Sexually and sadistically charged “The Big Combo,” is a paradigm for what can be accomplished with spare change filmmaking. This film, and the earlier work, “Gun Crazy” (1950) are director Joseph H. Lewis’ masterpieces. While on the surface, a straight forward cops and gangster film, Lewis created a world of brutally bold, off beat characters filled with dark shadows and high contrast lighting, courtesy of the brilliance of the master noir cinematographer John Alton (T-Men, He Walked By Night, Raw Deal and The Crooked Way).
Phil Karlson made a string of crime films in the 1950’s that few could equal in volume and quality. One of his earliest and best is 1952’s “Kansas City Confidential,” a hard fisted noir thriller that never lets up in tension for its entire running time. Joe Rolfe (John Payne), is an ex-con, now gone straight, working as a florist delivery driver who is set up to take the fall for a $1.2 million bank robbery. The gang of four split up until the heat is off with plans to meet in Mexico where the money will be divided up. Through sheer perseverance, Rolfe pursues the robbers in order to clear his name; however, but after the death of one of the crooks, shot by the police, he decides to muscle himself in on a share of the money.
The film is shot in a straight forward style with a grittiness and hard hitting violence, rare for its time. It also has the good fortune to have three of the 1950’s nastiest looking criminal character actors, Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef in the kind of roles they do best. Heading up the gang is Preston Foster, who plays Tim Foster, an ex-cop, gone bad, contemptuous that after twenty years on the force, his pension is so small. His plan included having his three heavies wear face masks at all times when they meet obscuring their identities from one another, lessening the chances one will squeal on the other if they should get caught by the law. Pete Harris (Jack Elam) is first, a nervous slimy looking gun happy thug. Next is borderline psychotic, the stone faced Boyd Kane (Neville Brand) and the last member is Tony Romano portrayed by the snake like Lee Van Cleef. It’s a rogue’s gallery of menacing ugliness.
The heist goes off as planned except that the cops pick up Rolfe as part of the gang. The truck used by the robbers was an exact replicate of Rolfe’s flower delivery truck and the police quickly come to the conclusion he was in on the job. He is eventually proven innocent however, not before one sadistic cop applies third degree tactics for three straight days in an effort to beat the “truth” out of him. Rolfe is enraged that he has been unknowingly used as a sap in the robbery. He sets out to find the criminals and seek revenge. He finds them in Mexico and assumes the identity of one of Pete Harris, after he is shot dead by Mexican police. With other gang members unaware Harris is dead, Rolfe manages to works his way into the gang posing as the dead gang member. However, it becomes complicated with the arrival of the gang leader, along with a woman, Helen (Coleen Gray), with who Rolfe begins a relationship. Helen, it turns out, is the gang leader’s daughter.
“Kansas City Confidential” was one of the most brutal films to come out of the U.S. at the time and not surprisingly met with some censorship problems. It also met with wicked condemnation from critics including The New York Times’ Bosley Crowthers whose review consisted of nothing but complaining about the seedy characters and the violence. Crowthers also found it extremely hard to swallow that there could ever be a police officer who would be so brutally sadistic in attempting to coerce a confession out of a suspect. “There is an obvious and sickening implication,” he writes,” that the Kansas City police are not only rough when they capture a suspect, but they exercise a wicked ‘third degree.’ There is one character in this little run-down, supposedly a plainclothes cop, who is as nasty and sadistic in behavior as the hero or any of the thugs. This, of course, does not lend a climate of hope or moral uplift to the film.”
The “one character” who is “supposedly a plainclothes cop” is no doubt a police officer. Mr. Crowthers inability to admit that this type of behavior sometimes exist is extraordinarily quaint.
John Payne who transitioned himself, career wise, from Mr. Nice Guy on screen played a similar role the following year in “99 River Street,” and again in “Hell’s Island,” two other edgy Karlson crime films and suitable follow ups to this film.
Phil Karlson made his way up from Poverty Row where he worked on the cheapest of low budget fare like “The Shanghi Cobra” and “Dark Alibi,” two Charlie Chan mysteries, and the Bowery Boys epics “Live Wires” and “Bowery Bombshell.” He was just moving into his golden age period with a series of films in the 1950’s that would cement his reputation as a fixture of classic low budget crime films. His works during this period included, “Scandal Sheet,” “99 River Street,” “Tight Spot,” “Five Against the House,” “The Phenix City Story” and “The Brothers Rico.” He would also direct the two part TV premiere episodes, later combined and released in movie theaters, called “The Scarface Mob” from the TV show, “The Untouchables.”
Karlson’s later work would vary in quality ranging from the soap opera like “The Young Doctors” with an eclectic cast that included Dick Clark and Aline McMahon, an Elvis Presley remake of “Kid Galahad,” two Matt Helm films, “The Silencers” and “The Wrecking Crew” featuring Dean Martin, the odd ball creepy horror fest about a young boy and his pet rat, “Ben” (sequel to Willard) and the red neck law and order anthem of the 1970’s, “Walking Tall.”
