Classic western which, upon its release in 1952, attracted sarcasm from John Wayne and Howard Hawks, a film often seen as a denunciation of the hunt for communists while it celebrates the individual against the community, The Train will whistle three times remains a riddle that everyone solves in their own way.
Only one certainty, the film by Fred Zinnemann (1907-1997) goes against all the conventions of the genre. The celebration of the great outdoors is forgotten in favor of the movement of a single man in a small town which, already, resembles an American suburb. Hadleyville Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper) surveys it in hopes of recruiting deputies. Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), whom he recently arrested for murder, has just been released and is expected by his accomplices at the midday train.
At half past ten, Will Kane, a fifty-year-old worn out by years of service, married Amy (Grace Kelly), a Quaker who urges him, out of love and pacifist conviction, to leave town before his adversary ‘arrived. The rest of the story is punctuated by shots of a clock whose hands advance lazily, until the final confrontation, at the appointed time, whether on the clock of the sheriff’s office or on the watch of the spectators.
The fights and shootouts that usually fuel Westerns give way to a succession of conversations that give the city’s most eminent citizens the opportunity to detail the good reasons for keeping Sheriff Kane away. and to refuse confrontation in order to appease his adversary’s appetite for revenge. The time and space of The Train Will Whistle Three Times are those of tragedy, the weight of which weighs on the shoulders of Gary Cooper. The seducer of yesteryear, the flamboyant hero leaves nothing unnoticed about the infinite weariness of his character, the fear that plagues him during these eighty-five minutes.
On this screenplay by Carl Foreman (who was then in the process of finding his place on the studio blacklist and would soon have to go into exile), producer Stanley Kramer – an irreducible supporter of dramaturgical simplifications – and director Fred Zinnemann constructed an austere film. , which only really comes to life in moments, thanks, among other things, to the character of Helen (Katy Jurado), Mexican trader, ex-mistress of the sheriff.
The denunciation of collective cowardice, the hostility of John Wayne, the leading figure of the Hollywood reaction, made The Three Times the Train the standard of the fight against McCarthyism. Later, it was seen as a celebration of the manifest destiny of the United States, condemned to bring justice to a world that does not want it. That these two interpretations can coexist in the space of a single film gives an idea of its richness.