The bit in HIGH NOON that always impresses me the most is outlaw Frank Miller’s empty chair.
Of course, the real-time approach to story is fascinating and very novel, and leads directly to the omnipresent clock shots, each more ominous than the last. Dimitri Tiomkin’s ballad started a (somewhat regrettable) trend, but still sounds fresh, with its unusual frog-burp rhythm. The cinematography, pasting bleached-out skies behind flat-lit action, influenced by Mathew Brady’s period photos, violated the traditional Hollywood aesthetic and opened up new possibilities. Cooper’s age works to the film’s advantage, Lon Chaney Jnr gets one of his rare decent roles, Grace Kelly is radiant in her second role (a disciple of Flaherty, Zinnemann realized he could use her inexperience to illuminate the character).
But I’m obsessed with that chair.
First time out, the chair is mentioned — “That’s the chair Frank Miller sat in when he was sentenced!” Second time, during the final ticking-clock montage which revisits every character we’ve met as they await the stroke of noon, Zinnemann tracks in on the empty chair. This isn’t exploring space, roving POV, following movement or storytelling, so it must be the fifth kind of camera movement motivation: psychological. This is where we track in on a character as they think deep thoughts or feel a surge of emotion, and the movement makes us sense the thought/emotion building within them. The difference here is, the man who sat in the chair and felt the emotion did it months before the movie began. He’s not there anymore. But, like the spectres in THE SHINING, he’s left a trace of himself, and that’s what Zinnemann is filming. He’s tracking backwards in time, like Ophuls or Tarkovsky or Sokhurov, the only difference being that the temporal movement doesn’t reveal itself visually, only by mental impression.
Zinnemann’s fellow Viennese, Von Sternberg, wrote of his desire to photograph an idea — Zinnemann, it seems to me, has done this. Although I think the shot was probably a huge influence on Spielberg, who likes tracking in on objects to imbue them with significance and make us consider their narrative import, I think F.Z.’s shot goes markedly deeper, creating a sense of brooding lust for vengeance out of nothing more than empty air and a piece of furniture designed to receive the buttocks.
I haven’t tried this myself, but I suspect that if you watch this scene wearing the polarising glasses used to make the phantoms visible in William Castle’s 13 GHOSTS, you would get surprising results.
Film criticism, which used to see Peckinpah and Leone as the Men who Killed the Western (with realism, parodic exaggeration, and the destruction of moral certainties), now seems to have turned the clock back to put the blame on HIGH NOON and the psychological western. Suddenly there was liberal angst in the West, neurosis and concern about whether people are truly good, and that is seen as the first nail in the coffin of a genre built on certain shared assumptions. Maybe that’s why Hawks reacted so badly — he sensed the writing was on the wall. In many ways, HIGH NOON does seem to prefigure the decline of the genre — we have Gary Cooper looking old, the small community is no longer a source of final virtue and courage, and something strange and disturbing has happened to the style…
Leone quoted shots from HIGH NOON throughout his career, as Sir Christopher Professor Frayling would tell you, as well as borrowing Lee Van Cleef, one of the villain’s henchmen (as Peckinpah borrowed Katy Jurado). The musical fob watch in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is just an excuse to re-stage the above musical build-up three times in one movie. And of course ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST opens with a ten-minute compression of Zinnemann’s whole show. If Leone had fulfilled his dream of casting Eastwood, Wallach and Van Cleef as the three killers waiting for the train, Van Cleef’s appearance would have been a double joke.
To Leone, HIGH NOON seems to have been just a good western to swipe from, like YELLOW SKY (watch the ending of that one and HIGH NOON with the opening of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY!), not some departure from the norm. But Zinnemann is using the visual language of film noir — sweaty, intense close-ups, looming into a wide lens, porous, scowling, faces crowded together — in a western. If the climax of ACT OF VIOLENCE (face-off, with long walk, at a railway station) resembles a western duel in negative — which it does, because I just said so — then HIGH NOON is a film noir in negative, the sky a bleached-out Moby Dick white. And as we know from THE SHINING, some things are scarier in the bright light.
So what this ultimately means is that HIGH NOON is the source for a good 75% of Leone’s overall visual approach… so maybe Zinnemann DID kill the western, or at least supply the weapon that fired the shot.