The Tin Star, 1957.
Directed by Anthony Mann.
Starring Henry Fonda, Anthony Perkins, Betsy Palmer, Michel Ray, Neville Brand and John McIntire.
Morg is a seasoned bounty hunter in the American West, and he must wait four days in a peaceful town to collect a bounty. While there, he befriends the idealistic sheriff, and bestows on him his cynical opinions.
Henry Fonda gets top billing. Sergio Leone’s casting of him against type in Once Upon A Time In The West makes you forget he used to be cinema’s ultimate good guy. Valiant, blue eyes. A great chin when shot slightly from below – the hero shot – with only the sky as background. His gaze will stretch over and beyond the camera. It forces you to look up to him.
He plays Morgan “Morg” Hickman, a bounty hunter in the ol’ West. Hunter of bad guys, he aims to take them alive. They rarely come so willingly. It’s no coincidence that “Morg” is pronounced “Morgue”.
The film opens calmly on a town. Its residents congregate outside shops, talking gently, shooting the breeze. This here town is one of law and order. And then in trots Morg with a covered up dead body on the horse behind him. The corpse’s hand sways into view out from the cover’s reach. The townsfolk gasp and turn inside.
Morg’s here to collect a bounty, but the town is resistant to his presence. It’ll take four days to approve the money transfer, they tell him begrudgingly. The hotels have no spare rooms. Well, not for the likes of him anyway.
It is here where he encounters the town’s sheriff, Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins). He’s young and only temporary. “You’re more temporary than you think,” replied Morg. The previous sheriff was Owen’s girlfriend’s father, who was shot dead at a stagecoach robbery, and now the duty is his. He wears that tin star with pride.
This was one of Perkins’ first film roles. He has a voice like Jimmy Stewart (with whom the director Anthony Mann was a frequent collaborator), full of the same principled tones. Owens stands for law, order and tolerance against the racist and barbarous townsman Bart Bogardus (Neville Brand), a bully of a man who loves to rustle up a posse. Perkins captures the nervous and brave simultaneously, a difficult mix. Later, of course, he’d be Norman Bates.
Morg isn’t a violent vigilante, it’s just that experience has taught him wanted men often get brought back dead. But Owens is idealistic, so Morg feels the need to impose on him some cynicism. He mentors Owens over those four days, the tension bubbling towards a showdown with Bogardus.
Anthony Mann directs in black and white, but everything edges towards the darker tones. He divides interior scenes into windows and mirrors. It closes up the screen, isolating bodies and actions, and contrasts with the vast, open outside. It adds claustrophobia to the persistent tension. You can tell he learnt his trade in Noir.
And fittingly the film’s final showdown is at night. Owens and Morg guard their gaol and a blanket of dark shrouds the town. There are two prisoners inside who the Bogardus-led mob outside wish to hang. The stand off between Bogardus and Owens is a classic deconstruction of a bully. Finally, Owens is showing that the star upon his lapel is more than just tin. It stands for something. For law, order and the right to a fair trial, even if they’re murders, even if the accused are of Indian blood. Bogardus shouts otherwise, but his voice falters as the mob slowly dissipates.
The Tin Star was only ever a low-budget movie, but it is on such limitations that Mann thrived. It was one of the few cheap Westerns to be nominated for an Oscar. A tremendous film of Western mythology fused with Noir tones.
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