I’ve been meaning to return to The Tin Star (1957) for a while now, an under appreciated Western by Anthony Mann without James Stewart, his first Western without Stewart due to a falling out between the two of them. I wonder how he would have approached this role, making it the 8th together. Instead turning to Henry Fonda, a longtime friend of Stewart’s making for the film we have today. Paired opposite a young pre-Pyscho Anthony Perkins which itself makes for interesting reading.
I could come at this review as a could have been different with James Stewart but that would be doing a dis-service to decent film that takes on the apprentice/master relationship. Something that has been done countless times, to become a man you must be able to defend yourself. Here however you don’t need the guns to do so. They are simply tools, something that fresh-faced Sheriff Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) has to learn the hard way. When bounty hunter Morgan ‘Morg’ Hickman (Henry Fonda) arrives with bounty in tow he wants only to collect his money and leave, keep to himself and cause no trouble. His very presence in the town causes a stir with the establishment and business that have supported Ben who took over at little notice. “This is a law and order town” is mentioned a few times to warn Hickman off interfering on his way. This is not the Clint Eastwood bounty hunter whose very presence scares those he’s about to shout down and collect on. This town has moved on from this model of keeping law and order. It’s follow the law and live by the law. Yet we still have the classic Dead or Alive posters which contradict that thinking. criminals are still wanted, however the arrive is a different matter. Hickman’s presence spreads fast through the town, no rooms at the only hotel, no room for his horse at the livery stable (on the edge of town). They don’t want him to stay, he’s a reminder of a different time, he’s outmoded.
Instead of being filled with rage, like many of Stewart’s roles, there’s no build up of emotion, not big release that leads to great dramatic scene. Instead he holds his own in a town that resists him. Taking up lodgings with another outsider Nona Mayfield (Betsy Palmer) and her mixed race son Kip (Michel Ray) a curious boy who wants only to play with others. Not having many friends due to his Native American heritage (which isn’t really mentioned outside the house). Getting off to a rocky start, it could have increased in tension however it’s dealt with calmly the next day surprisingly well.
The main focus of the film is making a sheriff out of Owens who wants to assume the role with more confidence, something that he is lacking. This could also be seen in the actors hidden sexuality, hiding him true-self on-screen to conform and get work. Can only a heterosexual male become a sheriff? His skills with a gun are rough around the edges, it takes Hickman’s presence, a former sheriff himself to help him. It’s a reluctant help, after being pleaded by the sheriff, not the image we’re used to in our law enforcement out in the West. He’s still a boy who needs to learn the ways of being a man. It takes another to teach him. We get the classic target practice scene, not played so much for comedy, more to see how far he has to go. He wants to prove himself to the town and his woman – Millie Parker (Mary Webster) who wants him to take off the badge to live a safer life, unlike her father who died with it on.
Another test comes in the form of Bart Bogardus (Neville Brand) one of the ugliest men you could get caught up in a fight with. A man who should really be wearing the badge, instead he tests the sheriff to the limit. When a posse’s formed to catch two men responsible for the deaths of two elder men, he leads the mob mentality, which is stirred up. Owens seems powerless to really do much about him. If Ben can overcome him, stand up to the brute he has come a long way, learning how to hold himself in public and as the law. The bully of the playground has no one left to push around.
The real test comes as the posse are out chasing no-one after setting a light, Hickman has resisted the lure of the reward on the two wanted brothers Ed and Zeke McGaffey (Lee Van Cleef and Peter Baldwin), again mixed race with Native American heritage, these two face the full force of racism, whilst young Kip joins in from a distance playing sheriff on his new horse. Hickman is able to put his drive for money to one-side when he knows Kip’s caught up, becoming a father figure to him. Not forgetting his sheriff in-training Ben who just wont listen to reason, stay out of it and be safe. The life he wants is fraught with danger and heartache, which can be avoided. Instead he’s headstrong and blinkered, riding in to prove himself. Ultimately, no guns are used to safe the day and bring in the two men. Even when they face a lynch mob, guns are threatened not used, showing that can be used as tools not just weapons for protection.
