“You can master a gun if you have the knack. Harder to learn men.” ~ Henry Fonda as Morgan Hickman
A veteran bounty hunter rides into town with a corpse slung over the rear of his horse and gets the whole town gawking. They don’t quite fancy this entrance because they’re about law and order in these parts. Paid guns have no place in the western utopia that they have envisioned.
Obviously, no one in town wants to house such a reprobate and he has no place to bed down his horse at the livery stable either. Finally, he finds room and board with the only folks who have enough congeniality to welcome in a man like him. Because in one sense they are ostracized too, living on the outskirts of town as local pariahs. The single mother Nona (Betsy Palmer) gets by doing needlework in the evenings and trying to keep her son out of mischief. He’s half-Indian. Hence the reason no one wants anything to do with them.
But in this man who seems little more than a hardened killer, they find someone genuine and compassionate when you get to know him. Though initially surprised by the boy’s paternity his kindness doesn’t slacken admitting only that many others grow up hating Indians. They are preached as much by their parents and take it to heart so they can’t hardly change their ways. It’s unfortunate.
I’m not sure if I dare use the term “revisionist western” lest viewers get the wrong idea but seeing of all people gun shy Anthony Perkins as sheriff over a town you realize that something is gravely different with the film’s character types — at least this crucial one. His skittish nature is perfectly-suited along with his boyish looks because, as he soon learns, being a sheriff is not only about what you do but how you look doing it. Being smart, working your mind, and projecting a certain image.
At first, Ben Owens (Perkins) is like everyone else. He sees Hickman only at face value. But soon he gathers there is much to glean from this veteran who is handy with a gun and holds a wealth of knowledge. Most impressively he’s lived long enough to talk about it and that means he must be a pretty smart fellow. He’s become well-versed in human nature.
He looks at Owens, a young gun beholden to the duty thrust upon him, and he sees a dead man walking. He’s not going to last long. Hickman knows it. Ben’s girl (Mary Webster) knows it. Perhaps deep down Ben knows it too.
Finally, he asks the bounty hunter to be his mentor and reluctantly Morg agrees to it because his pupil still has his training wheels on as it were. He’s not ready to stand down the town or confront a hulking heavy like the local bad boy named Bogardus (Neville Brand).
One of the film’s finest creations is the local Doctor Joseph McCord (John McIntyre) who not only pulled strings to get Mrs. Mayfield work but he is keen to play matchmaker with two of the fast-growing babies he brought into the world. Indeed he is well-liked by all on every side.
Mann pulls another stunt, not unlike the one in The Far Country (1954) with the Doc making a grand entry with his horse into town to much fanfare on his birthday. It’s one of the film’s most indelible sequences.
A pair of half-breed brothers are also on the lamb and wanted for a couple of crimes. Bogardus gathers a mob of his own to go after them. But begrudgingly following the advice of Morg who has remained hands-off, the Sheriff decides to track them alone.
Morg lingers behind and ultimately ends up being the one who smokes them out without any bloodshed. He delivers the McGaffey Brothers (including Lee Van Cleef) over to the Sheriff so that justice can be implemented first in the jailhouse then in the courtroom.
But that is just the beginning. The final act takes on an uncanny turn toward a High Noon-like allegory. One man faced with a major opposition and yet resisting to back down. But whether or not that motif is McCarthyism incarnate or not, Mann’s handling of the sequence is arresting.
He sets up the action in such a way that we are standing behind Perkins peeking past his solitary frame. He’s unimposing and spindly standing there on the jail steps with his shotgun but he is a better man than me. The question he must grapple with is where the line between a good man and a dead one exists. Sheriffing is a nervewracking business and most men die young in such an occupation. Mann makes us comprehend exactly why that is.
And yet, in the end, it’s all for naught as the picture collapses too easily lacking that typical hard-edged savagery of Mann’s other pictures with James Stewart. While Dudley Nichol’s high-minded script might be quality stuff for a minor picture, it’s not necessarily the script best-suited for Mann.
He was never one for moralizing. In fact, his best films about isolation or outsiders never seemed to make a point of a racial divide or any other societal issues. It felt like they were very much implicit in the story at hand. They never were didactic instead choosing to viscerally speak to us delivering any themes through mere osmosis.
By no means does that downplay the fine chemistry between Henry Fonda or Anthony Perkins both seemingly impeccably cast. However, The Tin Star is a picture that could have been even more resonant.