Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Tin Star was always considered a dullsville western compared to director Anthony Mann's James
Stewart efforts and his final near-masterpiece
Man of the West with Gary Cooper.
Seen in this picture-perfect Paramount DVD it grows somewhat in stature. Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins
are an interesting dramatic pair and the all-round professionalism lifts what seems like a generic script
for a TV show. And there's also Betsy Palmer (Queen Bee, Mister Roberts) to enjoy.
Bounty Hunter Morg Hickman (Henry Fonda) finds things hostile when he brings the body
of a wanted man into town. But he's befriended by widow Nona Mayfield (Betsy Palmer) and her half-indian
son Kip (Michel Ray). He's also solicited by greenhorn Sheriff Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins), who needs
some fast lessons to face up to the town troublemaker Bogardus (Neville Brand). Hickman advises Owens
to quit the dirty job, but the young man likes the authority even though his steady
girl Millie Parker (Mary Webster) refuses to marry a lawman - her dead father held the office
At first The Tin Star seems like a retread forcing Anthony Perkins to play another son with a father
figure in the old west, as he had done in the same year's
The Lonely Man. This simple story of a
Sheriff learning to stay alive as a lawman is a good example of great talent working somewhat below their potential.
Dudley Nichols' formulaic script has a conventional law and order story leavened with a few social messages, some progressive
and others less so. We're given the ingrained 50s warning that it's a dangerous world out there and eternal vigilance is the
price of freedom. Henry Fonda is on hand to let us know that disloyal mayors and businessmen aren't worth a Sheriff risking
his life over - but a real man does it anyway. The experience of wearing a badge and using violence to put bad guys in their
place is the best thing for the soul - young Perkins learns to command authority with confidence, and disillusioned Fonda
is inspired to give life another go with a new family. He lost his old one, you see, because uncaring citizens wouldn't help
him when he needed it - more fallout from the
High Noon genre fracas.
The best parts of the film are Fonda's marshallin' lessons. Fonda affects a way of walking, talking, and handling guns western-style
that just makes one feel good to watch. He has a presence that doesn't rely on a Wayne-ish swagger (which Wayne didn't always
use himself). The shootin' practice scene (a sure genre requirement) is particularly well done, even if two gunshots
produce three hits in the water in one take. Fonda's critique of Perkins' fumbled handling of the ogre-like bad guy Neville
Brand is insightful, as if the seasoned lawman was advising the rookie on his golf swing.
Evil in this cozy western town is easily defined, isolated and eliminated. Neville Brand's Bogardus character is the central
bad guy, hothead, lynch mob instigator and overt racist. He sneers at Perkins, sneers at law and order and just plain needs to
be put in the ground. If only real problems were like that. Perkins has a relatively easy job of it.
Savant saw The Tin Star at about age 12 when Neville Brand seemed like every bully that terrorized a schoolyard. He's
sullen, aggressive and not likely to listen to reason. Perkins' girlfriend Millie (played by Mary Webster of The Delicate
Delinquent and Master of the World is an irritation, whining about not wanting to marry a man with a badge. By
withholding marriage (and by extension, her favors), she even incurs sharp words from the kindly town doctor: her duty is
to shut up, marry and start making little Perkinses.
Nichols touches all the bases. Racial equality was big, so Fonda's Morg Hickman learns a lesson in civility from available
widow Betsy Palmer. "A good Indian is a dead Indian" gets trotted out as a lie to be unmasked. Fonda is understandably
bothered at first when he finds that Palmer's husband was a native American lynched because of his color. There's not much
conflict here - a secondary threat surfaces in the form of two part-Indian locals who turn killers and threaten Betsy Palmer's
boy. One of them is played by Lee Van Cleef in one of his typical minor appearances.
Fonda claims he wants to move on but he and Palmer eventually hook up without as much as a proposal scene.
Too mushy, I suppose. It's enough to know that they're going to find another town that needs a Sheriff - that's what real
men do best, it seems.
The Tin Star is nowhere near the edge of the 50s western. Interesting takes on the law and order subgenre were to be
found in mini-classics like
3:10 To Yuma and the superlative Warlock, in which Fonda
plays a combo town-tamer and gambling exploiteer like the real Wyatt Earp, only more mercenary. Anthony Mann was perhaps
winding up his studio commitments and getting ready to launch himself as an "A" director of much more ambitious fare like
Spartacus (which didn't work out) and his giant productions El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire.
Paramount presents its DVD of The Tin Star without a single extra, but the quality of the transfer and encoding is
flawless. The VistaVision logo looks great (with its accompanying musical crescendo) and the B&W image stays rich and
nuanced throughout, a pleasure to watch. Elmer Bernstein's score isn't as interesting as his later work, but at least one
travelling cue bears a resemblance to Calvera's theme from
The Magnificent Seven.
Strangely enough, the by-the-numbers script was nominated for an Oscar. Young Kip is played by Michel Ray, the star of the
previous year's The Brave One.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Tin Star rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 21, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson