High Noon: Framing Time

There is quite some controversy surrounding the inspiration for the many clocks that permeate Fred Zinnemann’s Western classic, High Noon (1952). The origin of these clocks, which accurately count down the minutes until the arrival of the anticipated villain Frank Miller on the noon train, have been claimed by a scattering of people involved in the production, making for a messy dissection of where this inspired storytelling device came from. Were the unrelenting hands of the clocks first conceived by the film’s writer, Carl Foreman, conscious of how critical it would be to create a sense of Marshal Will Kane’s impending doom? Or perhaps they were invented by famous Hollywood producer Stanley Kramer, who insisted in an unpublished 1973 interview that he alone saved High Noon from disaster by ingeniously adding the many insert shots of various clocks to build tension in a final edit of the film. However, Kramer’s story is directly refuted by the film’s editor, Elmo Williams, who, in 1978, protested that Kramer never once had a hand in the editing of the film and then expanded his story even further in 2000, adding on that he personally went out and shot the inserts needed to create the core tension-building mechanism that is central to High Noon’s success.

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High Noon. Dir. Fred Zinnemann.

Kramer and Williams’ frankly egotistical bickering about whose privilege it is to claim ownership to the creation of High Noon’s most effective storytelling device is rather transparent. Anyone who has watched the film can clearly see that the many clocks featured throughout are not an afterthought made by an editor haphazardly inserting various shots of different clocks into the picture, but that the film is very much built around this conception. The clocks in High Noon are more often prominently placed in the backgrounds of shots rather than cut to with a close-up in the editing. Characters are staged in such a way to draw the audience’s attention to the clocks, and such thought is put into their placement that each scene consistently reflects the current time in the narrative. The importance of time and the usage of clocks was always a critical aspect of Foreman’s script, and Zinnemann was attentive to this, having to constantly update the clocks in the rooms to reflect the scene’s current time, no matter how many takes there were or what scene was being shot. In Glenn Frankel’s book, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic (2017), he clears up this debate by settling where each party had their involvement in the creation of High Noon’s famous ticking clock plot:

“Both Williams and Kramer’s conflicting versions of the rescuing of High Noon from creative oblivion deeply outraged Fred Zinneman and Carl Foreman. Both men insisted that the clocks had always been a part of the original script — which adhered faithfully to Carl’s real-time concept of driving forward the narrative. Indeed, there are fourteen specific references to clocks and time in Carl’s script, plus four other times when characters look at their pocket watches. Fred added even more shots, as reflected in his handwritten notes on the film set. What Williams did create was four more quick shots of clocks and pendulums in dramatic montage of people and scenes at the moment when the whistle blows announcing the arrival of the noon train.”

In total, there are twenty-eight instances where the face of a clock is clearly shown, reflecting the time in a scene and reminding the audience of how closely high noon approaches. As reflected in the script, there are also four instances where a character checks their pocket watch. These instances do not denote the time as other instances of clocks do, but they serve as an additional reminder to the importance of time in High Noon’s narrative. In this same manner, the film’s title theme by composer Dimitri Tiomkin also echoes the importance of time in its repeated usage within the film. In fact, the first mention of time doesn’t come from a clock, but in the song’s lyrics. High Noon opens with three gruff outlaws (one being a silent and first-time role for legendary Western actor Lee Van Cleef) gathering underneath a tree on the outskirts of town, heading towards Hadleyville to wait for their leader’s arrival on the noon train. While the trio assemble, the credits roll over the screen and “The Ballad of High Noon” begins to play. The song’s lyrics, written by Ned Washington, foretell of the film’s conflict, which continually resurface throughout the film at various low points in Kane’s quest to assemble a force against Miller to emphasize the agonizing struggle he is enduring. The lyrics “The noonday train will bring Frank Miller” and “Look at that big hand move along, Nearin’ high noon” both establish the importance of time in the film and the ticking clock to which the narrative is building towards, all before even a word of dialogue can be spoken.

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The first clock seen in High Noon, looming above everyone in the frame.

