23 May 2014

High Noon: One Shot for a Shot

While there are many relationships that carry more weight throughout Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), the one that sets all events into motion is the one between Will Kane and Frank Miller.  While most of the main events of this relationship take place before the film starts -- including Miller’s arrest, threat of revenge upon Kane, and subsequent pardons -- it is the outlaw’s imminent arrival to Hadleyville that eventually brings the two men together by the film’s end.  By the time Kane and Miller share a shot -- it’s worth noting that the characters only have one scene and three shots together –- the nature of their relationship is that of enemies.  Miller is returning to Hadleyville to kill Kane for sending him to prison five years earlier and Kane is staying in town to finish his last piece of business as marshal.

The relationship is very combative, as the single scene involving the men is the final shoot-out/showdown of the film.

This entire essay deals with this one shot.  Who knew that'd be even possible, right?
Although the relationship between Kane and Miller is mentioned multiple times throughout the film, Kane and Miller have limited time together on-screen.  As such, it is important to choose a shot that best represents their shared animosity.  The shot this essay will focus on is after the Miller gang has come to Hadleyville and three of the gang members have been killed.  Miller takes Amy hostage in the marshal’s office and walks onto the main street, ready for his face-to-face with Kane (1:22:46−1:22:49).  Though brief, this single shot is very strong and effective in its conveyance of the antagonistic feelings Kane and Miller have for one another.

The camera is over Kane’s left shoulder as he looks out a broken window toward the marshal’s office.  Kane is the dominant figure in
Dressed up like a million dollar trouper....
the shot, occupying the whole right half of the frame.  We can’t see his face, so we’re left to figure out what he might be feeling -- fear, worry, nothing -- as Miller exit the office with Amy.  Interestingly, it is Kane who wears the tradition bad guy black hat.  In fact, Kane’s wardrobe is dominated in black while Miller is in mostly lighter hues.  Since this shot is the first to feature the two, we get the first opportunity to truly notice it and perhaps realize that High Noon really isn’t a typical western.

On the left side of the frame, a large portion of the window is broken out and cracks spider-web away from the missing piece.  Since the broken window and Kane both share the foreground space we can associate the window with Kane and his feelings about his situation.  If he had run from trouble earlier in the film, he’d be a coward and his honor would have been broken.  And staying in town meant the possible end of his marriage and even death -- two other forms of a man being broken.  The window also coincides with Kane’s injury.  Not only has Kane been hurt by the return of Miller, the town is suffering as well.  At this moment it’s only damage to property, yet who knows what the future repercussions could be.

How narrow is this pic?
In the dead center of the frame is the door to the marshal’s office and the only movement in the shot -- when Miller exits with Amy as his hostage.  Amy, in her white bridal gown, is the innocent in this showdown -- yes, she kills a man to save her husband, but the implication of her purity is still there.  And given that Amy wasn’t even in Hadleyville when Miller was arrested, Miller taking her hostage is all the more appalling.

Also in the middle of the frame, right below Miller and Amy, is Kane’s gun.  It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary -- he’s had it at the ready throughout the showdown -- except for the fact that it is pointing at Miller (through Amy) where Kane will later shoot the outlaw.

A final but no less important aspect of the shot is the distance shown between Kane and Miller.  Starting from Kane’s perspective, the men are separated by a wall, a boardwalk, a street, and another boardwalk.  Since the camera isn’t employing any extreme long- or wide-angle lens, we experience the physical distance and visual distance the same -- perhaps 30 to 40 feet.  These two are as far apart from each other physically as they are ideological.  

Worth noting is that Miller and his actions are only referenced to until he walks off the noon train, about 73 minutes into the film.  Because he’s kept in the background of the shot and can’t be seen clearly, it lends to the mythical proportions the town has built him up to.  His distance from Kane allows him to remain an enigma to us despite his importance to the story.

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