Monday, April 15, 2024

Interview: John Mulholland (‘Inside High Noon’)

The beloved Western High Noon celebrated its seventieth anniversary this year. In order to commemorate this event, PBS has commissioned an updated version of John Mulholland’s Inside High Noon, a making-of documentary that considers the impact that the Red Scare had on the film’s production. The new version of the documentary addresses contemporary concerns about civic complacency and a lack of cooperation between members of different political parties. Mulholland believes that the film still has the power to resonate with modern viewers and argues that it is necessary to keep telling this story in an age in which younger generations may not be aware of the history behind the Hollywood blacklist. 

Zita Short had the opportunity to sit down with Mulholland and discuss what drew him towards this project.

This documentary places a particular emphasis upon the political significance of High Noon. Why did you feel that it was so important to contextualize the film as a response to the McCarthyism that had infiltrated Hollywood during the Second Red Scare and do you think that the film’s message still resonates with contemporary viewers? 

I think it relates to recent happenings in America. My politics are going to come through here but I can’t pretend that I don’t disapprove of the actions carried out by Donald Trump and other right wingers. With the exception of Liz Cheney, very few right wing politicians are willing to step forward and defend our democracy; our democracy is in peril. I thought that High Noon captured that particular issue as well as any film I can think of. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about civic complacency, people refusing to step forward and defend civilisation in effect. We placed greater focus on that issue in this updated version of the documentary because this film addresses extremely timely concerns. with an extremely, extremely it’s a very timely movie. It’s extremely relevant today and I think we captured that in the restoration. 

Upon release, the film was greeted with criticism from several prominent filmmakers. Howard Hawks was its most notable detractor and intended for Rio Bravo to serve as a response to High Noon. How would you assess Hawks’s criticisms of the film and do you believe that Rio Bravo presents a fascinating conservative counterpoint to High Noon‘s liberalism? 

You know, it’s funny, when I watched Rio Bravo, it never occurred to me that it’s a riposte to High Noon, it’s just a very entertaining film in and of itself. There are vague lines or situations that have tenuous connections to the goings-on in High Noon, but I really don’t think of it that way. If I was going to interpret it in that manner, I would have to take Howard Hawks’s claims that the sheriff running around like a chicken with his head cut off, in addition to letting his Quaker wife save him, seriously and I happen to believe that his comments were absurd. 

I cannot imagine a lawman that would say “oh, I am going to go face four gangsters and four thugs on my own rather than ask or beg for help.” That’s macho. There’s something very offensive to me about the idea that a man couldn’t or shouldn’t ask for help in that situation. I understand that as a professional, you are a professional but in High Noon, he does ask the professionals for help. He calls on the ex-deputies, his own deputies and the judge for assistance. I mean, I think it’s utter nonsense. I don’t think that most viewers who watch Rio Bravo will be aware of that conflict. I think High Noon is a far deeper movie than Rio Bravo.

You have now directed three documentaries that comment on movie star Gary Cooper’s relation to various political controversies. Why do you think that Cooper became such a powerful emblem of American masculinity and why did his often-contradictory behavior in regards to the Red Scare capture your attention? 

Well, I was fascinated that he appeared as a friendly witness on the first day of the HUAC hearings in 1947. He appeared in spite of the fact that his good friend, Henry Hathaway, a liberal director, told him not to get involved with the grifters and scam artists that promulgated the Red Scare. He urged him to stay away and be ignored. When he appeared there, I found it interesting that he named no names and did nothing other than fumble around and look rather silly, trying to argue that Hollywood has not been infiltrated by Communists. However, among everyone who made an appearance that day, he was the one who made headlines. He was subsequently branded as a fascist and a Nazi. He never defended himself from these attacks and didn’t try to downplay the impact that his appearance had. 

I found it interesting that in 1951, when he got to know screenwriter Carl Foreman, he valued his loyalty to a friend or colleague more than his political beliefs. He ended up stepping forward to defend Foreman when no one else would. Foreman would later credit Cooper with being one of the only major stars to take a stand against the blacklist. Foreman was so impressed with Cooper’s bravery that he thereafter sent Cooper his scripts for first refusal, including The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Guns of Navarone and The Key. Cooper was also instrumental in helping Foreman to secure an uncredited role as a screenwriter on A Hatful of Rain, another Zinnemann project. In Foreman’s eyes, Cooper became a real life Will Kane and they formed a long-lasting professional partnership.

