Double Feature

Time Crisis November 24, 2020  

  

On High Noon and Broken Lance

him by the train to help him do the honors. If he times it right, he will be in Hadleyville by noon. 

 

High Noon begins at 10:40 a.m. and concludes a little after the clock strikes the title's 12. It’s a thriller that unfolds in, or has the appearance of unfolding in, real time. The 

gimmick makes its pulse pound louder. Panic creeps in like rainwater slipping through the cracks of a damaged roof as the feature unravels; plenty is done to try to stop a collapse, but there’s a good chance efforts to prevent one could prove useless if a wrong move is made. Most people in the High Noon — especially Amy — advise the soon-to-retire Kane to simply try to get as far away from town as he can. But he doesn’t like the sound of deferring his troubles. "They’re making me run,” he says, dismayed. So he decides to stick around, trying for the next hour or so in the film to implore the town’s residents to create something of a safety net for him in anticipation of what is more than likely coming.

 

There’s a particularly absorbing subplot in High Noon involving Helen (Katy Jurado, doing the film’s second-best work), the owner of Hadleyville's favorite bar and an old flame of Kane’s, and her new boyfriend Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), a deputy marshal angry with our hero for not helping him out with his career as much as he believes he should have. It's another thing to worry about on an already thoroughly tense morning. The subplot is absorbing mostly because of Helen, who could have her own movie. 

Tired of her life in Hadleyville — "I always hated being the only Mexican woman in this town," she at one point confesses to Amy — she's preparing to leave, start afresh somewhere else. Jurado's performance is terrific: she plays a woman too aware of her worth to waste it away with conviction.

 

Considered one of the best Westerns ever made, High Noon 

is more an efficient, tautly directed Western than an outrightly ascendant one. It engages you, but you don’t sense the very form of the genre being pushed, perfected. And it’s rather temperately shot until the end of the film, when the photography and editing sync up cleverly to capture Kane’s Miller-is-almost-here worry with particular staccato. A new stylistic leaf is turned when, at the beginning of the last act of the movie, there’s a brilliant little stretch where a ticking clock concurs with the score. The camera rhythmically boomerangs to and from the faces of the leading characters, who are all so evidently frantic about Miller’s imminent entrance that you can feel their blood glaciating. The moment is a micro-summary of how the emotions run in this movie as a whole — they're forever fraught, and never stop escalating. Though the prologue, which wordlessly establishes what Miller and his gang are up to, with only Tex Ritter’s minimalist, groveling title song backing the action, does share this stretch's fleeting intensity. We don’t quite know what we’re seeing in the moment. Instead, we’re made to feel it. 

 

High Noon’s secondary achievements — the ones which don’t necessarily have to do with the quality of the film itself — are, I think, what have given it such weight in hindsight, even if the film is unequivocally a very good Western. It functions unofficially as a tour d’horizon of the long career of Cooper, whose performance so wonderfully epitomizes his beloved, reticent-tough Cooperness that of course he won an Oscar. It’s an Academy Award offered like a thank-you note. And, not especially subtly (it pissed off Cooper’s far-right-leaning friend John Wayne, for instance), the movie acts as a useful allegory for the mania undergirding the increasing trend of anti-communist blacklisting in the American entertainment industry and society at large at the time. When people offer the tired adage that movies are reflections of the eras during which they were made, High Noon is an almost too-note-perfect example. It’s a feature more historically significant than it is a superlative example of genre filmmaking, but it still captivates. What a stressful morning.

Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Gary Cooper, and Grace Kelly in a promotional photo for High Noon.

about 30 years younger than him, do not get to bask in the glow of their new marriage for very long. After saying I do at the beginning of High Noon (1952), they receive some special day-ruining news. Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a brutish outlaw whom Kane put behind bars a few years ago, has been released from jail. Though a hunger for vengeance on Miller’s part is more inferred than explicitly confirmed to him and the community, the news brings immense worry to Kane and his new wife. History has shown that Miller is not the type to forgive and forget. He, in contrast, is the type to think about how the first thing he would like to do as a free man is travel to Hadleyville to kill the man he sees as responsible for wasting so many of his years, and get his gang to meet

W

ill Kane (Gary Cooper), the weather-beaten marshal of the arid Southern town Hadleyville, and Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), a rather prissy quaker

Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Gary Cooper, and Grace Kelly in a promotional photo for "High Noon."

