The Tin Star (1957)

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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.

3.5/5 Stars

D.O.A. (1950)

doa1950As one of the greatest B-films of its day, D.O.A. is framed by a crackerjack gimmick that actually pays heavy dividends. We watch a man making his way down a long corridor as the typically stringent score of Dimitri Tiomkin pounds away behind the credits. In this initial moment, our protagonist Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) rushes into police headquarters to report a murder: His own.

So begins a film that’s a gripping piece of noir from start to finish.  Through the following flashback encapsulating almost the entire storyline, Bigelow recounts his former life. He was an insurance man working the daily grind in beautiful Banning California. When he’s not working he’s trying to dodge the come-ons of his secretary Paula (Pamela Britton).

In fact, he gets away for a little vacation in San Francisco, away from the girl and from his suffocating job and he’s looking to live a little. A lively sales convention that’s taken over his hotel gets his spirits up as does the large population of charming women. In fact, every time a pretty gal walks by his eyes bulge out of their sockets (denoted by comic sound effects). He even makes a few chums.

But this is just the topsoil, the initial slice of life that Bigelow finds himself partaking of. He doesn’t realize what will soon happen and it happens so haphazardly it’s almost hilarious. It’s ludicrous really. Still going on the town, he hits up a jazz club that’s gone absolutely jive crazy as the beatniks of the day might say. It’s a real swinging place. But there’s also something deadly waiting for our hapless protagonist.

In one fateful moment, everything changes. He begins to feel sick. He’s disoriented as his existence takes a nose dive into a world of paranoia — it’s the true markings of noir. The news from the doctors isn’t good either. He’s been infected with a luminous toxin. How or by whom, he doesn’t quite know. It’s all deliciously cruel suggesting that all that is evil, all that is depraved, all that is poisonous, shines ever so brightly in the dark. In fact, that’s where evil thrives.

Still, Bigelow has no idea what he’s gotten himself into and he’s tasked with something that perhaps no one in the history of cinema has ever had to do. Find and apprehend their own murderer. There’s a trail of sultry girls and distracting exposition that all in all makes for a thoroughly bewildering plot. We should expect nothing less. Still, the end goal is finding one George Reynolds or Raymond Rakubian. Bigelow doesn’t quite know which one yet and neither do we.

Needless to say, watching O’Brien scramble across the streets of SF past onlookers and incoming traffic feels quite real and that’s because it was filmed with a certain amount of authenticity. There are scenes that were filmed on backlots to be sure but this isn’t one of them. In such moments, it’s quite easy to get a sense that in some ways this sequence directed by Rudolph Mare could be real. In fact, his background in cinematography can be seen plainly with what he finds interest in shooting. It all works together rather well. D.O.A. has one foot in reality and the faithfully doting Paula gives a little more weight to Bigelow’s state of being. There’s more at stake now, thanks in part to this girl who really does love him. She’s worried about him for most of the story.

Perhaps most extraordinarily, to the elation of film-noir lovers everywhere, D.O.A. does not cop out and it delivers a satisfying conclusion. Aside from a compelling lead performance by the promoted supporting player O’Brien, the hulking Neville Brand comes onto the scene with a psychotic turn as Chester the nervously taunting heavy (always mumbling ‘soft in the belly’). It’s true that many a good film noir needs a quality thug and Brand fits the bill. He personifies the tone of the film — brooding and deadly.

4/5 Stars

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

KCConfidential.jpgSaying that Phil Karlson has a penchant for gritty crime dramas is a gross understatement. And yet here again is one of those real tough-guy numbers he was known for, where all you have to do is follow the trail of cigarette smoke and every punch is palpable–coming right off the screen and practically walloping you across the face.

Like all heist films, there must be a point of inception, however, Kansas City Confidential finds its story after the crime has been committed and the perpetrators have split up without a hitch. The man who takes the heat, their fall guy and the unsuspecting stooge is Joe Rolfe (John Payne who is adept at playing such roles) a nobody truck driver and a convict once upon a time.

It seems like the perfect crime as the three hired hands all wore masks and had no connection to each other, except for the stocky and demonstrative Mr. Big, the mastermind behind the whole operation and the one calling the shots. He sends each man off with enough money to tide themselves over until he contacts them to reconvene for their big payoff. Whether or not he will actually cough up the 300,000 clams he owes each of them is quite another story.

Still, each man heads his own way and Joe is getting grilled by the cops day after day in the hopes that he will crack. Finally, he is released, but with no prospects and no job, he sits in a bar stewing in his anger. The story takes it’s next big turn when he follows a lead down to Mexico to tail one of the hoods in on the job Peter Harris (Jack Elam). And although Joe is going in blind, he soon catches wind of the impending rendezvous in Barados and decides he’ll just show up as well, to get to the bottom of the entire mess.

It’s there where he first crosses paths with two other leering hoods, the beady-eyed Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef) and the silently brooding Boyd Kane (Neville Brand). However, while keeping tabs on these cronies, he keeps company with a budding lawyer Helen Foster (Coleen Gray), who has come to call upon her protective father, the former policeman Tim Foster. If this set up isn’t plain enough already, it certainly becomes increasingly interesting as the gears continue to turn towards the story’s inevitable climax.

Most certainly Kansas City Confidential boasts jarring close-ups, low budget facades and perpetually sweaty faces that accentuate its unsentimental noirish qualities. However, Coleen Gray acts as a more enlightened noir heroine, who does not grovel for her man or weep incessantly at the thought of danger. Instead, she’s training to be a lawyer, and rational but still unequivocally kind. Despite not having a proper meet cute, the chemistry between Gray and Payne still works surprisingly well.

What makes the film inherently more interesting is how the crime is embroiled with family issues. Because, as an audience, we know Mr. Big’s identity: a corrupted cop who got a bum steer and now is going to reap the benefits of setting up some real losers. Still, that doesn’t excuse what he did and Joe got dealt a similarly sorry hand. The fact that Foster’s daughter is involved sheds him in a more humane light and in the same instance makes Joe a more likable figure. In many ways, she brings out the best qualities of both these characters. It’s the darker recesses that lurk behind their characters. Those are made more evident by the likes of Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam and Neville Brand, a real rogues gallery of baddies if there ever was one.

4/5 Stars