After Tex Ritter’s performance of the ominous serenade fades, and the three men have turned all the heads of the town with their imposing parade through the streets, we are taken from their menacing perspective into the office of our heroic lawman in the midst of his intimate wedding ceremony before he relinquishes his title for good. The framing of the shot sees that all eyes are directed at Amy, Kane’s soon to be wife; and why shouldn’t they be? It is her day after all. What’s peculiar about it, though, is how much extra space there is above all the characters’ heads, and that’s because the other important figure in the frame is the large clock in the upper left-hand corner. The clock reads nearly 10:35, establishing both the setting of the film and the remaining time until Frank Miller’s arrival: a measly hour and a half. Quickly after that there is another clock seen in the barbershop as we are shown more of the townspeople’s reaction to the arrival of Miller’s gang. This clock also reads just before 10:35. This repetition of establishing time is used throughout the film as a constant reminder of time as a factor within the plot. By keeping time continually in the viewer’s mind, the pressure of Kane’s situation always remains at a constant boil, and each loss becomes graver and more dire. And again, another clock is seen behind the train station master, who receives an urgent telegram noting Miller’s arrival and quickly rushes to Kane to inform him.

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High Noon. Dir. Fred Zinnemann.

The next clock seen is the most important one of the film: the one hanging above Kane’s desk. At first, it’s partially obscured, appearing without a face over the shoulder of Kane while he reluctantly removes his tin star, the pendulum swinging with malignant force. Every clock in the film, barring those that rest within the pockets of their owners, bares the important feature of a prominent pendulum. Even the tiny glass display that sits atop the dresser in the hotel room of Katy Jurado’s Mexican proprietor contains a small, but nevertheless intimidating, swinging second counter. The importance of this artistic choice applies both literally and metaphorically. The physical representation of the pendulums helps to further emphasize the passing time, each swing being another second lost. The constant motion of the pendulums also helps to draw the audience’s attention towards the clocks more often, as moving objects are more likely to attract than stationary ones. Symbolically, the pendulums also act as a sort of encroaching reaper, signifying death constantly on the heels of Kane as he frantically scours the town for any and all help. The pendulum’s swings begin to feel more like the axe of an executioner, or the scythe of Death himself, as the minutes creep slowly towards the final hour.

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A close up of Kane’s clock with the maliciously swinging pendulum.

The station master bolts to Kane’s office, interrupting the happy ceremony and alerting him of Miller’s vengeful return. Kane looks up at his menacing clock, swinging with fervor and now reading 10:40. This is the first of many cutaways to clocks throughout High Noon, which continue to emphasize the cruciality of time by isolating the clock as the sole subject of the frame. The townsfolk manage to push Kane and Amy out of town for fear of their own safety, but they only make it to the outskirts before Kane’s moral conscience nags him into turning around to stand against Miller. He carefully checks the pocket watch which has prominently stood out as a feature of his wardrobe, the silver chain starkly contrasting the black vest it resides in. As noted above, the role of pocket watches in the film don’t indicate the current time as other clocks do. Instead, the multiple instances where characters check their pocket watch serve to further increase the tension, showing how conscious they are of the dwindling time that remains. At one point, Kane checks his pocket watch again just moments after having already looked at a clock, almost in disbelief of how little time he has left. Though the pocket watches don’t convey the exact time to the audience, what they do convey is the more important sentiment of the characters’ anguish when they reluctantly check the time, praying that somehow the hands of fate have ceased their obstinate march towards high noon.

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Kane checks his pocket watch before going back to Hadleyville.