B

roken Lance (1954) has the right framework to be a great family soap opera with a Western edge, but it has little to it besides its framework. It’s an inert drama conspicuously straining to will greatness

into existence with nothing to finally show for it except the strain. Screenwriter Richard Murphy, adapting Jermone Weidman’s 1941 novel I’ll Never Go There Any More, has an interesting conceit to work with but does little to enliven it. Broken Lance is a King Lear-ish story about a ranch-owning patriarch (Spencer Tracy) who treats all his sons (Richard Widmark, Hugh O’Brian, and Earl Holliman) from his late first wife like shit as he fawns over his youngest (Richard Wagner), who was birthed by his Native-American second spouse who simply goes by Señora (Jurado). Murphy’s writing is inanimate; it’s like he figured that as long as the foundation was there and as long as it was strong enough, the actors would build the property that would make his product really worth something. He should have only counted on Tracy: he’s so vigorously gruff you almost expect him to start laughing — he seems to be having the time of his life. He can make the movie feel alive; it certainly wouldn’t have a heartbeat without him. Tracy is fun to watch. You don't think to get annoyed that this is more than likely a phoned-in performance.

 

All the characterizations in Broken Lance are gossamer-thin. Aside from Tracy, the actors add no desperately-needed charisma to them. This isn’t a surprise for the charismaless Wagner, who has never acted very well but nevertheless gets an extortionate amount of screen time, or O’Brian and Holliman — they’re nobodies we see a lot of but who are not much more than set decoration. (I’d say they too were charismaless, but they also don’t have anything to do.) But it is for Widmark, who can be depended on to bring an oily kind of charm to any movie he’s in, and for Jurado, who is magnetic even when she isn’t given very much to do — which, when she was working in the states (she made a name for herself in the Mexican film industry before crossing over) was often. 

 

Broken Lance is the apotheosis of Jurado being misused in Hollywood. Frequently relegated to stereotype-seeped roles during her time there, Broken Lance is perhaps the most egregious example. She’s wearing redface (her countenance is painted a color I’m not sure exists outside of a Crayola plant) and gets to do little aside from loyally standing by her man and exclaiming “my husband!” when something unideal happens. Bafflingly, Jurado was nominated for the first and last time for an Oscar — the first Mexican actress to achieve such a feat. It’s a bit perplexing that her work in Broken Lance was recognized with the honor while her rather incendiary work in High Noon (which at least was taken notice of by the Hollywood Foreign Press) was not. Seen here is a strangled performance. It’s like Jurado is being prevented from doing anything compelling. She’s turned into a prop. She's an emblem of noble suffering. 

 

Broken Lance dulls two of its most potentially interesting touchpoints. A major part of the narrative involves Tracy going after the owners of a copper mine, who because of a creek leak are obliquely responsible for poisoning 40 of his cattle. But the film treats it as yet another operatic development — another thing to go wrong for this dysfunctional clan. It doesn't really grapple with what is superficially, and intriguingly, touched on: how capitalistic avarice has affected natural resources over time. By having both Jurado and Wagner don redface, any cursory remark about how racism is one thing fueling the family’s tense 

dynamic is cheapened. Broken Lance wants to be a kind of epic — it yearns to be an expansive, blue-ribbon Western about a family's decades-long breaking. It touches on recognizable “big themes,” and seems to want to be pat on the back for those invocations. But Broken Lance is so tackily made that its quest for acclaim quickly, and clearly, looks to us to be a Sisyphean pursuit. Questing for greatness can be treacherous; no one involved with the movie sufficiently prepared for the journey.

 

High NoonA-

Broken Lance: C