He was a fascinating guy. In 1938, Roosevelt said he needed to find out some information about what was going on in Germany. The man who he sent over to investigate was Mr. Cooper’s father in law, a liberal-minded man. His father-in-law asked Cooper if he would go along and play the role of a Trojan horse. He would open doors that were shut to non-celebrities. Cooper was told not to do this and warned that it could damage his career. He and his wife, Rocky, chose to ignore this advice and did carry out research in Germany. When he got back, all sorts of false rumors began to spread about him having met Hitler and they sullied his reputation for quite some time. It just seemed to me that political parties weren’t as important as your friends back then and I would like it we could return to that mindset. 

He was so quiet about his political activism and there was a vulnerability to his masculinity that plays much more successfully today. than perhaps In High Noon, when he breaks down and puts his head on the desk and cries, it’s not because he’s lost a loved one, it’s because he’s afraid and knows he’s going to die. I wouldn’t use the word noble to describe his actions but there is something genuinely real there. I can’t picture John Wayne or Clint Eastwood playing this type of role. That an American male, in 1952, allowed himself to be shown crying because he’s afraid – that’s unique.

Director Fred Zinnemann’s critical reputation has suffered as a result of the fact that he does not fit the traditional definition of an auteur. Inside High Noon attempts to rehabilitate his reputation and defend his unfussy, classical style of filmmaking. Why do you think that Zinnemann’s work has been neglected by modern film scholars and would you argue that he brings a unique directorial perspective to High Noon? 

In Andrew Sarris’s book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, he slotted directors into various categories. Fred Zinnemann was placed under the ‘Less than Meets the Eye’ heading. Andrew Sarris influenced tens of thousands of young cinephiles and those neophytes would grow up to become academics and critics. They rated certain directors very highly, such as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Howard Hawks, but they wouldn’t have included Fred Zinnemann, William Wyler, George Stevens and Henry Hathaway in their frame of reference. When you consider the fact that the canon of great directors now features even more filmmakers, you begin to begrudge the fact that younger cinephiles are not being exposed to High Noon, From Here to Eternity, A Man for All Seasons, A Nun’s Story, The Sundowners, The Day of the Jackal and Julia. Certain filmmakers were not admitted into that very exclusive group and it has expanded to a point where people just don’t get around to watching Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. It’s forgotten because it doesn’t fall under that umbrella. 

I can accept the fact that certain directors had certain thematic and visual preoccupations that they kept returning to but that doesn’t mean that the works of Zinnemann and Wyler shouldn’t be studied by academics. I think that the film can be viewed positively without the viewer having to consider whether Zinnemann introduce the same underlying theme to all of his films. I think that he liked to tell stories about a man facing his own conscience, whether it was Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity or Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons. I think that’s a theme that runs throughout his filmography. I understand the auteurist mindset but I think that those who ignore directors that don’t fit that template are missing out on a lot. 

High Noon features one of Grace Kelly’s earliest film performances and this documentary calls attention to the fact that the screenplay subverts various elements of the ‘Ice Queen’ persona that she would go on to develop. Do you think that Kelly’s cultural iconography heightens the effect of the performance? 

You know, until I read your question, I had never thought of it that way. An audience today, coming at High Noon, is more familiar with Grace Kelly as the blonde goddess in Rear Window or To Catch a Thief or just her image as the Princess of Monaco. When they see her in High Noon, her role manages to undercut the iconography that she built up later on. There’s a line in the screenplay that didn’t end up in the movie itself, in which her character explains herself to Helen Ramirez, the Katy Jurado character. She directly references women’s rights and the feminist movement, which suggests that the character has agency. The two major female roles are unlike those found in other Westerns from that period. They have their own needs and wants and desires that exists outside of their relations with Gary Cooper’s character. It’s very understated, but Grace Kelly’s character is far stronger than most female characters in Westerns.

American politicians have frequently invoked the title of this film when attempting to portray themselves as sensible lawmen who refuse to be cowed into submission by baying mobs. In certain cases, these invocations seem somewhat ironic, as President Ronald Reagan had appeared as a voluntary witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Why do you think that the film appeals to politicians from both sides of the political spectrum? 

I suspect because they see a little bit of themselves in Will Kane when they might be trying to promote laws and regulations to the public. They feel put upon when they don’t get backing from not just the opposing party, but members of their own party. I think that they can relate to Will Kane’s confusion over why his long-term allies aren’t standing by him. I suspect that they begin to relate to the film when they start feeling sorry for themselves. 

Ronald Reagan’s favourite movie was called Friendly Persuasion. The William Wyler-directed drama about the Quaker lifestyle. And he, When he went to Russia, to meet Gorbachev, he brought a VHS of Friendly Persuasion, and gave it to Gorbachev. I think he was trying to say “this is how we should work together. Violence should not come between us.” Now, it’s difficult to argue that the man who sent troops into Grenada had any business espousing about pacifist ideals. 