“This is just a dirty little town in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important.”– The Judge
First a confession! Dave over at the excellent Goodfella’s Movie Blog is in the middle of a year-by-year countdown of the best movie of each year. If you have yet to visit his site please do, you won’t be sorry. Now that’s not the confession, so what is, you ask? Well, in my comments at Dave’s blog for the 1952 best film selection, I stated that I was not a big fan of Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon”; subsequently I did not include it in my own list of favorite films for that year. Recently, TCM ran the film again, and unlike the many times it has been aired before, I did not ignore, but decided to revisit it for the first time in many years. So here is my big confession, truth be told, I was wrong, “High Noon” is one of the great films of 1952 and one of the great westerns of all time! Now this won’t come as a shock to many of you who even without my proclamation already knew “High Noon” was a great movie. Frankly, I am just catching up.
Now that I got that weight off my chest, I can move on…
John Wayne proclaimed his dislike for this movie, seeing it as a parable for the blacklisting and anti-communist furor that was taking hold in the early 1950’s. He found it disgraceful that Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) tosses his badge into the dirt at the end of the film. Seven years later, Wayne and Howard Hawks would made “Rio Bravo” as a response to the radical “High Noon.” As late as 1971, Wayne, in a Playboy magazine interview, called “High Noon”, “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” If Wayne disliked what the film stood for, Hawks abhorred it, insulting his sense of professionalism. He therefore made a film where the sheriff refuses help from the town’s citizens, instead accepting help from only other “outsiders” like the young gunslinger and the town drunk. Whereas, Will Kane, in “High Noon”, was an accepted member of the town’s social circle with friends. John T. Chance, in “Rio Bravo” separates himself from the town, he is a professional lawman, an outsider and not part of the town’s citizenship.
Ironically, over the years, people and even countries, from both sides of the political spectrum have come to find their own personal values in this film. The former Soviet Union accused the film of being “a glorification of the individual.” Pro-McCarthyites saw the film as communist propaganda and anti-American. Yet President Ronald Reagan loved the film for it lead character’s “strong sense of and dedication to duty and law.” Both Presidents Eisenhower and Clinton loved the movie. Clinton ran the film no less than 17 times while in office! He even recommended it to then incoming President Bush. So how can one film be interpreted and satisfying on both sides of the political fence? Possibly, because, no matter where you stand politically, the film has come to symbolize the courage and perseverance an individual needs during hard and difficult times. Here was one man who stood up for what he believed in, despite the abandonment, the lack of conviction and courage from the community he helped build and protect. Perhaps the Soviet Union was right, “High Noon” is the glorification of the individual, how American!
Even before the film was completed, staunch conservatives were attacking it. The film was made during the height of the anti-communist witch-hunts. The House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) was finding communist everywhere including in your toaster! Hollywood was under siege, forced by Congress to rid itself of any writer, actor, director who even smelled of leftist leanings. Socially conscience filmmakers were driven out of the country, Jules Dassin, Joseph Losey to name two, while others were put in jail (the Hollywood 10). Still, more lost their livelihood and had to retreat to theater or get out of the business all together. Screenwriter Carl Forman, a known left-winger, was eventually fired by producer Stanley Kramer who was under pressure to do so. There is plenty of irony when you consider that star Gary Cooper was conservative, as was composer Dimitri Tiomkin, both card-carrying members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an anti-communist group that worked with the HUAC in “cleaning up” Hollywood. Additionally, Tex Ritter who sang the title song shared similar sentiments. Lloyd Bridges and cinematographer Floyd Crosby (father of rock singer David Crosby) were “gray listed” for working in the film. producer Stanley Kramer and director Fred Zinnemann had liberal views and while not blacklisted were considered sympathizers.
The plot is simple, three men ride into the town of Hadleyville, one is Ben Miller, brother of recently released ex-convict Frank Miller, who is arriving on the noon train. Five years ago, Marshal Will Kane sent Miller to prison. Originally, Miller was sentenced to death until the courts changed his sentence to life in prison. Eventually he was released after serving only five years. At the time of his sentencing Miller swore vengeance and now he has come back to collect. This same day, Will Kane is retiring as Marshal and marrying his young sweetheart Amy (Grace Kelly). Right after the ceremony, word arrives that Miller is out of prison and coming to town, to kill Kane. His neighbors tell him it is best if he and his wife leave and disappear. They hustle the couple quickly out of town; however, once on the trail Kane has second thoughts. His wife tells him it is crazy to return, Kane says he has never run from anyone before; he has to go back. When he seeks help from the town people, they refuse. Some resented Kane’s tactics while he was Marshal. Others say since Will is no longer Marshal, why should they risk their lives. Some thought life was better years ago when Frank Miller was here and the town was wide open. Kane’s Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) quits, blaming Will for not speaking up for him so he could inherit the Marshal’s job upon his retirement. Even the judge who sentenced Miller is packing and leaving town, urging Kane to reconsider and leave too. “The man is crazy”, he says.
