Monday, July 6, 2009

Breaking the Rules

Question: Favorite crime movie of the past thirty years?

I'm not much for rules and it's hard enough to limit myself to talking about only one movie (I love movies and sooooo many come to mind with this question), so I'm going to break the rules and talk about a movie from 1952 that also broke the rules.

It introduced the concept of "real time" story telling--something never done before. Only instead of 24 hours like Jack Bauer, the characters in this movie only have 90 minutes to save their world.

It begins with high stakes--the entire world at risk. And breaking the rules of thrillers, it narrows those stakes until the only thing at risk is one man.

The badguy doesn't show up until 75 minutes into the 90 minute film. Breaking the cardinal rule of getting the villain on the page as soon as possible so that we can see the hero's character development as he strives to overcome the villain.

During the climax, the hero is saved by a girl--not just once, but twice!!!

AND (as if breaking all those rules wasn't enough) the hero does NOT change! In fact, the hero, the actor everyone thinks of when they think of this movie, isn't even the main character!

Of course I'm talking about HIGH NOON. 

Here's my take on it. Breaking all the rules of its era, HIGH NOON is also one of the first feminist movies.

Check out the madam, Helen Ramirez, played by Katy Jurado.  No hooker with a heart of gold here. She's a smart, savvy business woman. Yes, she has emotions, she even shows them--but they don't rule her life. She's driven by the security provided by the all-mighty dollar.

And who is the REAL main character of HIGH NOON?

It's Grace Kelly's character. She goes from an upright, uptight Quaker confident in her beliefs and her husband to a woman uncertain, facing her worst fears as she watches her husband be the man he really is (as opposed to the man she wanted him to be) and abandoning her, to a true hero taking control of her fears and destiny by doing the one thing she never, ever, ever would have done at the beginning of the movie: kill a man.

But she does. Because unlike Helen she does change--and the force that changes her is her love for Will Kane (Gary Cooper).

The studio was smart to get a well known cinema hero like Gary Cooper to play the role of Will Kane. The audience of that time never would have accepted an unknown (it was only Kelly's second role) WOMAN as the true hero, not in a western, not in an era where John Wayne still ruled the silver screen.

But we can, can't we?

What do you think? Can a female hero pull off a movie as well as a guy? Why is it Hollywood execs are still wedded to the idea that the hero must be the man? Is it because they're entrenched in a way of thinking--or because their audiences are?

How about in books? Who are your favorite female leads?

Thanks for reading,
PS: A big shout out to our June contest winner: Mysti Berry!!! Your prizes are on their way, enjoy!

About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a National Bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller."

The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, was released January, 2009 and the third, URGENT CARE, is due out October, 2009. Contact her at


Kelli Stanley said...

I LOVE this film, CJ--probably the high point for director Fred Zinnemann, Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly (though Cooper did shine in Pride of the Yankees).

It represents the pinnacle of the "adult western" movement in the '50s, marked by classics like Shane, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, and Jimmy Stewart's team-ups with noir director Anthony Mann.

And I agree with you--the movie is very much anti-establishment (in an era where insinuations of that could get you literally blacklisted), and the device of having Grace Kelly's character do what she does is one expression of it.

Unfortunately, with the current trend toward huge special effects movies from the big studios--and with much of the writing geared to adolescent boys--it's tough to find female heroes. Though The Changeling was damn good ... I highly recommend it.

Great post!! :)


CJ Lyons said...

Thanks, Kelli! The Changeling is on my Netflix queue.

It's funny how many "retro" or "old fashioned" movies were actually cutting edge commentary on society--and would never be made in today's Hollywood.

A lot of Frank Capra's work, even some of the WWII "propaganda" movies like Arise My Love, How Proudly We Hail, Meet John Doe....none of those could be made today except by indy film makers.

Probably the same holds true for many noir movies, sad to say.

Kelli Stanley said...

So right, Ceej--Capra was very edgy. And The Best Years of Our Lives would not be made today, even updated for recent developments. A lot of noir--like Crossfire--was very explicit in dealing with societal ills (in this case, anti-semitism).