In the past, you noted that the idea of producing a traditional ‘making of’ documentary about the filming of High Noon bored you and it was only when you began to investigate the film’s connections to the blacklist that you became emotionally invested in the project. Has your view of the film evolved over time and, if so, what motivated this shift in opinion? 

The idea of doing one of those making of things, which I had already done in the past, just didn’t interest me at first. However, when I discovered the so-called backstory of what happened behind the scenes, I was intrigued. Nine individuals who worked on the film were blacklisted, including Floyd Crosby, father of the musician David Crosby. His career was basically finished and it fascinated me that this little independent, black-and-white Western played such an instrumental role in calling the practice of blacklisting into question. It became especially intriguing to me in the last year or so, with what’s happening in the United States. I recently saw a cartoon in The Economist that depicted Liz Cheney as a Will Kane figure, facing off against the other members of the Republican Party. It’s just interesting to me that something written seventy years ago is so timely today. At one point in the film, the sheriff says “way down deep, people just don’t care.” I think about that quote whenever I hear someone say “yeah, I care about democracy. That’s important. But I care more about gas prices.” I understand why people are worried about the price of petrol but they need to remember that there is something larger at stake.

How do you think that High Noon, a pared down genre exercise, compares to the other films that you have made documentaries about? 

I think High Noon is in a league of its own but it goes without saying that Sergeant York is another movie that was very timely. Cooper would only agree to signed on if the film took on an anti-isolationist message and intended for it to serve as a rousing wake up call to Americans. However, High Noon just speaks to issues that we still face today. I know it’s a black and white film, which probably means

80% of the people in America today would not watch it. It’s also a Western, which makes it an even less enticing prospect, unless it happens to be a Spaghetti Western or something. High Noon just stands alone. It’s just perfect. The scenes in a church whether it’s what each person seems to say, is what I hear Americans say. So High Noon stands apart from the rest of the classics in the canon of American cinema, including Casablanca

Viewers who regularly tune in to PBS’s Film Classics are given the opportunity to educate themselves on film history, in addition to watching older films that aren’t available on mainstream streaming services. Do you worry that today’s youth will lose the ability to appreciate the significance of classic cinema as a result of the fact that Netflix and Amazon Prime don’t make an effort to preserve older films? 

I think it’s it’s a genuine shame. Much of our culture is lost by not being able to look back at this movie from 1935 or 1943 or 1952. We have lost the ability to understand where America was and what American culture looked like in the past. Amazon and Netflix both serve as representatives of capitalism and they’re saying “well, less than one percent of our subscribers want to see Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night or Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story so It’s just not important to us.” You have to assume that ninety percent of people want to see Dwayne Johnson in something like Black Adam. I suppose that’s capitalism. 

I have always wanted to make a documentary about one of my favorite writers, the British novelist Graham Greene. Around two years ago, I was talking to a thirty-five-year-old British woman who worked in publishing. She had never heard of Graham Greene. You can disappear so, so quickly. Today everything moves so fast. That is especially true in the realm of cinema. Even Paul Newman’s daughters, who were recently interviewed about the release of his new memoir, revealed that they feel as though their father has been forgotten. Nobody seems to know who he is anymore. I thought “this can’t be!” I guess if you take out your cellphone, you’re dealing with algorithms that only ever direct you towards a couple of your interests. That’s the only content that you get to access. 

I don’t know the answer. I don’t know what you can do. Good for TCM but I think TCM is on its way out because they were recently purchased by Discovery. 

What were the most notable alterations that you made to Inside High Noon while putting together this director’s cut? 

We focused more on the civic complacency aspect of it. When the documentary first came out, the blacklist seemed like a relic of sorts. Today, there aren’t many people who know about the blacklist and that’s a shame too, because it’s a part of America. It represents who we were at a certain time and it’s a very shameful example of who we were. Today civic complacency is a far more pressing issue. In all of the interviews that we conducted, we chose to touch upon this topic. 

It’s also notable that the original version of the documentary does not feature any material relating to John Wayne. This may have been because Paramount, the studio that produced the documentary, was putting out a John Wayne box set at that time. They didn’t want to step on any toes so we weren’t allowed to focus on that aspect of history. Now, we have been given the opportunity to re-insert all of that material. We also debunk the myths that surround the film’s casting process. Wayne was never offered the role of Will Kane and we do not know where that apocryphal tale originated from. Perhaps the members of the John Wayne cult were responsible for spreading those rumors. 

Inside High Noon Revisited is currently being shown on PBS stations across the country. 

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