Approximately 1 hour and 11 minutes into the film, director Zinnemann and his editors, create a mosaic of tension, and a class in film editing. It starts with Kane sitting at his desk writing out his last will and testament, Dimitri Tiomkin’s music begins a tense pounding. Kane looks up at the clock, in extreme close up we see the swinging of the pendulum, the camera moves upward toward the hands of the clock, which reads 11:58. We cut to the outlaws waiting at the train station, then to a low angle shot of the tracks. Next, we see the interior of the church, close-ups of the solemn parishioners. Zinnemann cuts to the saloon, its customers. Back to the pendulum swinging, Will Kane at his desk, a long shot of the exterior of the town, cut to another angle of the town. Back to the railroad tracks, the killers waiting. By this point, the pace of the cuts have accelerated. Zinnemann cuts to a close up of the previous Marshal sitting in his chair, a friend cowering in his home, a close-up of Helen (Katy Jurado) the saloon owner, and then a close up of Amy. Back to the swinging pendulum, and then the clock, as it is about to strike noon. Quick cuts to the killers, Amy and then, the sudden sound of the train’s whistle. It’s high noon. The camera is back on the tracks and far off we see the smoke puffing from the train engine, the music stops, the quietness is startling; we are back looking at Kane.
Kane comes outside on to the street, he sees Amy and Helen on a buckboard riding toward the train station. Zinnemann now gives us a shot the Marshal in close up. As he looks around Zinnemann’s camera begins to pull back. A crane shot, the camera moves back and up high over the entire town. The streets are empty except for the Marshal.
In the final sequence, we see Kane marching toward his confrontation with the band of four who are walking toward him from the other end of town. The gun battle ends as we expect with Kane the victor but only after he gets some unexpected help from his Quaker wife, who came back from the train when she heard the first gunshots, and shoots one of the outlaws in the back just as he was about to kill Will.
The town’s citizens come out of hiding surrounding Kane and his wife. He looks at them in disgust, takes off his badge and tosses it into the dirt. The Marshal and his wife climb up on the buckboard and ride off.
“High Noon” is less than 90 minutes long and takes place in almost real time starting with the three men riding into town and the wedding of Kane and his young bride. Time is a recurring motif in the film. We constantly have shot of clocks, men looking at watches as the minutes tick away toward the arrival of the noon train and Frank Miller. The film is unconventional in many ways. Unlike most westerns, there is little action here, except for a fight between Kane and his former deputy Harvey and the climatic ending. At one point, the Marshal openly admits to Harvey that he is afraid. There is also no talk of the west being the opening of a new frontier or the beginning of a new community, themes common at the time to western film mythology. “High Noon” is nothing a typical western is suppose to be, it is the antithesis of John Ford’s more romanticized version of west. No wonder The Duke hated it.
Additionally, much was made at the time of the age difference between Cooper, who was fifty-one, and looked a lot older (he was ill), and the young and beautiful Grace Kelly who was about twenty-three.
Cooper gives an impressive performance as Kane. Looking visually worried, sweat on his face, bound by a sense of honor, he finds himself standing alone amongst the town people he swore to protect. Like John Wayne, Gary Cooper is one of cinema’s iconic western heroes, having appeared in “The Virginia”, “The Plainsman”, “The Westerner”, “Vera Cruz” and “Man of the West” among others.
“High Noon” is one of the most beautifully framed and photographed films, brilliantly shot with deep rich blacks. I was truly impressed by the framing of many of the images that could have easily been plucked from the film and work elegantly as black and white still photographs. The man responsible was Floyd Crosby, who surprisingly did not even receive a nomination for Best B&W Cinematography that year. The music by Dimitri Tiomkin has become as iconic as Cooper’s image walking down the empty streets of the town. The haunting title song with the word’s “do not forsake me oh my darling”, a constant reminder that Kane has been abandoned by everyone. Tiomkin by the way would score Hawks “Rio Bravo.” The film also has some great character actors including Lee Van Cleef as one of the killer’s, Lon Chaney Jr. as the former sheriff, Harry Morgan as a so called friend of Kane’s, Katy Jurado as the saloon owner and former lover to both Will Kane and Frank Miller. Most recently, she had hooked up with the young immature deputy played by Lloyd Bridges. Other well known charcter actors include Thomas Mitchell, Jack Elam Otto Kruger and Harry Morgan.
The film’s political overtones are still there, a reminder of uglier times. Though they have faded from memory of some, younger viewers may even be unaware of any political overtones; just read the comments on IMDB. Still the film resonates with many in the audience today. The politics of prisoners receiving early releases, their sentences being reduced is as timely today with audiences as it is portrayed in the film. Note the discussion about this topic in the church when Will seeks help from the churchgoers. One of the town people speak out saying Miller’s release from prison is not their fight, it is the responsibility of those northern politicians, who released him from prison. In the final analysis, “High Noon” does not fit snugly into any one philosophy. It does not take a straight liberal or a conservative stance. Viewers looking for a particular ideology that fits neatly into their vision will be disappointed. Politically, there is no comfort food here such as conservatives find when they watch FOX news or liberals find watching MSNBC.