How 'High Noon' became a showdown between good and evil

High Noon
The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic
By Glenn Frankel Bloomsbury
377 pp. $28

Reviewed by John Domini


High Noon is a movie still ranked among the very best, and - more than that - a ready metaphor for "good and evil in a showdown." Producer Stanley Kramer said he couldn't figure out the secret to his 1952 hit: "I can't tell you why, and that's as honest as I can be." For a fuller answer, best to pick up High Noon by Pulitzer Prize winner Glenn Frankel. I doubt anyone can come closer to the heat of creative ferment.

Frankel's fresh understanding, to be sure, owes a lot to plain old digging, reflected in hundreds of notes and an exhaustive bibliography. A former Washington Post reporter, he found Kramer's confession of helplessness, for instance, in a taped conversation that had languished for decades.

Frankel's grasp of cinema's collaborative effort leads to a juggling act, switching points of view among the film's chief contributors. Screenwriter Carl Foreman emerges as the story's hero, but everyone enjoys sensitive handling while helping build unusual suspense.

The movie started out as "the ugliest duckling of them all . . . shot on a shoestring budget." Its neglect damaged the fruitful partnership of Kramer and Foreman and created risks even for its aging star, Gary Cooper - the first of the major players Frankel examines.

Soon, gloomier business looms - the worst threat to High Noon or any creative fusion. In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) arrives in Los Angeles, intent on rooting out commies in the film industry. Although the Red Scare's trail of betrayal and ruin looks as heartbreaking as ever, the story can't help feeling a tad rehashed. Frankel's chapters on the hearings and their consequences rely on the same intense research as the rest (including material never published before), but they lack the warmth of the biographical passages.

Foreman makes a fascinating case study. Summoned before the committee in the midst of the film shoot, he invites not just pity but also respect. He earns the right to claim, years later, "I became the Gary Cooper character."

Even in rerun, the sheer wickedness of HUAC's witch-hunt generates terrific drama - and offers reassurance. Though Frankel began this sumptuous history long before the latest election, he reminds us that 2016 was far from the first time politicians have trafficked in lies and fear and shows us how, nonetheless, people of integrity came together to do exemplary work.

John Domini's most recent book is "Movieola!" This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.