Directed by: Anthony Mann.
Written by: Dudley Nichols and Joel Kane and Barney Slater.
Starring: Henry Fonda (Morgan 'Morg' Hickman), Anthony Perkins (Sheriff Ben Owens), Betsy Palmer (Nona Mayfield), Michel Ray (Kip Mayfield), Neville Brand (Bart Bogardus), John McIntire (Dr. Joseph Jefferson 'Doc' McCord), Mary Webster (Millie Parker), Peter Baldwin (Zeke McGaffey), Richard Shannon (Buck Henderson), Lee Van Cleef (Ed McGaffey), James Bell (Judge Thatcher), Howard Petrie (Mayor Harvey King), Russell Simpson (Clem Hall), Hal K. Dawson (Andy Miller), Jack Kenny (Sam Hodges), Mickey Finn (McCall).
Anthony Mann directed many great Westerns in his day – but The Tin Star is not one of them. Mann directed five Western classics starring Jimmy Stewart – Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954 – which I still need to see) and The Man from Laramie (1955), alongside other films like The Furies (1950), with a great, characteristically strong performance by Barbara Stanwyck, and perhaps my favorite of his Westerns – Man of the West (1958) with a great performance by Gary Cooper as an iconic Western hero – the man with a violent past trying to do right (it’s the Western I think of when I recall David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence). I mention Mann’s other films because I do think he is one of the best directors of Westerns in cinema history – he ranks right alongside the likes of Ford, Hawks, Leone, Peckinpah and Eastwood. But his 1957 film, The Tin Star, while not horrible in any way, is nowhere near his best work. It’s rather bland and forgettable – even if moderately entertaining for 90 minutes or so.
The film stars Anthony Perkins as Sheriff Ben Owens, who got the job in his small town simply because no one else wanted it. The old Sheriff was killed, the bully Burt Bogardus (Neville Brand) pretty much does what he wants to – and dares the law to try and stop him. Perkins, in his patented Anthony Perkins way, stutters and stammers, is overly nervous, not very good with a gun and can barely stand up to his girlfriend – Millie (Mary Webster), the daughter of the old Sheriff who doesn’t want to see her man suffer the same fate.
Into town rides Morg Hickman (Henry Fonda), a bounty hunter there to collect his fee for killing a local man who was wanted for robbery. The locals don’t take too kindly to Morg – they liked the local man – but he’s stuck in town for a few days so Ben can do the paperwork and get him his money. But the hotel won’t rent him a room, and the stable is run by that bully Bogardus, who won’t put up his horse. Luckily he meets Kip (Michel Ray), a young boy who lives on the outskirts of town with his mother Nona (Betsy Palmer) – who is an outcast of sorts herself because she married a Native, who was later killed. She agrees to put him up. Morg, who tells Ben he used to be a Sheriff, then takes the younger man under his wing to teach him how to be a good sheriff – although a dark secret in his past makes him think Ben is an fool for wanting the job at all.
The screenplay for The Tin Star was written by Dudley Nichols – a frequent John Ford collaborator, and I cannot help but wonder if he wrote it with Ford in mind. The film certainly has a sentimental side – with Morg becoming a mentor to Ben, and a father figure to Kip – and Ford’s film often contained a lot of sentiment. Ford could pull it off – Mann, who by nature is more cynical, cannot quite do the same in The Tin Star. Too much of the dialogue in The Tin Star is on the nose – hammering its point into your head too much. Fonda was a great actor, capable of playing dark, brooding characters if called upon, and that is precisely what Morg should be. Therefore, it’s a curious decision for him to play it far lighter than that – when he finally delivers his speech revealing the dark secret in his past, it doesn’t feel right. A man who has gone through that shouldn’t be quite so cheery. Perkins acquits himself better as Ben – but, of course, it’s almost impossible to see Perkins and not see Norman Bates. In fact, Ben feels like Bates quite a bit – with the nervous, stuttering surface – the difference being this time, there is nothing deeper there. The rest of the cast isn’t quite up to snuff – especially Neville Brand as the man who is supposed to be the town’s Liberty Valance if you will. He seems like nothing more than a petulant child.
All this probably sounds like I hated The Tin Star. I didn’t – not really. Mann knows how to direct an action sequence, and the movie has quite a few good ones coming down the stretch. But the film is merely an average Western – they made a lot of those in the 1950s. Normally, an Anthony Mann Western is something to treasure, something head and shoulders above most films in the genre. Not The Tin Star.