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High Noon - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 22, 2008

  • Movies review


    High Noon - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review
    Do not forsake me O my darlin'

    On this our wedding day.

    Do not forsake me O my darlin'

    Wait, wait along.

    Ukrainian-born Dmitri Tiomkin is the father of the classical American western score. Whereas Max Steiner had already paved the way for rambunctious, rousing action in the genre with They Died With Their Boots On, Dodge City and The Searchers, the symphonically-devoted Tiomkin was the one who developed the wistful, pastoral breadth of what would be become period Americana. Without this airy and expansive type of broad rhythm and complex orchestration, we wouldn't have the momentous scores from Elmer Bernstein for The Magnificent Seven, True Grit and The Sons Of Katie Elder, or the lighter, more landscape-evocative strings from John Williams or Jerry Fielding - a musical assemblage of motifs that have come to signify the pre-70's westerns that weren't made by Sergio Leone and scored by Ennio Morricone. Tiomkin's simple, yet powerful score would go on to receive an Academy Award, further proof of its groundbreaking popularity.

    Fresh from his decidedly inauspicious wedding ceremony to his very young Quaker love, Amy, played by an angelic-faced Grace Kelly, the Marshal of Hadleyville, Will Kane (a much older and unflatteringly-lit Gary Cooper) receives the shocking news that his arch-nemesis, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a despicable rogue who was to have been hanged in a State Prison, has been pardoned and is, even now, speeding back to town with a burning desire to get even with the man who put him away. Whilst everybody, including his new wife, implores Kane to get away while he still can - the killer's old gang (containing an early, dialogue-free performance from genre-icon Lee Van Cleef) have gathered up at the station to await their nefarious leader and the town is trembling with fear - the old Marshal knows that he cannot simply run from his fate. But, having protected the town before, he feels - and quite rightly so - that a little help from its inhabitants wouldn't go amiss. However, absolutely none of them are forthcoming and, famously, Will Kane is left alone to do what a man's gotta do when that train arrives at twelve o'clock, high noon.

    The key to the score's success is two-fold. Firstly, there is the quintessential western ballad, sung here by Tex Ritter, that not only opens and closes the film, but spreads itself, in many variations and guises, throughout the score. Then there is the ticking-clock motif that increases the tension, heightens the drama and moves the music, and the film, along with a sense of ominous danger and urgent, inescapable courage. High Noon's Will Kane runs about in a panic whilst the train tracks stretch away to a destiny to that is riding, inexorably, towards him. Somewhere amid the door-slammings, the refusals and the downright cowardice that the town offer him, Kane must find the courage to face his nemesis. Without Tiomkin's cleverly constructed and progressively evolving score, he would surely have lost his nerve and fled long before the Frank Miller's train arrived. With the Tex Ritter ballad “Do Not Forsake Me” - an honest and plaintiff ode from Kane to his fresh young wife that is, by turns, a promise, a warning, a lament and a celebration of spirit - cropping up throughout the score, but edged differently and played with alternating stresses depending on the worsening situation that the marshal finds himself in, the tone of the score is a wonderfully accurate depiction of a lone man facing down his fears.

    Ballads being used to tell a story that will unfold across the screen have, of course, been a tactic employed many times - especially in the Western genre, which seems perfectly in-synch with such a mode of camp-fire serenading. Tiomkin would do it again, though to lesser effect, with John Sturges' 1957 Gunfight At The OK Corral, and even Delmer Daves'original 3.10 To Yuma (also 1957) featured an effective, though a lot more corny, ballad-description of its plot, courtesy of George Duning. High Noon's “Do Not Forsake Me” is possibly the most fondly thought of, with its wonderful combination of clever lyrics, clear motivation and, most especially, its ability to transform from stoic nobility and frontier heroism to anxious fear and desperation with just a change in tone.

    But the problem with reviewing this particular score is that it doesn't lend itself well to a track by track analysis, since the whole thing sort of plays out as a continuous piece, its momentum and pace alternating between peaceful interludes - that become shorter and shorter as we go along - and the sense of impending trouble - that grows to dominate the second half. The main theme interweaves throughout the vast majority of Tiomkin's score, from initially noble and proud, to tense, lost and anxious, and then finally back to harmony and a kind of tired, relieved pride. Punctuating this is the irresistible danger motif, the ticking of the clock, elevated by increasingly percussive backing - in fact, it is hard to imagine a piano sounding more intimidating. The simple sweetness of old-fashioned ideals - Will's love for his Quaker bride - are given full range, yet even here, he Tiomkin is able to inject another slight variation with the Mexican taint that reminds us of the fact that his previous love (and also that of his nemesis and his own lapsed deputy, played by a young Lloyd Bridges) is also in town. Yet the score, for all its tenseness, remains uncluttered and uncomplicated. The composer understands that the emotional and psychological complexities that the characters are going through should be borne by the actors, with his music serving paint the larger canvas of the unavoidable confrontation as opposed to getting bogged-down with the continual cowardice that plagues Will at every turn.

