HIGH NOON (1952)
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Stanley Kramer was lucky to have secured the services of director Fred Zinnemann for High Noon. Given the film's tight production schedule and a total budget of $750,000, there was no room for extravagance or experimentation. Zinnemann had to memorize every shot and its exact place in the overall picture. As Zinnemann recounted, "Fortunately, from the old days in MGM's Shorts Department, I was used to 'making' the movie in my own head long before the actual shooting." His ability to plan shots prior to shooting saved a great deal of time and money.
Zinnemann and company shot a large part of High Noon on the Columbia "ranch", the company's backlot in Burbank, which was right next door to the Warner Brothers studio. By shooting in Burbank and the Los Angeles area, Zinnemann used the L.A. trademark smog to his advantage. For one thing, it made the sky look blindingly white which was just how Zinnemann wanted it to appear in contrast to Will Kane's black clothes. In preparation for the film's visual look, Zinnemann and photographer Floyd Crosby also studied the Civil War photographs by Mathew Brady. This grainy, flat light approach ran counter to how most Westerns were shot, particularly the sagebrush sagas of John Ford (My Darling Clementine, 1946) and Howard Hawks (Red River, 1948).
Gary Cooper was not the first choice to play Will Kane. In fact, he was much further down on a list that included Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Charlton Heston, and Gregory Peck, who turned it down because he did not think the film could match his earlier Western, The Gunfighter (1950). It was even reported that John Wayne was offered the role, although he also nixed it.
At the time he was offered the lead in High Noon, Gary Cooper's career was in decline and so was his health. He was plagued with stomach ulcers, lower back troubles, and a recurring hip problem that flared up frequently, impairing his walk. His various ailments made film shooting difficult for him, but he once again proved his professionalism by not allowing his physical hardships to stop him from working long, hard hours. Aside from physical problems, his emotional state was not much better. Separated from his wife, and at the end of a passionate affair with actress Patricia Neal, Cooper looked older than his fifty years. His gaunt and haggard appearance worked to his advantage - he required almost no make up for his role of the beleaguered Will Kane. But one of the reasons Cooper took the part was because it represented what his father, a Montana state Supreme Court justice, had taught him: that law enforcement was everybody's job.
Twenty-two year-old novice actress Grace Kelly made her first significant film appearance in High Noon. She disparaged her own performance, feeling that she was too stiff and wooden as Amy Kane. But director Fred Zinnemann thought her inexperience was appropriate for the role that was rather limited in scope. As Zinnemann said, "(Kelly) at the time wasn't equipped to do very much...She was very wooden...which fitted perfectly, and her lack of experience and sort of gauche behavior was to me very touching - to see this prim Easterner in the wilds of the Burbank Columbia backlot - it worked very well."
Rumors began flying as soon as Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly met on the set of High Noon. The two actors were notorious for enjoying romantic liaisons with their co-stars. In public, Cooper stated his admiration for Kelly's acting when he said, "She was very serious about her work...She was trying to learn, you could see that. You can tell if a person really wants to be an actress. She was one of those people you could get that feeling about."
For her part, Kelly was equally complimentary of Cooper. She said in an interview, "He's the one who taught me to relax during a scene and let the camera do some of the work. On the stage you have to emote not only for the front rows, but for the balcony too, and I'm afraid I overdid it. He taught me the camera is always in front row, and how to take it easy..."
During production on High Noon, the House Un-American Activities Committee was creating quite a stir in Hollywood. Thousands of actors, writers, directors, and others in the film industry lost their jobs due to real or imagined affiliations - past or present - with the Communist Party. Screenwriter Carl Foreman was subpoenaed before HUAC during the making of High Noon to answer questions about his own past affiliations with the Party. As was his right, Foreman pleaded the Fifth Amendment. But after he returned to the set of High Noon, Foreman knew his days in Hollywood were numbered. Hedda Hopper and John Wayne both launched public attacks on him in the trades, trying to force him out of the industry. Even Foreman's most loyal supporters like Fred Zinnemann were threatened because of their association with him. Just like in the film, Gary Cooper seemed to be the last man standing in supporting Carl Foreman. But once threats ensued from MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer and the powerful independent producer Walter Wanger, even Cooper had to relent, fearing an end to his acting career. When the actor called Foreman with the news, the writer sympathized. "I know. Nobody can hold up against this...not even you." The pressures eventually became too much for Foreman and he moved to England immediately following the completion of High Noon. He would later reemerge with the script for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), co-written with fellow blacklisted writer Michael Wilson. However, neither of them received screen credit for the Oscar®-winning screenplay. Ironically, Foreman's widow accepted his Academy Award for The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1985, the year after his death.
High Noon was almost the last movie for Fred Zinnemann and his cameraman Floyd Crosby. To capture the shot of the faraway approaching train, they had to place the camera flat between the rails. As Fred and Floyd were lying on the tracks, the train was signaled to start rolling, which it did with white smoke billowing. As the train came closer, the white smoke turned to black. The filmmakers were quite pleased with how the black smoke looked in the camera, not realizing that it was a sure sign that the train engine's brakes were failing. The train crept closer and closer, until Zinnemann and Crosby realized the train was not going to stop. Floyd carefully picked the camera up off the tracks, but the tripod got caught on the rail just before the train threatened to overtake them. The director and cameraman escaped, but the camera was smashed to pieces. Fortunately, the film magazine survived, and the shot was used in the final cut.
By Scott McGee