High Noon is among the most highly regarded classics of American film. It is the story of an Old West sheriff who is forced, through a combination of factors that include the fear and apathy of his townspeople, to face a dangerous enemy alone and outnumbered. Outland adapts this story to a science fiction setting and in the process updates its postwar values to a message more in line with the cynical early 1980s.
High Noon is set in the town of Hadleyville, where the residents scatter at the sight of three men who ride into town. Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is in the middle of being wed to Amy (Grace Kelly) when a telegram arrives. Frank Miller, a killer who has threatened Kane's life for having him imprisoned, has been pardoned and released. The three men are Miller's gang, and they expect him on the noon train. That's noon as in "today": Kane has only an hour to prepare. Hollywood great Dimitri Tiomkin's metronomic soundtrack starts ticking down to Kane's date with destiny.
Kane's principles don't allow him to run, and it's too late to try. Kane plans to deputize a posse to oppose the gang, but nobody has the courage to join him. His "loyal friends" have essentially sentenced him to death.
The movie is rather short, and its narrow timeline means that it essentially takes place in real time. It nevertheless is able to establish several well-defined characters during that span. Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), Kane's deputy, is an immature man whose resentments result in disloyalty. Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), the local "shopkeeper," sells out her business and leaves. She has resentments of her own, and she avoids the opportunity to help Kane.
The marshall's problems go deeper than a city-wide attack of cowardice. A gossip-mongering hotel owner lets on that some feel that he has been too effective in his job, and that their profits have suffered as a result. These residents would be happy to have Miller in charge and Kane interred.
The war is over the town's values. This is implied in the way that the men in the bar side with Miller's gang, while the churchgoers see the need to stand up for their way of life. "Seeing the need" is nevertheless different from "taking a stand," and the churchgoers fall short of providing help. They offer only easily spoken words and advise him to leave.
High Noon was made during the Hays Code era, and it can be seen dancing around adult topics. They can't say "rape," so Kane and Helen let the sentence trail off with a knowing look when they talk about why she should leave town. There are several references made to Helen's "store," but there is no mention of goods being sold. She also is implied to have a delicate relationship with several of the town's leaders, including Kane. Finally, the hotel owner's catty manner and penchant for gossip and drama suggest that he's a type of character that was expressly banned under the Code.
There are, however, more interesting and relevant ways in which High Noon was a product of its time. Its "alone against the world" theme may have been a metaphor for McCarthy-era blacklisting. Even bigger is its faith in authority. This is only a few years after World War II, and American society was still riding high on the victory over the fascist threat. There was a sense of authority as a benevolent figure who had made things right. Here, Kane represents that authority, while the leaders who fail to support his struggle against the Miller gang are derelict and corrupted men who fail to uphold their authority. Trust in the system, the film says, and everything will work out.
The mood of American society had transformed between 1950 and 1980. Trust in authority went out for many with the Kent State massacre, and for the rest with the Watergate scandal. Outland recasts the High Noon story from the perspective that not only is The Man untrustworthy, he's actively out to get you.
The shift in locale is clever: Outland moves the action to a titanium mining colony on the Jupiter moon, Io. An introduction shows a mine worker as he halllucinates, panics, and pulls the air hose from his space suit, which causes violent decompression and quick death.
That's an effective intro, but a second viewing reveals a problem. This is not an isolated incident, and it has been happening on a weekly basis. His coworkers should have recognized the symptoms by now and made an effort to help him instead of blathering on with their conversation. If you follow this site, you'll know that we're not big on pointing out plot holes, but this points to a larger problem with this movie. We'll get back to that shortly.
Sean Connery plays O'Niel, a marshall beginning an assignment to the colony. Sheppard, the colony manager (Peter Boyle, looking very much like "Meathead" from All in the Family), issues a barely veiled warning to turn a blind eye to the men's recreational activities.
This power move insults O'Niel, who does not buy the official line that the recent rash of deaths is something that " just happens every so often." He gets the overworked and initially uncooperative Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen) to run a report on exactly how often this happens, and it turns out that this all started a year ago.
