I’ll start with a statement that may not bode well. I have never been a fan of Westerns. Not that I have much experience to base this lack of enthusiasm on, but something about the genre just doesn’t appeal to me. There are a few classics and genre-crossovers that I have enjoyed (the Leones, the Unforgiven, Blazing Saddles etc.) but I have never gone out of my way until now to watch what are considered the “great” American Western movies. Being the shallow male that I am, I will also admit that it was actually the rather lovely Grace Kelly who first attracted me to this film – someone I have been under the spell of ever since I saw her Hitchcock appearances. However, by the time “The End” appeared, I found I had really enjoyed the film, and Grace Kelly was surprisingly my least favourite part of the film – though she sure was purty.

The plot is a simplistic one : Just before 11am, and just after his marriage to the beautiful Quaker Amy (Grace Kelly), Marshall of Hadleyville Will Kane (Gary Cooper) learns that his old nemesis Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) has been released from jail and is on a train to the town looking for revenge. The train is due at noon. The entire film is then shown in real-time, following Kane as he tries to drum up a posse to help him against the outlaws. While the community are appreciative of Kane’s work in cleaning up the town, when it comes to the crunch they each have their own reasons for not being able to help – leaving him to fight on his own against Miller and his crew.

The real-time aspect (think Jack Bauer’s 24 set in the old West) is an incredibly effective plot device and really what makes this simple film shine. Everything in the film is geared towards building tension. We repeatedly see an empty train track, just waiting for the puff of smoke on the horizon. Increasingly frequent shots of clocks remind the characters and audience that every second passing is one second closer to the inevitable showdown. The extremely well-paced script transforms the sedate manner of earlier conversations, into speeches with a sense of urgency and desperation as time ticks on. Cooper also steps up a gear and brings a touch of edginess and unease to his character as the film progresses. All of these things add up to a palpable knot of tension in the stomach.

After all this tension building and dramatic buildup, the film could fall flat on its face if the final showdown was not worthy – but it thankfully delivers. As the clocks strike noon, there is a fantastic moment where we are shown close-ups of all the townspeople’s faces individually as the reality of the situation dawns on them. They have left their beloved Marshall to die. The previous pace of the film then changes to an action-packed, gun-toting crescendo, and in the final moments (which I won’t spoil) a satisfying, proverbial middle finger is extended to everyone who would not help Marshall Kane. It’s an incredibly satisfying ending.

Other stand-out moments include a fitting theme song, a fantastic scene-stealing performance from Lon Cheney Jr, and some beautifully shot cinematography of the western plains. On the negative side, there is a sub-plot involving an old flame of Kane’s which doesn’t really need to be there and doesn’t really accomplish anything other than set up a fight later in the movie. This isn’t a major problem though, and is a bit of welcome padding for what is essentially a  straightforward, simplistic main plot.

Overall this is a well-written, very well paced film with tight direction, and is enjoyable for a wide audience – not just genre fans. A popcorn Western, which also happens to be a masterclass in slowly building tension. The films progression in real-time turns out to be more than just a gimmick and and works wonders with what is otherwise a simplistic, even formulaic plot. Recommended.

4 / 5