"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Tin Star (Paramount, 1957)

Fonda redux



Fort Apache (1948) was the last of Henry Fonda's Westerns for almost a decade. Had he decided that they weren't for him? It wasn't until 1957 that he leaped (or climbed reluctantly, anyway; he was never one to leap eagerly onto a horse) back into the saddle with another oater. But it was a very good one: The Tin Star.

Paramount’s principal Western offering for that year was directed by Anthony Mann, no less, and starred Fonda, rather than James Stewart (who had fallen out with Mann at the time of Night Passage), as a hard-bitten ex-lawman, now bounty-hunter, teaching a thing or two to green young sheriff Anthony Perkins in a town that wanted law and order but wasn’t prepared to stand up for it. Close to ten Western years may have passed for Fonda, and he was 52, but he hadn’t lost a bit of the magic.

It’s a good story, Oscar-nominated and tightly written by Dudley Nichols (13 Western screenplays, including Stagecoach and The Westerner), as the young lawman is determined not to allow bad guy Lee Van Cleef and his brother to be taken out of his jail and lynched but the townsfolk won’t back him up. The Tin Star comes between High Noon and Rio Bravo, not only chronologically but also in theme. Occasionally 1950s American apple-pie sickly-sweet (the mother-and-son bits), it is for the most part taut and gripping.

It's classic Mann because the hero is an outsider, a man with a past, even an unsavory past. Bounty hunters are not normally nice people in Westerns (except Steve McQueen on TV).

It’s classic Fonda, too, as, embittered, he looks down on the mean-spirited townspeople and goes his lonely way. He is only doing this job because he is good at it. He is a classic loner. Henry Fonda could make a bounty hunter seem noble. He meets attractive young widow Betsy Palmer and takes a shine to her young son by an Indian father. The mother and son are ostracized as he is, and soon the three form a family.

Perkins is boyish and worried. His movements are coltish and awkward and contrast with Fonda's grace and fluidity. (Later, as the apprentice learns from the master, Perkins becomes confident and supple in his movements too).

Neville Brand is sufficiently nasty as the man who would be sheriff. But he is far from the greatest Mann villain. He is not charismatic or charming, or a reflection of the hero, like, for example, Robert Ryan in The Naked Spur. He's really only a small-town bully. John McIntire is a crusty old Doc with a heart of gold - perfect for him. Good old Russell Simpson is in the town too. All great stuff. Mann's two Westerns for Columbia (The Man from Laramie and The Last Frontier) had suffered a bit from the weakish support acting but in this Paramount one he was back to top-class Western character actors. 

There is some nice black & white photography 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 The Far Country). There’s a stirring Elmer Bernstein score. Mann’s direction is seriously classy and he gets a fine performance from Fonda. The role would have suited James Stewart “just fine” but Fonda is grittier, 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.

In a sort of anti-High Noon moment Fonda picks up the tin star and this is a symbol of his re-integration into society. You can't run away from responsibility. With the badge he has gained a new family, though in the end they leave the town to Perkins and set off for Calfornia - a traditional destination in Westerns which represents a new frontier, another pioneering beginning. In the opening image of the film he 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.

Maybe not quite up to the best of Mann’s work with Stewart for Universal, this is still a first-class Western. It's a morality tale, of course. It’s all about a man doing what a man’s gotta do. But there’s also the idea that the teacher learns as much as the pupil, which is an interesting element.

It’s an intelligent, taut Western well worth the watch. And Fonda is great.



  1. As a cop for many years (and still going unfortunately), I got a lot of enjoyment out of Henry Fonda's dialogue, while taking the young Anthony Perkins under his wing and training him. Especially the scene with the bar fight. You're right that Neville Brand's underdeveloped villain is a weak link (not the actor's fault).

    My only problem with Henry Fonda is that he didn't make more westerns.

    1. Interesting that a cop should find the dialogue authentic.
      I agree. Fonda was one of the truly greats.

    2. Maybe I shouldn't have only said dialogue. There's that, and also just his whole demeanor and attitude when mentoring the young sheriff. Don't get me wrong, I'd break up a bar fight because that's my job lol. It's just his teachings about learning to pick your battles, and when you should take action, that I got a kick out of. A bar fight in the old west, with unarmed men, was just good ol' fashioned fun back then.