Gary Cooper is, very simply, the MAN, the HERO, the long, lanky embodiment of the quotation (from whom I cannot remember): “Courage is the quietest of virtues; heroism nearly silent.” If no other western could ever have been made, High Noon would have been enough. Though I didn’t discover it until I was a teenager, it was made the year I was born and so, in a sense, has been with me all my life.
Cooper’s Marshal Will Kane is never simply stoic. In fact, even though his is as quiet a manner as we see (the classics are ALWAYS in the present tense!) in vintage cinema, he still comes across as a man of passion with values, with honor, with a love for his town and his woman but with at least a smidgen left of the old rowdy who cleaned up the streets and once took to his bosom the dark haired, black-eyed Helen Ramirez (the great Katy Jurado), who represents his past. It is a past with its share of recklessness but also with a foundation of loyalty and courage. Will’s deputy, Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), is the new generation, brash, verbose and without integrity. The camera angles let us know that his and Will’s fight in the barn is remnant of animal behavior. The lovely and fair-skinned newlywed, Amy, (Grace Kelly) as the pacifist Quaker Mrs. Kane, is, of course, the ideal (who better to play it). the future, the Beauty standing against the Beast of the Old West, utterly ignorant of what it took for Will to become the man he is.
And no one’s face…NO ONE’S but Coop’s, with his two-by-four neck and backbone back holding it as if on a pedestal: the countenance of time, western time, gunman time, lawman time, servant leader time, could be the face of Will Kane. Only Helen and one other knew what would have to unfold in that town; she’d been with the bad guy (Frank Miller) and she’d been with good guy (Will). The fact that she is now with the young guy (Harvey) is her own shame but still she knows the dance that has to be, how the clock that we see again and again will dictate the deadly choreography of the day. She’d seen it before and she will not watch again. Will’s past exits in a wagon, slowly, with remorse for what might have been, a face meeting a face. The only other one to understand the drama is one who is just as sensitive to time as Will is. Lon Chaney, Jr. is the former marshal, sitting in a rocker watching his own time run out. He’s wondering what it was all about, was it worth it at all, but he knows who Will Kane is and what Will Kane must do.
And the characters, beautifully brushstroked onto the canvas by director Fred Zinneman, form a kind of conspiracy of betrayal, some sympathetic, but all unwilling or unable to stand with the lone hero. Each man, each person watches their own clock, contemplates their own fear, seeks help, and at some point finds himself alone, with decisions to make and action to take.
Something in Will (given to us only by his eyes– Carl Foreman’s screenplay is poignant because of what is NOT expressed verbally) wrestles with his moral duty as opposed on the screen by his last chance for a different (eastern?) life. Will knows what he must do but he still wants his future; he still wants some of the original promise of the west, of farmland and family as opposed to saloon fights and jail cells. So, in the relentless pounding of his heart he cries out: “Do not forsake me oh my darlin’.” Tex Ritter tells the story; Coop, in his humility and devotion makes the marshal at once a solitary figure as well as Everyman, a trick few stars of stage and screen could ever pull off. That’s because Gary Cooper is, very simply, the Man, the nearly silent Hero.