In Other Words

High Noon: The Hol­ly­wood Black­list and the Mak­ing of an Amer­i­can Clas­sic

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - by Glenn Frankel

High Noon: The Hol­ly­wood Black­list and the Mak­ing of an Amer­i­can Clas­sic by Glenn Frankel, Blooms­bury, 379 pages

High Noon is ar­guably the first Amer­i­can Western of the sound era in which the hero is scared and asks for help. He doesn’t get it.

The movie the­mat­i­cally par­al­lels the real-life story of High Noon’s screen­writer, Carl Fore­man, whose past par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Com­mu­nist Party made him one of the guilty-by-sus­pi­cion dur­ing the Red Scare of the 1950s, ac­cord­ing to Glenn Frankel’s High Noon: The Hol­ly­wood Black­list and the Mak­ing of an Amer­i­can Clas­sic. Fore­man’s friends turned against him, Hol­ly­wood black­listed him, and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment put pres­sure on him to name names. But Fore­man was a man who re­fused to give any moral ground and paid a price for his courage.

Frankel’s some­times un­even ac­count of the events lead­ing up to the mak­ing of the iconic 1952 Western — in which Gary Cooper plays a law­man who must stand alone against a quar­tet of killers to save his com­mu­nity when his friends and col­leagues won’t lend a hand — is at its best when it fo­cuses on Fore­man, the son of Rus­sian Jewish immigrants who some­how strad­dled the pro­le­tar­ian world of the Com­mu­nist Party and the com­mer­cial, star-stud­ded world of Hol­ly­wood. He could not tol­er­ate in­jus­tice or be­trayal, and as he wrote High Noon for a small com­pany of creative minds try­ing to ful­fill the last as­sign­ment on an old con­tract be­fore mov­ing on to big­ger and bet­ter things, the story of his own search for so­lace and sup­port after he was ac­cused of be­ing un-Amer­i­can wove its way into his screen­play. High Noon is the story of the black­list.

The picture was shot by direc­tor Fred Zin­ne­mann in about a month on a bud­get that would barely sus­tain a de­cent Ran­dolph Scott oater. To the sur­prise of al­most ev­ery­one associated with it, High Noon be­came a peren­nial Amer­i­can clas­sic. Peo­ple im­me­di­ately re­sponded to the story of one man, Mar­shal Will Kane, who main­tains his in­tegrity and self-re­spect by pro­tect­ing his town, even if his towns­peo­ple don’t de­serve him.

The big­gest prob­lem with Frankel’s book is that it de­liv­ers ex­actly what it prom­ises: a history of the black­list, which slows down the nar­ra­tive to the point that you may for­get Frankel is writ­ing about High Noon. He also over­pop­u­lates his story, de­vot­ing nu­mer­ous pages to per­son­al­i­ties who had noth­ing — or nearly noth­ing — to do with the pro­duc­tion of the film. In his ef­fort to re­cap­ture the suc­cess of his ex­cel­lent 2013 book, The Searchers: The Mak­ing of an Amer­i­can Clas­sic (Blooms­bury), Frankel takes the reader off-track too of­ten. In that case, he had a real-life story of a white woman ab­ducted by Co­manches to weave into a his­tor­i­cal fab­ric that con­nected the real West with the reel West. Here, he’s left to re­trace known ter­ri­tory, cov­ered bet­ter by other writers, re­gard­ing the black­list and the var­i­ous play­ers who in­hab­ited it.

But once he does get to the ac­tual pro­duc­tion of the movie, around the mid­way point of the book, the re­sults are in­trigu­ing. Ev­ery­thing sour about the film seemed to turn into good luck. An ag­ing Cooper, his ca­reer and mar­riage shot, his body full of pain, didn’t even have to try to act the part of a played-out law­man mus­ter­ing up the courage to walk down yet another dusty street for one more show­down. Los Angeles’ smog worked to cin­e­matog­ra­pher Floyd Crosby’s ad­van­tage, as it made the char­ac­ters ap­pear as if they were in a blurry his­toric news­reel. Pro­ducer Stan­ley Kramer was pre­oc­cu­pied with another project, which turned out to be a re­lief, as the rest of the crew felt a free­ing sense of cre­ativ­ity in his ab­sence. An em­bat­tled Fore­man, find­ing him­self black­listed as the pro­duc­tion played out, im­bued the screen­play with his own per­sonal pain and un­cer­tainty. And hir­ing former cow­boy star Tex Rit­ter to sing the film’s the­matic bal­lad, “Do Not For­sake Me, My Dar­lin’,” was bril­liant — “the only ver­sion of the ti­tle song that ever rang true,” as one ob­server put it.

Frankel some­times lapses into hack­neyed phrases — as when he writes that one House Un-Amer­i­can Ac­tiv­i­ties Com­mit­tee (HUAC) in­for­mant “gushed names like a newly drilled oil well,” for ex­am­ple — but he does a fine job of ex­plain­ing how all the dis­parate per­son­al­i­ties within the pro­duc­tion com­pany worked to­gether to cre­ate a clas­sic piece of Amer­i­can pop cul­ture. He also makes it clear that the now-fa­mous shots of clocks tick­ing away through­out the film had al­ways been in the orig­i­nal screen­play, and were not added later to in­crease the ten­sion, as the myth goes. He as­tutely notes the picture’s place in the de­vel­op­ment of the so-called “adult Western” cy­cle of the early 1950s — “a genre at­tempt­ing to find it­self,” ac­cord­ing to film his­to­rian Michael Selig. Frankel paints nu­anced por­traits of Fore­man, Kramer, Zin­ne­mann, Cooper, and film edi­tor Elmo Wil­liams. He even gives shad­ing to the likes of Rit­ter, ac­tress Grace Kelly (who may or may not have been in­volved in an af­fair with Cooper dur­ing the shoot­ing of the picture), and sup­port­ing ac­tor Lloyd Bridges.

In the end, Frankel’s homage to High Noon re­mains an un­of­fi­cial bi­og­ra­phy of Fore­man, who sur­vived the black­list with­out nam­ing names but lost his wife and ca­reer mo­men­tum in the process. “I dis­cov­ered that I could be scared and still come through a sit­u­a­tion,” Fore­man said late in his life. “I ac­tu­ally was the kind of per­son I thought I was.” And his en­dur­ing creation — Will Kane — is the sort of per­son ev­ery­one wants to be. — Robert Nott

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