The 70s was probably the last decade of really strong social critique in mainstream film--Network, All the President's Men.

Oh, well--at least we've got the indies, long may they play. Enjoy The Changeling and let us know what you think! :)


Jen said...

Excellent movie choice, CJ! I love it when women are represented as strong and smart and leading-role material!

Unfortunately, Hollywood caters to the folks buying the tickets and we (as a whole) don't champion the female lead in crime films the way we do men. I don't know if that will change in my lifetime. But some other examples could be G.I. JANE or how about Whoopie Goldberg in GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI? Alec Baldwin would technically be the lead there, but Myrlie Evers was the catalyst for all that happened. One that still gives me the willies is Charlize Theron in MONSTER. And of course Julia Roberts in ERIN BROCKOVICH. Hmmm, it's it ironic that the last three there are all based on true stories???

As for literature, some of my favorite leading ladies are Ellie Hatcher and Samantha Kincaid (Alafair Burke), Georgia Davis (Libby Fischer Hellman), Josie Prescott (Jane Cleland), Paula Holliday (Rosemary Harris), Carol Starkey (Robert Crais - still waiting for this movie, too!), and while she isn't technically the protagonist, I love Vic Moretti (Craig Johnson) - maybe Craig will write a book one of these days that will feature Vic!

Shane Gericke said...

Terrific analysis, CJ. The only thing with which I disagree is who did the abandoning. She abandoned him, rather than the other way around. It was his job to stay and fight the bad guys, and she took off. Along with all those &^^%$ coward townspeople, who reflect modern society all too well with their unwillingness to put their hides on the line for the good of the community. Fortunately, their love changed her enough for her to save her man and become the true hero(ine) of this saga. I always considered her the main character of this movie, because of the strengh she had to show to make such an astounding 180 in her beliefs over a relatively few hours. And Grace Kelly is sooooo regal!

Hard Boiled Mysti said...

Thank you for the prizes!!!

I like to think the influence of noir on westerns in the early days helped create Grace Kelly's character.

Just saw Point Blank again, and Angie Dickinson's character is refreshingly independent. But by 1967 that wasn't so rare :)

My niece was afraid to call herself a feminist in public until Twilight -- the retro gender politics of that movie made her mad as heck, and she's not taking it any more :)

CJ Lyons said...

Hey, Jen!

Great examples!!! Funny how all the movies you came up with are based on real-life strong women....hmmm, so is the movie Kelli mentioned, The Changeling.

Thanks for stopping by!

CJ Lyons said...

She didn't abandon him--she told him up front that she couldn't fight, that she would die for him, but she couldn't watch him die fighting for nothing.

At least I don't think of that as abandonment, more holding true to her faith.

But you're right, her character arc is compelling.

Especially compared with the townspeople who had no religious reason to not fight back.

Don't you love movies that make you think???

CJ Lyons said...

Hi Mysti!

Good for your niece!! Very cool that she found inspiration from a movie....hmmm, maybe get her a copy of High Noon, lol!

enjoy your prizes!

Shane Gericke said...

Very good point, CJ. I think, then, that neither abandoned the other; both had strongly held beliefs and had to do what they had to do. He wasn't dying for nothing; he would have died for the concept of bringing justice even when he was left all alone. Fortunately for them both, she had a change of heart. Without her, he'd be a coffin nail.

Yes, I love movies that make you think. I didn't care for High Noon when I saw it as a kid, but once I got some miles on me, it became absolutely compelling. Plus, the cinematography is sooooo great, all the sharp angles and stark landscapes.

See you soon at ThrillerFest!

CJ Lyons said...

Yes, Shane, that's exactly how I felt about them as a couple. I totally agree.

See you in NYC at TFest!

Leslie said...

Great Post, I love High Noon... the only downside is that now I can't get the song out of my head...

CJ Lyons said...

LOL! Leslie, you're right that song is hard to erase!