Friday Film (85)

I wasn’t planning to write more about what happens — and doesn’t happen — in that musically dubious film classic High Noon; but having found myself thinking about it on several occasions during the last week, I have decided to devote some additional space to it and its composer. (If you missed last Friday’s posting, you’ll find it here.)

First of all, I want to say that, while a score so grotesquely over-unified both in itself and with regard to the film’s opening ‘title song’ provokes in me a sense of aesthetic horror akin to what would be a rugby fan’s reaction to a player who picked up the ball at the start of a game and never, ever put it down again, there are respects in which the film — and even its music — seem to me to deserve genuine praise.

For a start, there’s the fact that the story itself is relatively grown-up for a ‘small town western’ of the early post-war years: the town’s Marshal, discovering that a murderer he helped to jail is coming back with a gang to kill him, turns to the townsfolk for assistance — and finds that literally everyone he asks has something else they’d rather do. The resulting situation — with the Marshal completely alone in the face of an approaching menace — results in several parts of the film lacking all dialogue. Myself, I can’t avoid the thought that this placed a burden on composer Dimitri Tiomkin that, in the event, he was not able to bear (at least, not in the inevitable ‘rushed-to-death’ circumstances of industrial film-score preparation); but there are places where the direction and cinematography are, to a large extent, able to compensate. The high-angle ‘still’ at the top of this posting, for example, comes from a rising crane shot whose function is to establish the Marshal’s isolation — as can be glimpsed at the start of the original cinematic trailer…

Elsewhere, too there are examples of interesting and expressive ‘silent’ frame composition — and, indeed, of juxtaposition: have a look at everything that these two adjacent shots have in common in terms of the visible geometry…

In places, I’m delighted to see that the music does know what it’s doing — such as when the Marshal walks through the church to the sound of a single, unaccompanied musical line

… and when it shows that it knows when to be absent, and when, and how, to enter

— but, elsewhere, we may  just find an extended, messy collision between over-active music and agitated speech … with the eventual unwelcome reappearance of that all-too-familiar material from the opening song

Here’s what’s probably the film’s most famous musical sequence, title song aside. (And if you’re interested in film editing as well as film music, count the cuts that are placed ‘on the beat’…)

And here’s that terrific crane shot I mentioned earlier: yes, I’ve had a clip all along, and I’ve just been saving it up till now. My advice — if you want it — would be that you try not to hear what turns out to be on the soundtrack…

For my final observation, I want to return to the opening sequence we saw last week: there are one or two things about it that have been buzzing around in my head these last several days…

You see, while High Noon was by no means the first movie to show filmed action ‘behind’ the opening credits, there is something unusual, even odd, about what is shown at its start. I’ve never seen this kind of thing written down — and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere I can go to look it up — but my impression is that, c. 1952, ‘opening action behind credits’ was normally of a fairly generalised kind, not too specifically indicative of plot or character. If you want to see a couple of examples in this mould, here’s the opening of Rio Grande (1950)…

… and here’s a rather later example, from The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)…

Compare these with our High Noon opening and observe the differences…

While in all three cases the element of ‘scene setting’ is clear, and the relation of both the location and the depicted action to the succeeding plot is uncomplicated and rapidly confirmed, High Noon is remarkable in presenting significant characters in medium close-up while engaged in plot-related activities that visibly involve actual speaking which we do not hear. I may be wrong, of course — there are untold thousands of films that I have never seen — but to me this feels highly unusual: I genuinely cannot remember anything like this from an earlier date.

Of course, this film does represent a very early stage in Hollywood’s development and exploitation of the profit-maximising, multi-media advertising gimmick that was (and, sadly, still is) the ‘title song’ — so the ‘oddness’ I detect in that opening stretch may simply be the result of director and editor ‘finding their way’ into a new creative technique whose conventions and limits had yet to be established. I myself, however, cannot quite shake the feeling that this scene was originally written and shot to be used in a more straightforward way, and that only at some later stage did the song get plastered over the top of it and the spoken dialogue disappear.

For the rest, if you want to have a look at High Noon as an entire film, there is a treated bootleg version to be found on YouTube: you’ll need to slow it down to 75% and stick pieces of paper over parts of the screen; but it’s all there — intelligent script and unintelligent music included. If you do watch it, note that the dislocating abbreviation of the song’s second phrase — which I discussed last week — actually finds its way into the orchestral score: Tiomkin remains faithful, not to the published song-sheet, but to what was heard at the start of the film. Here’s the youTube version:


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