There are a number of talking heads and sometimes lengthy clips from this hour-long documentary on the making of -- and meanings behind -- the 1951 Western "High Noon." Roughly the first half deals with the elements of the film itself, details that show up on screen and might be overlooked without being pointed out.
I'll give an example of what I mean. Given the assumption that you've seen the feature film, you know that Gary Cooper is the town Marshal under a lot of stress who goes from place to place looking for deputies to support him in a gun fight. Nobody volunteers. Some, who have already committed themselves, back out because they're afraid. Cooper's Quaker wife deserts him.
One of the people whose support he seeks is his aged mentor, Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney listens sympathetically to Cooper's plea and gently refuses it, claiming that his gun hand is no good because of arthritis and "busted knuckles." The scene takes place about half way through the feature film. It will leave most viewers in doubt about whether Chaney is truly crippled or is in fact backing away from a confrontation and using a physical excuse. The narration, read by Frank Langella, flips us back to the opening scenes when Cooper and his wife are hurrying to leave town. We see that Chaney's refusal is grounded in his physical disability because he's shown absent-mindedly rubbing his knuckles in pain.
The second half of the documentary deals with the plot's political relevance and the careers of some of the people behind it. It was widely seen in 1951 as a comment on the McCarthy and HUAC assaults on communists, including the domestic variety who had belong to the party in the 1930s -- or who had known someone who knew someone who might have belonged.
The film was evidently never intended as anything more than a naturalistic Western. Cooper, near the end, lowers his head and weeps because he believes his death is imminent. (Imagine a typical Western hero in the role, say John Wayne.) The film's writer, Carl Foreman, however, watched his head roll and was forced to move to England to find work. The political pressure from the anti-communists was objected to by the film's star, Cooper, who was a rock-ribbed Republican. Cooper felt that a man deserved a chance to work, regardless of his political position.
Anyway the conclusion seems to be that the witch hunts of the early 1950s were not just unnecessary but destructive to individuals and to the nation as a whole. Bill Clinton adds a few comments on the movie's theme of individual dignity, which will probably rouse his detractors from their doze. (Reagan's favorite movie was "Rambo.") The witch hunts are a stain on our history. So says the film and, for what it's worth, I agree. There are times when we seem perched on the precipice of yet another wave of mass paranoia.
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