Monday, February 11, 2008

Monday Movie Review: The Tin Star

The Tin Star (1957) 9/10
Bounty hunter Morg Hickman (Henry Fonda) agrees to teach inexperienced young sheriff Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) what he knows about being a sheriff. Directed by Anthony Mann.

A man rides into town with a dead body on a pack mule. He is watched nervously by the townspeople. He finds the sheriff's office and explains he is a bounty hunter and there is a reward on the deceased. The sheriff arranges to have someone who knew the wanted man confirm his identity, and writes to the railroad company who offered the reward to let them know it is being claimed. The bounty hunter has the sheriff write up an agreement of the claim before turning over the body.

If you haven't seen The Tin Star, you've never seen a scene like this before. Perhaps you've seen a Western where the hero marched the criminal to town to collect a reward, or perhaps you've seen a body picked up and carried back for a reward, but even that is rare. The crux of a reward on someone's head in a Western is that someone is hunted, and someone is hunting; the point is the hunt, the adventure, the shootout, not what happens afterwards.

The Tin Star cares about what happens afterwards. It cares about the rule of law and the letter of the law, and it asks if the law can truly protect us, can truly replace violent lawlessness, and then it asks how.

There's exciting adventure here, a posse, a fire, murder, prejudice, and romance, but it all continues to loop around to the question of law. A posse is lawful, but it can be an excuse for a mob scene, and the town elders who want the law enforced aren't willing to ride out with their guns to do so, leaving the dangerous and criminal to take the lead.

Fonda is despised for being a bounty hunter, and for killing a criminal who was cousin to Bart Bogardus (Neville Brand) the leader of the town low-lifes. Turned away from the hotel, he befriends a young boy and ends up guest to the boy's mother, Nona (Betsy Palmer). Nona's husband was an Indian, the boy is a half-breed, and Fonda must confront his own prejudice against them both. But again, we loop around to the law—does the law protect the despised half-breeds as well? Fonda can overcome his hatred because he believes in the law, and because he likes this woman, but local law enforcement is reluctant to do the same.

Anthony Mann made dark Westerns about people with haunted pasts and embittered presents. The Tin Star is dark, and Fonda is haunted, but for Mann, this is lighter fare. Here the characters have hope of changing, and reason is more important than psychology.

Fonda was once a sheriff, but he holds a bitter secret. He can teach Perkins what he knows, and most of what he knows is when not to shoot, when not to confront, and how to confront without ending in killing. When he helps Perkins hunt down a murderer, he is able to recall the values he once cherished; values that made him a sheriff in the first place.

Fonda is excellent, of course, and this is Tony Perkins before Psycho, when he was cast as innocent hearthtrobs, not crazed killers. The mostly unknowns who populate the town are solid; even Mary Webster as Perkins's girlfriend isn't too annoying.

(The Tin Cross-post)