impact. It is more about a man seeing which friends he can rely on during dire times than it is about the gunfight that threatens to blow the town away. Cooper staggers through the buildings that make up this dusty little alcove of American dreams, in search of allies he will never get. It is not because they do not care for the safety of the town or its people, but because they fear for their own. They are scared, and nowhere is that clearer than with Judge Percy Mettrick, a man so fearful he flees the town for his own safety. Rather than the collective good he could bring against the man he charged and sent to prison, he is careful and frightened of the backlash he has caused in his position of power.
Power dynamics are not played with enough to warrant Zinnemann’s thematic approach, but they do offer up intricate moments of brilliance. They are few and far between, though, and considering the short running time, it is worrying to see how little story is unfolded and clarified. Cooper serves as a messenger, running between townsfolk and asking for their help. That, in effect, is all he is there to do, and he doesn’t get round to offering much more than that. Still, it is a fine piece of the Hollywood westerns, and one of the few rewarding examples of the sheriff not only playing by the rules but using those rules to muster up the courage and support necessary to face off against an enemy he put away years before. High Noon is worth it just to experience what could have been truly, truly great.