Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.
Cultural Vegetable of the Week: High Noon (dir. Fred Zinnemann; 1952)
Vegetable Equivalent: Any vegetable that must be eaten on its own
Nutritional Value: How to diagnose your friends and enemies during a crisis
Recommended Serving Size: At home in one sitting after a tough day at your job
“If you don’t know, I can’t tell you.” – Oft-repeated phrase in High Noon
This movie is a political litmus test. Leftists initially lauded the film as an allegory of the cowardly HUAC proceedings. In this reading, Will Kane (Gary Cooper) represents the one brave man willing to stand up to the communist witch-hunt committee. But the film has been equally praised by conservatives. The movie privileges law, order, and private property and condemns the citizens for not being willing to take a stand against evil or taking true stock of what their inaction will cost them.
The film argues that rhetorical persuasion won’t do any good if trouble’s already coming. By then, it’s too late for words. When people ask why, they get the simple response that no amount of words would ever convince them. You either know it or you don’t. This is a particularly interesting view of crisis situations. According to this logic, the most important decisions have been made during prosperous times. If you wait until a disaster threatens to make a decision, you’ve already chosen poorly.
But there’s something else the movie won’t tell, something no one dares say out loud: that Will Kane hasn’t been too good of a sheriff lately.
Remember that Kane’s last name is a homophone of Cain, the man who according to the Bible introduced murder into the world. Cain received a brand from God for his sin and was banished to walk the earth. It’s no accident that character after character refers to Will by his last name. His justice is one based on capital punishment. By taking on the burden of administering justice, Will expiates the city’s evil, leaving the town with quiet streets and family-suitable neighborhoods.
In short, Kane is a conflicted figure. He fights for good, but his position in the community is always tenuous. The movie gives us signs that he’s been slipping lately.
First, there’s his marriage to the Quaker, Amy (Grace Kelly). How could a professional lawman ever think it was a good idea to marry a pacifist? The implicit answer is that Will is a pacifist at heart. He recognizes the brutal nature of his work and wants a reprieve.
Second, there’s his failure to train a replacement. Lloyd Bridges gives a terrific performance as the adolescent-minded Harvey Pell, Kane’s second in command. While Harvey aims to walk in Kane’s footsteps, he’s too immature and seems driven by power and glamour rather than a devotion to law and order. Kane apparently hasn’t taken the time to notice that Harvey is conspiring with his old flame Helen Ramirez. Neither does he seem to feel responsible for training such a derelict assistant, one that isn’t ready to take the position from him when he retires or dies. Kane feels that Harvey betrayed him, but Kane is to blame for not better tending his legacy. He couldn’t be sheriff forever. Why didn’t he groom a better successor?
Third, there’s Kane’s dalliance with the former girlfriend of a convicted felon. Helen (Katy Jurado) is perhaps the shrewdest person in the film. She knows the people around her, often better than they know themselves. She is attractive and honest. But she also consorted with a known felon. This could not have helped Kane’s respectability in the town.
Fourth, and perhaps most profoundly, there’s Kane’s decision not to attend church very often, the one place that inculcates the virtues his profession rests upon. It is here that Kane is most an outsider. He has to stop an in-progress service to request help. His closest friend is inside the church, yet Kane finds out he doesn’t know the man at all. As a result, Kane finds no help at the one place he would expect it most. His arguments and those of his supporters won’t do any good, because the time for such persuasion should have been happening in services like that one over the past three or four years.
In a late scene, Kane walks across a back stretch of road and runs into some kids. Three of the kids are chasing another boy. They all have guns and yell “Bang!” at each other. The separated boy hears the cry, “You’re dead, Kane!” The boys then look up and freeze when they see Kane before quickly running away. When the children have internalized a particular viewpoint, the larger cultural debate is already over. The movie’s central tragedy is not that Kane can’t convince anyone to come help him. It’s that he has to discover — much to his own chagrin — that everyone has already decided not to help him.
All this is not to obviate the townspeople of responsibility. They’ll have to clean up the bodies Will and Amy have killed.
But this film is poignant because Kane’s recent poor performance deserves a lion’s share of the blame. And if you didn’t know that, I don’t know what else I can tell you.