The Tin Star (Paramount, 1957)
Updated: Jul 6
Director Anthony Mann said, “It’s quite a simple story, a lesson in apprenticeship.” And that’s about right, as experienced gunman tutors tyro sheriff, giving him the skills to survive in a tough Western town.
After the bust-up with James Stewart over Night Passage, Mann made the rather disappointing cavalry Western The Last Frontier, with Victor Mature, then made the slightly bizarre choice of a doing a musical drama with Mario Lanza, Serenade, and after that a war film with Robert Ryan, Men in War, before returning to the Western in 1957. This time he used Henry Fonda as lead, in The Tin Star, at Paramount , where he had made The Furies back in 1950.
Fonda was one of the best ever Western actors (actually, he was one of the best ever American actors, punto e basta). In 1939 and ’40 he had debuted in the genre in major A-pictures under John Ford, Henry King and Fritz Lang. It wasn’t a bad start! He’d been magnificent in the dark and somber The Ox-Bow Incident in 1943, for another great director, William A Wellman, and was then frankly magisterial as Wyatt Earp, perhaps the best ever Wyatt Earp, back with Ford again, in My Darling Clementine. As if that wasn’t enough, he had returned for Ford as the martinet Colonel Thursday in Fort Apache. It really was a remarkable record. He hadn’t done a Western since Fort Apache (1948) but he sure was ready for one now, and had all the weight and authority needed for the role.
He plays a bounty hunter. Now this was a tricky role to carry off. Bounty hunters are, a priori, bad guys: they hunt down men just for money, wear no star, and are cold-blooded types. But of course there was also the Hollywood bounty hunter, the ones with hearts of gold, good guys deep down, the ones doing a thankless task to clean up the lawless frontier (Fonda is an ex-lawman) and who as often as not give their bounties away to worthy widows. You know, Josh Randall types.
This bounty hunter has chosen the profession because polite society looks down on it, and he looks down on polite society. It was the gutlessness of a town of which he was marshal that led to the deaths of his wife and child, you see. So we are back to a Mann hero as a loner with ‘a past’, as Stewart had been in that whole series, not the aberration the hero of The Last Frontier had been, a free spirit who yearns to be a member of society.
In the wordless opening scenes Morg Hickman (Fonda) rides into town, to ominous music, the townsfolk looking fearful or repelled, with a body draped over a pack horse, to claim the reward from the local sheriff, Ben Owens, who’s Anthony Perkins.
Perkins was 24, to Fonda’s 51. Perkins had done mostly TV work till then, though he had been Gary Cooper’s son who wants to go to war in Friendly Persuasion in 1956, and four months before The Tin Star was released (October ’57) he had also been second-billed to Jack Palance in Paramount’s rather curious and downbeat Western The Lonely Man. Perkins too was ready for the role.
Just as Mann’s pro-Indian Western Devil’s Doorway had unjustly been called a copy of Broken Arrow (though released after, Doorway was actually made before Broken Arrow), so too The Tin Star is sometimes referred to as a cheap imitation of High Noon. This is equally wrong. Probably the accusation comes from the fact that High Noon was, nominally anyway, based on John W Cunningham’s 1947 story The Tin Star, but neither that story nor the Stanley Kramer/Carl Foreman movie had the plot that Mann’s picture The Tin Star had. Both dealt, it is true, with a gutsy lawman standing tall when the town wouldn’t back him, but that’s where the similarities end.
Particularly skillful is the way that at first Fonda moves with grace and ease while Perkins is gauche and coltish, but as the teaching and learning progresses, Perkins becomes more fluid and relaxed, the boy becoming a man, and he learns to take over from Fonda, and be a real sheriff, allowing Fonda to leave, with his new family, for pastures new. Director and actors handled this supremely well.
Morg teaches the young lawman all about gunfighting, how to wear his pistols, how to draw and fire them. Shooting lessons are another staple of the Western. The subtext is, when you can handle a gun, you’ll be a real man. That’s the US of A for you. The trick shooting was actually performed by Hollywood expert Rodd Redwing, off-camera. Reader of Jeff Arnold’s West Jocko, a policeman, told me that he warmed to the Fonda/Perkins relationship and found the dialogue and demeanor authentic. That’s how older and more experienced cops impart their knowledge to rookies.
In the time-honored way of Westerns, which goes back at least to The Virginian (1902), Sheriff Perkins is impervious to the pleas of his girl Millie (Mary Webster) to abandon guns and the star because of the danger, for of course he must do what a man’s gotta do.
So this time we have two heroes, one gradually becoming the other. The badman role is really reduced to a heavy, just a small-town bully. This is Bart Bogardus, played by fifth-billed Neville Brand, habitual Western henchman. Bogardus is a thuggish type who fancies himself as a two-gun fast draw, and indeed, he probably is better with a gun than the young sheriff, whom he intimidates – until Morg’s shooting lessons begin to have their effect. But he is not the mirror-image bad guy that Mann had in the Stewart Westerns – nothing like the splendidly evil Robert Ryan in The Naked Spur, smiling but deadly Arthur Kennedy in Bend of the River or the equally dangerous and charming John McIntire in The Far Country.
