Category: Once Upon A Time In The West

Inventory: Dark Side Of The West: 17 Truly Grim Westerns

1. High Noon (1952)
Westerns are almost inherently grim: Traditionally, the quintessentially American genre would have us believe that the country was wrested from the wild by a few unrelentingly strong, stubborn, self-sufficient men bravely facing incredible odds and probable death. Still, Westerns tend to be about heroes, and heroes usually win. Which makes stark, morally muddy features like High Noon stand out. Gary Cooper won an Oscar for his portrayal of a weary-looking Old West marshal who, literally minutes after marrying Grace Kelly and hanging up his badge, learns that a killer he put in jail has been released and will be back in town for revenge in less than 90 minutes via the noon train. Operating in real time, Cooper re-dons his badge and scours the town, trying to assemble a posse to deal with the killer and his band, but all his friends and neighbors turn their backs on him, out of apathy, cowardice, denial, naïve hope that the problem will just go away, or even ambition for Cooper’s job. As his hopes for help disappear one by one, Cooper looks increasingly strained and exhausted, and becomes more and more of a Christ figure, abandoned by his disciples and desperately wanting someone to tell him this cup will pass from him, yet holding to the courage of his convictions. In the end, Cooper dutifully faces the problem and triumphs, in a manner of speaking—he’s alive, but his faith in humanity, virtually all his friends, and his belief in the things he spent his life fighting for are irrevocably gone. High Noon isn’t about Western heroism, it’s about surviving utter betrayal and moving on.

Originally published on avclub.com Sept. 3, 2007 as part of a group-written Inventory feature; I wrote the sections on High Noon, Once Upon A Time In The West, The Wild Bunch, High Plains Drifter, and Dead Man. Read the complete article.

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