    Although it is certainly true that Kane's inner turmoil - and indeed that of the archetypal frontier hero - is patently chronicled in the lyrics of the classic song. The line O to be torn 'twixt love and duty is clearly a reflection of the time-honoured dilemma that all fine, upstanding genre men-of-action face when their time comes. And, in this manner, the score and its ballad become quite a chilling ode to the earnest sensibilities and self-sacrificial stance that Cooper's Kane, Flynn's Custer, Wayne's Ethan Edwards and many others take when the chips are down.

    This isn't to say that High Noon is bereft of strong action cues, though. Whilst an earlier moment is staged with some degree of comical alacrity, the eventual face-off between Kane and the Miller Gang, in Track 30, entitled First Shots Fired, is marvellously exciting and displays Tiomkin's fine juggling act between fleeting flourishes of the main theme and boisterous and tense dramatic fury as the net closes on Will Kane and time eventually runs out. He follows the on-screen violence closely, matching Kane's ducking and diving with pell-mell intensity and treating us to fragmentary instances of glory as the beleaguered, and wounded marshal battles his way through the town, turning the tables on his tormentors and then, ultimately, rising to the final big moment when Frank Miller has the brand-new Mrs. Kane held at gunpoint. It is wild and kinetic stuff, and provides the perfect pay-off to all the heart-lurching suspense that has gone before.

    My favourite Tiomkin score is actually one that he, himself, didn't have much time for. Claiming no love for the horror/sci-fi stable, Tiomkin nevertheless composed a phenomenal score for the original Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks classic The Thing From Another World (1951), but his forte was very definitely embedded within the western or period drama settings. With awesome music crafted for the likes of Red River, War Wagon - quite the best thing about that film, in fact - Rio Bravo and culminating in the epic score for The Alamo, Tiomkin's mark upon the genre is indelible. Although, and perhaps it is perfectly fitting when you think about it, his title theme for the classic TV show Rawhide is what people remember most of all from his work in this genre.

    The noonday train will bring Frank Miller.

    If I'm a man I must be brave

    And I must face that deadly killer

    Or lie a coward, a craven coward, Or lie a coward in my grave.

    For I must face a man who hates me.

    A lying coward, a cheatin' coward, a lying coward ... in my grave.

    It is also worth noting that, as well as a couple of demo versions of “Do Not Forsake Me” at the end of the album, High Noon comes replete with an amazingly detailed and comprehensive booklet of notes that delve very deeply into the genesis and production of the movie and the score that went alongside it. There is a well thought-out track-by-track rundown, quotes and anecdotes from all those involved with the movie and copious photos and poster art. The trials of the picture actually make for intriguing reading and there is lots of insight into the frame of mind of the writers and producers, who were going through the McCarthyist anti-communist backlash, and especially Gary Cooper, who was in terrible health at the time and experiencing the devolution of his marriage and a troublesome affair.

    Full Track Listing is as follows -

    1. Main Title 2:45

    2. Miller Gang Comes To Town 1:10

    3. The Depot 2:48

    4. They've Pardoned Frank Miller 2:52

    5. Will And Amy Return To Town 0:46

    6. About Frank Miller 3:19

    7. Have You Forgotten What He Said? 0:46

    8. Harve Gets An Idea 1:12

    9. Harve's Ultimatum 1:12

    10. Helen's Decision 1:27

    11. Herb's Ready 1:13

    12. Kane Warns Helen 4:39

    13. Kane Runs Into Ben Miller 0:37

    14. Horse Laugh 1:48

    15. Mrs. Fuller's Clumsy Lie 0:11

    16. Harve Confronts Helen 2:04

    17. Seeking Help In Church 0:52

    18. Pierce Is Anxious 0:34

    19. Better For You, Better For Us 0:29

    20. Put That Thing Away 0:24

    21. The Retired Marshal 1:24

    22. They Don't Care 1:58

    23. Kane's Women 2:03

    24. Saloon 1:49

    25. Stable Brawl 1:45

    26. Nearly Train Time 3:16

    27. Two Minutes To Twelve 1:32

    28. Let's Get Started 1:23

    29. Miller Gang Hits Town 1:56

    30. First Shots Fired 6:49

    31. Frank Miller Shot / Finale 1:38

    32. "Do Not Forsake Me" (Demo Recording) 3:25

    33. "Do Not Forsake Me" (Rehearsal) 1:56

    Total Album Time: 62:02


    High Noon's score helped ensure that the film became a success. There were definite problems with early cuts of the movie, but Dmitri Tiomkin's input found the core of the story and made sure that the tension and heroism were brought to the fore and firmly established the polar opposite characters of Will Kane and Frank Miller. Tex Ritter's seminal Western ballad went a long way to securing the film's continual popularity, as well.

    Screen Archives' new disc is a wonderful release. The quality from the Tiomkin's old mono acetate recordings is tremendous and the full score is a joy to hear. Plus, kudos must go to Rudy Behlmer for the marvellously extensive booklet of liner notes that is the icing on the cake.

    Like True Grit, The Searchers, They Died With Their Boots On and The Magnificent Seven, High Noon fashioned a template for film scores within the genre that is as influential as it is admired. Ennio Morricone would completely rewrite this ethic in his seminal collaborations with Sergio Leone, but his work is very far removed from the conventional American western sound, and will be dealt with in depth in their own reviews to come. This new release for Fred Zinneman's classic High Noon is an absolute knockout and well worth seeking out.

    The Rundown





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