In the production notes to High Noon, a remake of the lauded 1952 Gary Cooper Western, Tom Skerritt, who has taken on Cooper’s role of Will Kane, the lone lawman facing down an outlaw gang, is quoted as saying that ”one of the things that attracted me to the role is that I get to play such an emotionally restrained guy. That’s much more challenging than playing someone whose emotions are really out there.”
Yet when I watched a tape of the original Noon, what gave me the greatest surprise was how emotional — how ”out there” — Cooper’s Oscar-winning performance actually was. Perhaps, like me, Skerritt was carrying around in his head the all-purpose image of Cooper that’s taken hold in the popular imagination: the gaunt, chiseled stone face, a stoic deadpan that rendered Cooper the leading-man, romantic-actor equivalent of Buster Keaton.
High Noon in its first incarnation played out in real time: A midday train is bringing to the dusty little town of Hadleyville the gunslinger Frank Miller, whom Sheriff Kane had sent away for a long jail term. Kane has just that morning married a peace-loving Quaker named Amy, played by Grace Kelly with a vibrant sexual glow that belies her character’s primness. Amy has persuaded Will to hang up his badge and leave Hadleyville, but when he hears that Miller will arrive in about an hour and a half to hook up with his old gang and come gunning for revenge, he tells Amy he must stay and face Miller down — for the safety of the town. Amy, refusing to countenance violence, tells Will that if he waits for the noon train, she’ll be on it when it leaves.
Agonized that his marriage may be over before it starts yet stubborn as a true Westerner must be, Will tries frantically to muster a posse to defeat Miller’s crew, but no one has the courage to help him. (The ’50s movie is steeped in the politics of McCarthyism, with Kane the equivalent of a man who refuses to betray his friends but is in turn betrayed by their refusal to stand up to a bully.) Director Fred Zinnemann tried building suspense with shots of clocks ticking the minutes to noon, and, more effectively, Cooper’s face coated in an atypical sheen of sweat: His Kane was truly a fearful, desperate man.
By contrast, Skerritt saunters through the new Noon as if he were still the easygoing, ironic lawman of Picket Fences. Skerritt, who’s also familiar as a TV commercial spokesman, might as well be saying ”Never let ‘em see you sweat.” His bride is played by Susanna Thompson, who is so good as the brittle ex-wife on Once and Again, and who uses that chilliness here to come much closer to the script’s sexless, clueless Amy than Skerritt ever gets to Kane. But if your memory bank contains images of ripe Grace Kelly glowing red-hot through her virginal white wedding dress, Thompson cannot help but seem as cybernetic as the Borg queen she also portrays on Star Trek: Voyager.
Despite the fact that he’s working for commercial-filled TBS, director Rod Hardy retains the hokey real-time gimmick. (Hey, I never said Zinnemann’s Noon was a classic — it was actually an arty oater with middlebrow pretensions.) And in Michael Madsen, Hardy has found a Frank Miller who’s a much meaner reservoir dawg than Ian MacDonald was in the original. High Noon’s major subplot — the lingering wisps of a lusty romance between Kane and a local Mexican woman, played here by Maria Conchita Alonso — is allowed to be a tad more explicit: Jilted by Sheriff Kane, Alonso’s Helen Ramirez beds deputy Harvey Pell (Homicide’s Reed Diamond) in what is, sticking to the film’s chronology, almost a high nooner.
Having been freed from its civics-lesson subtext and enlivened by both a better villain and a more excitingly shot shoot-‘em-up climax, this High Noon could have improved upon the original if its Will and Amy were more passionate — about their beliefs and about their own union. As it is, it’s all too easy to feel like Skerritt’s Kane when he says, in a typically too-contemporary line of dialogue, ”If you think I’m enjoying myself, you’re crazy.” C+