McIntire’s back, though. Such a fine Western actor, brilliantly sinister in Winchester ’73 and The Far Country for Mann, he here returns in a benign, patriarchal role, and superbly well he does it too. He is the most memorable member of the cast after Fonda. He is Doctor Joe McCord, the admired hero of the town, whose population he knows intimately – he has delivered most of them as babies. He is so loved that the town institutes a ‘Doc McCord Day’, to celebrate and thank him. Mann liked an older, wiser man in his pictures, and this time it’s McIntire.
The doc perishes, tragically, and in a telling moment the chorus of For he’s a jolly good fellow peters to a halt as the shocked townsfolk see the buggy bearing the corpse of the beloved physician coming slowly back into town.
Two half-breed brothers (Peter Baldwin and Lee Van Cleef) are blamed – rightly as it turns out. They are jailed but of course Bogardus whips up the mob into a lynching party. Sheriff Ben won’t allow that but unlike Wayne in the later Rio Bravo, in the same situation, he hasn’t yet acquired the grit and know-how to resist. Nor does he have deputies. He begs Morg to pin on a star, but the older man won’t. He’s taken it off for good. The young lawman must stand on his own two feet.
Morg is an unloved, even feared outsider. He needs a place to stay, for the town’s hostility means the only hotel won’t give him a room, and he finds it with another outsider, Nona Mayfield (familiar TV face Betsy Palmer), who makes a precarious living as a seamstress. She is ostracized because she has a young son, Kip (Michel Ray), who is dark-skinned. Morg assumes the father was Mexican but learns that he was in fact an Indian. Even Morg can’t hide a slight startled look. As in Devil’s Doorway, racism rears its ugly head. But these alienated characters bond. Morg finds comfort in the house and takes a shine to the boy, giving him a pony. They become a family.
Again and again in Westerns we see this happening. John Wayne did it when he adopted the farmer’s wife and her son in Hondo, and Clint Walker did the same in Yuma. Richard Widmark did it with the wagon trainer and her young brother in The Last Wagon. And so on. The new family unit usually goes off to California to start again, an even-further-West where the future is golden. So it proves with Morg and Nona and Kip. They leave the unworthy townspeople behind and ride away in the last reel, now that Sheriff Ben is fully in control. In the opening image of the film Morg rode in, alone, from a high point. In the last and symmetrical image he rides out in a buckboard with dependents and chattels. It's a classic Mann journey, in which the character travels in space but also develops and changes as a person.
It’s a good tale, the script Oscar-nominated and tightly written by Dudley Nichols (13 Western screenplays, including Stagecoach and The Westerner) from a story by Barney Slater and Joel Kane.
There is some nice black & white photography in VistaVision from Shane-Oscared Loyal Griggs in the California location shots, although a lot of the movie is filmed ‘in town’, on the effective Paramount set in LA, so it's not like other Mann Westerns in that respect (except maybe parts of The Far Country and the fort bits in The Last Frontier).
This was the first black & white Mann Western since Winchester ’73 and it’s interesting to speculate why. Budget constraints? Unlikely. Perhaps Mann thought it would enhance the ‘classic’ Western vibe and the ‘town’ feel. Perhaps that too is why people compare it to High Noon.
There’s a stirring Elmer Bernstein score.
Actually, the role of Morg would have suited James Stewart “just fine” (in Stewart drawl) but Fonda is grittier, perhaps more credible as bounty hunter. It became the sort-of basis for Fonda’s TV series, The Deputy, and made his name, his reputation as a Western lead and probably a fistful of dollars to boot.
It's a morality tale, of course. It’s all about a man doing what a man’s gotta do – and what could be more Western than that? But there’s also the idea that the teacher learns as much as the pupil, which is an interesting element.
It’s a thoughtful, taut Western well worth the watch. And Fonda is magnificent.
Bosley Crowther in The New York Times of the day liked the picture: “It makes for a pretty good show, as produced by William Perlberg and George Seaton and directed by Anthony Mann. It is played in that lean, laconic fashion fancied in Western films, and it has plenty of dusty action in it, but you can always see what's going on. Mr. Perkins is a bit too much of a hayseed, but John McIntire is fine as the old doc and Neville Brand is real ornery as the bully. Mr. Fonda? What a question! Just look at his eyes!”
Variety liked it too: “The Tin Star is a quality western that unfolds interestingly under the smooth direction of Anthony Mann, who draws top performances from cast.”
The picture made $1.4m at the US box office, not bad, though it couldn’t compare with Gunfight at the OK Corral that year ($11.7m).
As with all Anthony Mann’s Westerns (they have become an œuvre now), the reputation of The Tin Star has grown and grown in certain quarters. Herb Fagen in The Encyclopedia of the Western says, “Anthony Mann directed this intelligent, low-key examination of law-enforcement psychology and social dynamics in a small frontier town.” Fagen added that it was “more concerned with character development and storyline than nonstop action and gunplay.” Paul Simpson in The Rough Guide to Westerns says, “Greed, hate, violence, racism, decency – it’s all here in Anthony Mann’s underrated Western.” Dennis Schwartz calls it “A classic character study western directed by the always first-rate Anthony Mann.”
Having said that, Schwartz thought that, “It covers the theme of apprenticeship in a didactic way, making the narrative feel stodgy and unnatural.” Brian Garfield said, “It’s pretty good but there are too many treacly, hackneyed moments’”, and critic David Thomson rather damned it by saying (unjustly, in my view) “Fonda and Perkins look like business executives dressed up in cowboy togs.”
Well, you shall be the judge, dear viewer. Personally, I really like it.
At any rate, Mann would soon be back – with a real goody.