I'm prejudiced against old movies. Even the ones that are hugely influential and have seeped so far into the cultural unconscious that they seem familiar even upon a first viewing have to fight with my instinctive inclination to giggle at the silliness of the acting on display. A friend of mine has a theory that acting, at least in film, wasn't invented until the 1970s, and I tend to agree with her. I can't help but be distracted by wondering how much of the melodramatic vocal tonality and body language is due to the overly formalized acting style of the time and how much of it reflects how people actually acted. I assume that the former trumps the latter, but being continually drawn back to the film as an historical artifact rather than a living work of art is always draws me away from any other themes that a film might be exploring, with the end result that an older film needs to be very, very good for it to resonate with me.
High Noon was supposed to be one of those films. It's widely regarded as one of the best Westerns ever filmed, if not the best, though I'm not sure how anyone could seriously make that latter claim in the years since Unforgiven's release. It held up pretty well to my giggle resistance, largely due to the choice to keep the camera on Gary Cooper for most of the length of the running time, who manages to lend a fair bit of gravitas to a role that sorely needs it.
Cooper plays Marshall Will Kane, an old sheriff who's set to marry and then retire from the lawman business. Just after his wedding, he finds out that an outlaw whom he'd put in jail years before is returning to town, and that several of that outlaw's gang plan on meeting him to help him seek revenege against Kane. After briefly considering leaving town, Kane decides that he can't live with running away from his old duties and returns, assuming that he'll have the aid of the townsfolk whose peace and prosperity he was directly responsible for establishing. Upon his return, he finds that no one wants to help him, and that the residents of town have come to the conclusion that it's indirectly Kane's fault that the gang is coming to town at all. The arc of the narrative mainly consists of Kane attempting and failing to enlist the aid of men whom he had counted as friends, all of whom come up with excuses as to why they won't help him. Some of those excuses are better than others, but to the increasingly desperate Kane, the motivations behind why he's being abandoned become less and less important as the titular confrontation looms nearer.
Cooper does an excellent job with his role, though not all of the other actors in the film managed to create quite such a timeless performance. The amount of laugh-worthy anti-acting was pretty low, though much of that was concentrated in the character of Lloyd Bridges' deputy, who not only overacted in every scene he was in but was also unforutnate enough to be cast to portray an character much younger than he was. It took me a while to figure out that his character was supposed to be very young, and that the comments other characters made about him being brash and impulsive in his youth weren't some kind of weird insult but were instead attempts at conveying an informed attribute.
High Noon must have been exceptional at the time of its release for the realistic way that it protrays violence, particularly in the big shootout which is the climax of the story. In spite of all of the information we've been told about what an amazing sheriff Kane is, he doesn't shoot the guns out of his opponents' hands or draw on them so quickly that they don't have a chance to return fire. Instead, he runs away a lot, makes good use of cover, and relies on tactical awareness much more than a myth-sized ability to fire his pistol. The shootout here isn't anything out of a Bourne film, but grounding it somewhere nearer to reality than contemporary Westerns gives it a weight that intensifies the tension of the sequence and vindicates the anxiety that the film has been building towards.
The overall feel of the film is that it uses the trappings of a Western in order to tell a very different kind of story than most Westerns, that it's more of a morality play (albeit one updated for a post-religious culture) in Western drag than a tale of how the West was won. It deftly employs a standard Western trope, that of an imminent confrontation between law and the arrival of violent chaos, and then fragments that setup to explore what happens to the society which has established itself as civilized when it's suddenly threatened. Kane isn't quite the warrior who's too savage to exist peacefully once his war has been won, but he's close enough to an embodiment of that theme of barbarism versus civilization that the townsfolk are clearly uncomfortable with him when he refuses to leave them. Though Kane is undoubtedly the film's protagonist, he's as much a vehicle for us to see the varying reactions of the townsfolk to impending danger as he is a character for us to sympathize with. This is most clear in the centerpiece of the film, an extended town-wide debate which takes place in a church, in which a number of different responses to Kane's plea for help are trotted out by various social strata of the town, all of them revealing more about the person uttering them than their supposed attitude toward their former protector and the forces of lawlessness he's committed himself to battling.
Kane's final act, after the climax of the film, opened the door to the much less heroic Westerns which would follow High Noon, entire subgenres of work which used that last shot as a stepping board to examine more subtle gradations of human emotion. It's not at all surprising that John Wayne decreed this movie un-American, as it uses what should have been a very cut-and-dried narrative form to suckerpunch audiences into examining assumptions which had been hallowed by decades of traditional Western stories. For that alone, Westerns owe this film a huge debt of gratitude.