Just as important as these clocks which the character’s draw attention to are the clocks which the filmmaker’s direct us towards. These are the clocks that have been so carefully placed within the frame to keep us thinking about time while other conflicts unfold in the foreground. The obvious ones are usually those grander in size: the luxurious grandfather clock rested at the bottom of the hotel’s staircase, the repeatedly seen clock hanging in the barbershop, and even the clock-shaped sign of the watch repairman, which doesn’t tell us the hour but again continues to remind us of the overbearing presence of time. Our attention is also drawn directly through the editing. With the many close-ups clocks are given the audience is forced to take note of their importance, calculating how many minutes are left until the dreaded hour is upon the hapless marshal. The most clever of cinematic tricks used to guide the audience’s eye, though, is simply in the staging of the actors. From the very first clock we can see how careful Zinemann arranges the actors around the clocks in a scene, giving the objects a highlighted space within the frame. Often times, he will place the actors in such a way to intentionally draw attention to the clock in the room, even if the actors aren’t directly looking at it.

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The actors are placed to most effectively highlight the clock hanging behind them.

During the sequence in the bar, when Kane has uncharacteristically sucker punched the bartender for a crude comment predicting his fate, the clock next to the doorway is clearly seen throughout the scene. Specifically, the actors are staged so that the audience looks from the action in the center of the frame directly towards the clock hanging above them. Kane makes attempts to plead with the patrons of the bar, all of whom balk at his attempts to recruit them, some of whom were good friends of Frank Miller. The men stand in a semi-circle around the injured bartender, now seated in a chair. Kane stands to the right, attentively listening to the man across from him, whom all the other men direct their attention towards as well. The eyelines of everyone in the frame are aimed at the man speaking to Kane, which draws attention right around the center of the frame. The bartender, who is seated in the exact middle, is looking up and towards the left, where the man speaking is in relation to him. Following the bartender’s eyeline leads directly to the bar’s prominent clock, which has been seen many times already throughout the scene over shoulders and above heads in each shot. Without referencing time at all, or having characters look directly at the clock, Zinemann places our attention firmly on it using only the position of the actors within the frame.

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High Noon. Dir. Fred Zinnemann.

The focus on clocks becomes most concentrated in the final moments before the train’s arrival. Kane has returned to his office after an hour and a half of pleading the entire town for help, and comes up completely empty-handed. Everyone has abandoned him. He looks at his clock: less than five minutes remain. Still determined, Kane loads his gun, preparing for the assured showdown. Cutting back to the train station, we see Miller’s gang doing the same. Kane’s next move is one of misgiving. The ticking of the clock’s swinging pendulum grows louder as Kane pens his last will and testament. He looks at the clock again, this time seen with the largest close up yet: three minutes until noon. The score chimes in, sounding malevolent and possessed. It dials the tension all the way up as we are again brought to the various locations of the town all frightfully awaiting Miller’s return. We see the swinging pendulum of Kane’s clock again, evoking the reaper’s scythe even more as fate closes in. Kane helplessly scribbles away his last earthly wishes as we see the growing despair on the faces of the town, and the delighted grimace on the face of the clock. The score thunders as the camera pans from the malicious pendulum to the clock’s unforgiving visage. The two hands have now become one, stretching towards the heavens but feeling like the fires of hell. Instead of a serene chime, high noon is greeted by the ghastly shriek of the train’s whistle. Black smoke bellows from its chimney stack, as malignant and vile as the cargo it carries. Kane makes his final preparations for the imminent confrontation, a fate as inevitable as the passing of time; inexorable in every way.

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The last clock seen in the film. With one final close up, high noon has arrived.

Time is the driving force which propels High Noon towards its inevitable climax. The plot is not progressed by the actions of the characters, only by the steadfast advance of the hour. The clocks are its physical vessel, representing the indomitable power in tangible terms for us to understand. The overbearing presence of time throughout the film makes Kane’s race against the clock a literal one, their dizzying abundance trapping him in a vortex of inescapable terror. They are precisely placed by the filmmakers in every scene without ever infringing upon the unfolding drama between the characters, whether they be in the corner of the frame, out of focus and impossible to read, or cut to in a dramatic close up, bold and invasive. Time is the imperative element on which the foundation of High Noon’s structure is built, shaping every aspect of its story around this key attribute. Even the title itself demands a focus on the importance of time, foretelling of how crucial this single aspect will be in creating a tense conflict that transports you to the desolate, deserted streets of Hadleyville: abandoned, alone, and out of time.

 

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