Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing.
I’ve given that definition about Re-Watchterpiece Theater every single time I’ve written about re-watching a film. 99% of the time, the idea has held true. Give yourself enough time between viewings, and you’re bound to experience some sort of organic, inherent shift in your understanding and opinion of it, even if subtle. That all changed the other day. Allow me to explain.
I first saw High Noon (1952) approximately six years ago. It was part of a fevered effort to watch all of the non-musical films on the AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies list. The truth is that I was very leery about watching it the first time. At that point in my life, the only westerns I had ever seen were John Wayne films and I wasn’t particularly a fan. Still, my list lust had to be sated, so I soldiered forward.
In approximately 85 minutes, I had found my western muse. Quite unexpectedly, I had become an unflinching fan of High Noon, and the amazing quality of the movie even inspired me to check out several other westerns. That there are several other westerns that I love now is a testament to the power of High Noon, which served as the gateway drug to The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Wild Bunch, The Man With No Name trilogy, High Plains Drifter, and every other western starring Clint Eastwood. As I’ve added so many westerns to my appreciation for the genre through the last few years, no other western has topped High Noon in terms of my appreciation.
There are two major aspects you should know about High Noon, and I learned them both about the film the first time I saw it. First and foremost, its wizardry lies in its pacing. Just as The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) uses an actual heartbeat to establish the tone of its finale, High Noon employs clock after clock after clock after clock to pace the tension. If there’s ever a point in the film where you need to know how tense you should be about Frank Miller’s arrival and Marshal Will Kane’s impending doom, just check out a clock and find out how close it is to noon. It’s one of the very best subtle uses of mise en scène ever used. As the march of time pushes Will Kane towards a deadly showdown, the entire town around him completely unravels. He’s left (mostly) helpless, all alone despite an honorable life spent defending the flood of townsfolk who would ultimately betray him when he needed them most.
The town’s betrayal of Will Kane is the second major aspect. It’s well-known amongst cinephiles that the film was allegorical for McCarthyism and the blacklisting of, to quote Wikipedia, “screenwriters, actors, directors, musicians, and other U.S. entertainment professionals who were denied employment in the field because of their political beliefs or associations, real or suspected.” The screenwriter on the film, Carl Foreman, was one of the blacklisted citizens of Hollywood. Like those accused by McCarthy in the early 1950s, Will Kane found danger, looked everywhere for help amongst his peers, and found none. For me, the first time I saw High Noon was a benchmark in my movie-watching existence because it taught me that film can have such powerful and important subtext. Everyone knows that movies can be fun, entertaining, and pack an emotional wallop. But until I was 30 years old, I hadn’t really thought twice about what a filmmaker was really trying to say with their film. High Noon changed all of that, and did so in a highly relevant way for 1952.
Not long after I first saw High Noon, I discovered that John Wayne- the same overzealous asshole who had made me dislike westerns to begin with- absolutely loathed the Gary Cooper movie. He called it “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” Wayne, you see, had been president of the MPA- the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Wayne even went so far as to team up with Howard Hawks to make Rio Bravo (1959), a measured response to High Noon. I thought the whole thing was fascinating, two warring factions of Hollywood playing out their aggressions on the screen. And as far as I was concerned, High Noon was the side of the right and just. But I digress. Let’s save that story for another day.
Let’s get back to the original point of this article- how Re-Watchterpiece Theater failed. Since 2006, I hadn’t seen High Noon again, at least not start-to-finish. Sure, I’d seen a half hour here and there on TV, often while hanging out with friends and family. It was almost always interrupted by me blathering on and on about the unique history and subtext of the film. Last week, I had the opportunity to finally re-watch High Noon (start-to-finish!) on the big screen. And I’ll be damned if I didn’t learn a single thing more about it that I didn’t already know.
Through some goofy twist of fate, the film’s greatness had short-circuited its own re-watchterpiecability (the first and probably last time that word will ever be used). It was so impressive the first time that it had inspired me to learn as much as I possibly could about it, ironically leaving nothing to be discovered on the second full viewing. Not even the fact that the second viewing had happened on the big screen could save High Noon from its imperfect perfection. For one brief, fleeting moment marked by the chimes of a clock greeting the 12:00 hour, High Noon had slain Re-watchterpiece Theater.