Standing Tall: Comparing ‘High Noon’ and ‘On The Waterfront’

Published in the North Central Chronicle on Jan. 25, 2008

“I have here in my hand…” said Senator Joseph McCarthy in February 1950, effectively hoodwinking the country into a hysterical anti-Communism era known as the Red Scare. McCarthy claimed the list identified 200 Communists within the American government, so he and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) spearheaded a movement to eradicate Communist spies and sympathizers from the government.

The most infamous consequence of the Red Scare was the blacklisting of workers in the entertainment industry. Ten Hollywood screenwriters and producers refused to admit to HUAC that they were Communists or Communist sympathizers and in doing so were barred indefinitely from working in Hollywood. These “Hollywood Ten,” plus one hundred more working professionals, struggled to find work for many years following their blacklisting.

Loyalties within the industry became fiercely divided, and soon writers and directors directly affected by the blacklist voiced their opinions through their films. The two most notable films that resulted from the blacklisting gave sharply contrasting, yet oddly similar views of the ordeal. These films were High Noon (1952) and On the Waterfront (1954).

Fred Zinnemann’s tense Western High Noon tells the tale of Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper) defending his Kansas town from vindictive criminals hell-bent on killing Kane. It’s a simple task, complicated by the fact that his new wife Amy (Grace Kelly) is a pacifist Quaker trying to talk him out of it. Plus, the deputies who were once loyal to him choose not to fight with him out of fear and cowardice.

Kane tries to rally support from the townsfolk, who cower in the shadows and resent his presence. Amy then threatens to leave him because of her pacifist principles (so much for “‘til death do us part.”) Ultimately Kane decides to take on the bandits alone, despite his wife’s wishes and despite knowing that if he left, the bandits would probably leave as well.

High Noon is the classic American Western. But unlike the traditional Westerns of the time, it takes place in almost real-time, heightening the tension for the viewer as we watch Kane desperately try to defend his town and his pride. Like Rear Window, not much action happens until the final act, when the boiler-pot full of despair and helplessness finally explodes. More importantly, it is an allegory of the fight against blacklisting, which I will discuss shortly

In Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is an ex-prizefighter-turned-longshoreman who works for a gang that controls the New York City waterfronts. Terry inadvertently helps the gang kill a police informer, who happened to be his best friend, and his conscience starts to take a toll.

Terry is indicted by the police but refuses to testify against the gang, fearing deadly retribution. His friend’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and a local priest try to convince him to work against the mob, but it’s not until Terry’s brother Charley, a mobster who is ordered to kill Terry to stop him from testifying, is killed when Terry decides to become an informer. Terry eventually testifies against the mob, breaking the waterfront code of not ratting out one’s friends and earning the scorn of his fellow dock workers.

On the Waterfront won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor for Marlon Brando. His performance is widely regarded as one of the best in history (you might recognize his “I coulda been a contender” speech), while the film itself placed eighth on the American Film Institute’s all-time list.

Another key reason for the film’s greatness is its symbolism: a train whistle blows as Terry “blows the whistle” on the death of his friend; Terry carries a hook on his shoulder after he is beaten up by the mob to signify a Christ-like suffering. The allegorical nature of this film elevates it from a by-the-numbers melodrama to a thoughtful masterpiece.

These films can stand alone as two classic and important American films, but they, as well as a few other films at the time, share a unique purpose in their making. Carl Foreman, the writer of High Noon, was a former Communist who was called before HUAC to identify other Communists in Hollywood. Foreman refused and was blacklisted, so he went into exile in Britain, recognizing a lack of motivation among his colleagues in Hollywood to combat the spread of McCarthyism and to speak up for their blacklisted friends.

With this in mind, the subtext of High Noon becomes clearer: the townsfolk (people in Hollywood) are afraid to support Kane (the blacklisted) when the criminals (McCarthy and HUAC) come to town. You’ll have to watch the film to see what happens, but rest assured, Foreman felt that he would survive the national nightmare, and did: he co-wrote the Academy Award-winning The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) with a fellow blacklisted screenwriter.

On the Waterfront tells the same story through a different lens. Director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg both named names at the HUAC hearings – like Terry did in the film –and their peers condemned them for it. By portraying Terry as the hero when he testifies against the villains in the film, Kazan and Schulberg justify their own real-life actions.

Since these films tell essentially the exact same story, which view is more justified? Both have a strong central character defying the persuasive masses to do what they think is right. Is the man who exposes injustice justified in his revelation, even if it means betraying his friends? Or are the masses, who refuse to help their leader because they don’t agree with him, more justified? It’s the job of the viewer to decide.

Fifty years later, these films are no less relevant today than they were back then. If anything, these films defend the right of art to give voice to a momentarily unpopular opinion that would have otherwise been ignored. They also demonstrate the power film has to launch new ideas into the public consciousness, ready or not. New and unpopular ideas abound in our culture, regardless of how many people vilify them (I’m talking to you, Bill O’Reilly), and it’s important for filmmakers to capture these ideas for humanity’s and history’s sake.

2 responses to “Standing Tall: Comparing ‘High Noon’ and ‘On The Waterfront’”

  1. […] in the 1950s when compared and contrasted with On the Waterfront (which you can read about here). Whether you’re a fan of thrillers, morality tales, or Grace Kelly (who isn’t?), you […]

  2. […] Cobb most iconically featured in 1954’s On the Waterfront and 1957’s 12 Angry Men, two highly regarded and politically aware films that comment on the Red Scare paranoia of 1950s America. According to Victor Navasky’s 1980 […]