The Tin Star (1957) Revisited

If I’m honest I’m enjoying the opportunity to revisit all of Anthony Mann’s Westerns, (with a few exceptions), The Tin Star (1957) is a minor western, overlooked but stands on it’s own, far superior to confused The Last Frontier (1955) which might have had a message in there but was constrained by a number of factors. Tin Star is none of that, on my third viewing of the film, again a real pleasure I found it to be not just for the journey that Anthony Perkins character goes on in this meditation of the genre and what manhood is in the Western. This isn’t Blazing Saddles (1974) which rips apart the genre one cliche at a time. Here we see Mann’s somewhat restrictions on this studio backlot shot film (with a few locations) and doing his best to bring a darkness to the film.

With Henry Fonda leading the film, we know we’re in safe hands, a friend of James Stewart and reliable lead the film’s in good hands. Paired opposite up and coming Perkins whose yet to be typecast as a psychotic killer for the rest of his career does gives a solid performance. Beginning as wide-eyed and eager to be a man, he becomes the sheriff he aspires to be with the help of bounty hunter Morgan Hickman (Fonda) who reluctantly takes him under his wing. We finally have a character with a somewhat of a dark past. As soon as Hickman arrives the residents of the town fear him, carrying a dead body on his second horse. We see a crowd silently grow behind him as he makes his way to the sheriff’s office. A motif that is repeated in the final act. The sense of community concern develops into a mob by the close of the film.

The bounty hunter is the first clear cliche that’s explored, a role that has been more commonly explored in B-Westerns and Spaghetti Westerns that played up the violence in the following decade. Here it’s seen as a lowly profession. Still someone has to answer all the wanted rewards that were made in the West (in fiction or historically). With Hickman we get to understand what made him become a bounty hunter, his failure to provide for his family, whilst being a sheriff directly led to this change of lifestyle, with no ties or responsibilities he could pursue these wanted men and bring them to justice. Making sure he stays within the law. He wants to remain inside the law, whilst not enforcing it. It’s also an easier way to make good money quick…if you know how. His presence in the town is generally unwanted, seen as an outsider who kills for profit (whilst making the country a little safer at the laws request) he becomes a role model for eager to learn Ben Owens (Perkins) who we meet playing with the draw of his guns. He’s a boy playing a sheriff, he’s still learning the role. This scares Hickman who advises him to take off his badge and live a safer life, one more suited to his talents (which we never explore).

At this point we’ve met our heavy, Bart Bogardes (Neville Brand) an easy choice for the role, someone who could easily operate in this society but also be avoided. Get on the wrong side of him and he’s trouble, a troublesome influencer. He’s related to the dead man that was brought in that was never explored beyond one scene. This just adds to the resentment and fear that the town have towards Hickman. A weakness in him is that through the sheriff training that goes on, we get to understand how the heavy should be approached both physically and psychologically. To understand the enemy can be advantageous but can also remove uncertainty to how the final showdowns played out. Bogardes is however the stereotypical heavy that Owens has to learn how to deal with as long as he wears the tin star. In the genre, they are a certain type, through this film we see breakdown how the sheriff type has dealt with the outlaws, as if to educate a new generation. Again Bogardes handles himself how Owens wants to in order to be a man in the West, he’s a version of manhood that aspires to, yet Hickman and the audience know he’ll never be that type of man, one who may know how to handle himself yet he’s not in touch with his emotions as we find out in the showdown. Owens has to discover another masculine version of himself that can function in this world. This results in showing up the bravado in Bogardes to be having more of a front with none of the follow through to deliver the violence with the gun that can save the day and earn the towns respect.

One of the only few follow throughs from the Stewart Westerns is John McIntyre, no longer in the antagonist role, instead he’s the elderly and respected country doctor whose delivered both Owen’s and his fiance Millie Parker (Mary Webster) who like a great number of wives in the genre wants her man to lead a safer life. She like Hickman believes he should take off the badge. She’s persuaded by Doctor Joseph Jefferson McCorrd (McIntyre) who gets the couple together to make them both see that the life of the sheriff is preferable and that Millie should support his choice – essentially know her place and support the male breadwinner that will eventually be head of her family unit. Ultimately she does takes that position, that’s not before she sees McCorrd dead as he arrives back in time to celebrate his own death.

Returning to one of the strongest tropes of the genre and something that’s been integral to my research – racism towards Native American’s. In Hickman we briefly have an Ethan Edwards figure, when he’s given a bed (the only one on offer) by a boy’s (of mixed race) mother who reveals her sons father was a Native American. She doesn’t share the sentiment of the majority that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” seeing something more noble and respectable in the boys late father. Hickman first believes that the boy Kip Mayfield (Michael Ray) to be of a Mexican heritage. On learning that he’s half Native American his views are immediately challenged by the mother Nona (Betsy Palmer) who asks him to leave in the morning if he’s not comfortable. His own assumptions are challenged by another white person who sees beyond the racism to see the person. His time as a bounty hunter has required him to live by his wits, to more than likely survive in Native American county whilst hunting a wanted man. Unlike Ethan Edwards he’s able to reflect on his views and be able to change them. He sees in Pip another chance to be a father or at very least do good by a child whilst he’s around. Ethan is unable to change his views until the end of the film, saving his niece/daughter from being killed by him. Personally taking her back to civilization. However it’s too late for him. Hickman is able to rejoin society, accepting earlier than views can change, through challenging his perception.

Both men change to a degree that Hickman softens to become domesticated, whilst Owens becomes a man that’s respected by the town, the mayor and those of power. He’s no longer the apprentice that he was at the beginning of the film. The Tin Star is the most Fordian of Mann’s films. It’s an early version of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) which has a master/apprentice relationship, if you want to survive in the West you have to learn the way of the gun, this also earns you respect from others. Hickman’s transformation to a family man and acceptance comes at the cost that he still leaves town to start over with a woman whose already an outsider for having a child of mixed-race. Her whiteness and dress-making to others allows her to stay but she’s more than happy to leave. Both men could not have stayed in the same town, eventually drama would ask them to confront one another in another showdown.

The Tin Star says a lot with very little, retreading a lot of ground whilst still pushing the genre forward. It’s a more comfortable Western that’s not half as dark as those Mann made in the first half of the decade. No emotional explosions, we’ve lost that trio of men and the challenge of the love interest, both are stable and more traditional – more in line with his contemporaries working in the genre. That doesn’t takes away how satisfying this small Western is after countless viewings, it works on every point.

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