High Noon: The Hol­ly­wood Black­list and the Mak­ing of an Amer­i­can Classic

  • Review
By – February 6, 2017

Glenn Frankel’s book art­ful­ly com­bines a behind-the-scenes mak­ing of” sto­ry with a fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ry of the Hol­ly­wood blacklist.

While the broad out­lines of the sto­ry of the black­list are prob­a­bly famil­iar to most read­ers, Frankel fills in the blanks by chron­i­cling the day-by-day inves­tiga­tive activ­i­ties of dis­tinct, but allied, enti­ties such as the House Com­mit­tee on Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties (HUAC), the Motion Pic­ture Alliance for the Preser­va­tion of Amer­i­can Ideals, the Amer­i­can Legion, and the Cal­i­for­nia Sen­ate Factfind­ing Sub­com­mit­tee on Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties (a.k.a. the Ten­ney Com­mit­tee), as well as promi­nent indus­try fig­ures includ­ing Hed­da Hop­per, John Wayne, and Bil­ly Wilk­er­son, founder and pub­lish­er of the Hol­ly­wood Reporter.

Frankel’s cross-cut­ting account focus­es on Carl Fore­man, the ide­al­is­tic young screen­writer who was the main cre­ative force behind High Noon, which has emerged as one of the icon­ic films of the era. Fore­man, who had dab­bled in left-wing pol­i­tics, con­ceived of High Noon as a thin­ly veiled para­ble of the black­list era. He wrote the screen­play for the film and was orig­i­nal­ly des­ig­nat­ed to direct and co-pro­duce it.

How­ev­er, as Frankel details in a tick-tock as tense as the film itself, Fore­man found him­self squeezed between pow­er­ful shift­ing forces in the Hol­ly­wood of 1950. The inde­pen­dent pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny with which he was asso­ci­at­ed, found­ed by Stan­ley Kramer, was in the process of form­ing a strate­gic alliance with Colum­bia Pic­tures just as High Noon was going into pro­duc­tion. At the same time, Fore­man — who had been out­ed as a for­mer Com­mu­nist by one of the more noto­ri­ous inform­ers of the day — came into HUAC’s crosshairs.

After Fore­man was forced to tes­ti­fy, Kramer and the pow­ers-that-be at Colum­bia stripped him of his direct­ing duties and took away his producer’s cred­it. By the time the film was com­plet­ed, Fore­man had fled to Great Britain, where he strug­gled to con­tin­ue his career. (The screen­play he coau­thored some years lat­er for The Bridge on the Riv­er Kwai would go on to win an Oscar, but he nev­er received the award. The stu­dio behind that pic­ture masked his con­tri­bu­tion; he was offi­cial­ly rec­og­nized as the true screen­writer the day before he died, almost twen­ty years later.)

For movie buffs, the sto­ry of how High Noon came to be made will not be the most com­pelling aspect of this book. All the essen­tial char­ac­ters are present and sharply drawn — from Gary Coop­er, who comes off as an unal­loyed, if all too human, hero, to the Vien­nese emi­gre direc­tor Fred Zin­ne­mann and the endear­ing com­pos­er Dim­itri Tiomkin. But as Frankel tells it, the actu­al pro­duc­tion appears to have been a rel­a­tive­ly straight­for­ward process. Of greater inter­est is the film’s life in post-pro­duc­tion, as it was edit­ed and re-edit­ed by sev­er­al hands. Frankel’s account of the sub­se­quent bick­er­ing among Zin­ne­mann, Kramer, Fore­man, and edi­tor Elmo Williams over who deserved cred­it for the final prod­uct pro­vides valu­able insight into the dark­er side of film as a col­lab­o­ra­tive art.

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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