O'Niel is soon called to the quarters of a worker who has locked himself in his room and is threatening to kill one of the company hookers. Montone, O'Niel's next-in-command, shoots the perp, which prevents his capture. This further raises O'Niel's suspicions, as all of the bodies are being shipped out before they can be autopsied. He finds the corpse and gets a blood sample, which Dr. Lazarus discovers to contain a highly potent amphetamine that causes psychosis.
The drug cannot be produced locally, which leads to the conclusion that it is the business that Sheppard told O'Niel to keep his nose out of. O'Niel confronts Montone about it over a game of space racquetball, because this is 1981, and Montone lets on that he is paid to keep quiet about it. O'Niel identifies Sheppard's connections and apprehends one, who is found carrying 400 doses of the space meth. This angers Sheppard, and Montone and the prisoner both turn up dead. When O'Niel locates and destroys an entire shipment of the stuff, Sheppard calls in three of the company's best assassins.
O'Niel is now a dead man walking. The crew is uncomfortable in his presence, and none of his staff will support him. His wife is not a factor, as she left O'Niel- via voicemail- even before any of this happened.
Sheppard is like High Noon's outlaw gang in that he controls the populace through fear. The difference is that the Miller gang represents lawlessness and lack of order, while Sheppard's fear is institutionalized. Sheppard is not lawlessness, he's law gone corrupt.
This post-sixties mistrust of authority shows up throughout Outland, in which institutions repeatedly fail the people they're in place to support. O'Niel's men desert him. The union allows management to violate its contract and to endanger the workers' lives. The employer sells its workers a performance enhancer that kills them. It enhances the company's performance, though.
The differing motivations of the two movies' lawmen also reflect the differences in the two movies' eras. In High Noon, Kane stands for something. In Outland, O'Niel isn't sure. He's spent his career being shuttled between undesirable assignments because he's been too willing to speak up. This is O'Niel's one chance to prove that he can make a difference and is not just fooling himself. What, that's it? Rocky in space? It's not a strong motivation or a very deep point, and it speaks to why time has largely ignored this movie. It just doesn't have much to say.
Peter Hyams both wrote and directed this movie, and problems like the above suggest that he would have been better off with the help of a professional writer. There are some nasty plot holes here, the ugliest of which is the use of sniper rifles and shotguns in a pressurized space environment. It does serve a purpose as a weakness that O'Niel is able to use against the hitmen, and it represents the movie's one unique special effect. This nevertheless feels like a serious lack of imagination.
The "happy ending" is also a problem: the part about O'Niel getting his wife back. That seems like a booby prize, as she left him when things were going relatively smoothly, while Dr. Lazarus was loyal to him during a time of crisis. Pretty as Carol is, her track record suggests that she won't be back for very long. Then there's the business about the third assassin, who was already at the colony. This makes for a nice element of surprise, but why would he wait three days for the others to arrive when he could have taken O'Niel unawares at any time? I understand how Hyams might have wanted to maintain his auteur vision by directing his own script, but a skilled writer could have fixed these problems and taken this from "watchable" to "outstanding." It's certainly well-made from every other technical standpoint.
Outland goes into some territory into which the Hays Code-era High Noon never could have gone. It has explicit gore, a drug theme, and legalized prostitution. That last, surprisingly, is implied in High Noon, where the local madam operated in full view of the town leaders and had a personal history with Kane.
Outland is more violent and certainly more gory than High Noon, but it somehow is slower-paced. The characters certainly aren't as well-developed. Strong performances, especially by Boyle and Sternhagen, bring to life a set of characters whose role in the script is essentially functional.
In terms of DVD print quality, High Noon wins hands down. One would expect more extras with a movie of such renown, but the couple of interviews included are interesting and the picture quality is good. Outland, on the other hand, may have the worst picture quality I've seen, apart from those cheap "50-packs" of old, unrestored, public domain films. It's hardly essential viewing, so don't bother with it until such time as a cleaned-up edition comes out on Blu Ray.
This review once again demonstrates that there is no connection between the quality of a film and the amount of words it generates. Outland has a somewhat more complex plot than High Noon and gets the longer of the two sections, but it doesn't do as much with its material as does High Noon.