Tin Star is the beginning of a decline for Mann who had made some classic Westerns with Stewart, this could have been up there. Gary Cooper makes for a strong replacement in The Man of the West (1958). However from there on in it’s down and out, if we ignore a tense The Heroes of Telemark (1965) for a brief return to form. Here however we have a small budget film that tries to get into the characters, some more successful that others. There’s a lot going on in this 80 odd minute film, it’s tight with a bit of excess around the edges. I know I’ll be revisiting in future thanks to a fine performance from Fonda which gives it some weight and experience.
I decided to watch this on the basis that Richard Harris as odd as the actor may sound next to the word Western actually works together quite well (when he’s not returning to the Sioux Ogla in The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976) A lead who isn’t American in a Western begins to stretch the boundaries of what the genre can be. More realistic as an Irish sheriff as he is appears in The Deadly Trackers (1973) which at first showed real promise of being something rather good. I was first struck by the use of stills and dialogue to introduce us to the town where Sheriff Sean Kilpatrick operates a tightly run town that is safe and organised. He has put down roots with a wife and child aswell, he’s living the American dream.
The dream soon turns sour with the arrival of a gang of 4 outlaws ride into town, ignoring all the warnings that Kilpatrick runs a tough town, a man not to be messed with. We have only seen this film through stills and audio so far and a dated canvas painting filter, trying to pull us back into a long-gone time that has been painted. I could have watch the film in still form (inspiring current work) before breaking with a gunshot at a bank-robbery that would change the course of the sheriffs life forever. The man who single handedly orchestrates the town to pick up their guns, barricade the town, ready to spring upon the gunfighter’s. He has power, respect and love in his life all up until this point until gang leader Frank Brand (Rod Taylor) who inadvertently holds Kilpatrick’s son at gunpoint. Will he shoot or wont he? There are moments when you think we’ll see this child fall to the floor covered in blood.
So far we are off to a good start, the law is like an army, the town comes alive to surround and pacify the unwanted bank-robbers before the tables are turned upon them. Taking the money and even child in the dust, before Kilpatrick’s wife Katherine (Kelly Jean Peters) who runs alongside, in a dramatic moment that causes both their deaths. It’s grim stuff to watch, even more so when you next see the now shattered sheriff who begins to lose all sense of reason as a posse sets off to track down the four men who both robbed the town of their money and the sheriff his family, he has to act to have revenge and see justice done.
Turning to the gang of outlaws they are all pretty much 2 dimensional characters, there are attempts to make them more so are laughable really. The only one we see more of is Brand played by Taylor is an ex-confederate officer who uses his uniform as a badge of honor. An ex soldier who has gone rogue, Taylor just really doesn’t sell the role of a dangerous man to me, it feels forced like the Southern accent. Turning to his band of men starting with School Boy (William Smith) who is basically illiterate and stupid, they leave him to his death, believing he will follow him. Next we have the token black guy Jacob (Paul Benjamin) who is the most educated of the men, his ideas do show real thinking compared to the leader whose driven mostly by greed. The dumbest of the characters in name and back story is Choo Choo (Neville Brand) who lost both his father and hand on the rail-road, strapping a section of sleeper in its place. It’s really laughable.
Ok with all the idiots in place we have one guy who tries to hold this film together, a Mexican sheriff Gutierrez (Al Lettieri) the only one with the law on his side, there’s no jurisdiction for Kilpatrick in the country who will not give up on his now murderous rampage. The law that was once on his side, has left him, living by his own as renegade, practically a criminal. Gutierrez is the law in the country and has ultimate power if the others choose to accept it is another thing. Its hard for Kilpatrick who becomes literally blinded for a time during his journey which shows how literal this film becomes. Visually it makes the film more interesting, he becomes dependent on the law that he has left to help save him. However it all goes wrong, the longer he spends in Mexico, the deeper he sleeps into the shoes of the gunfighter/criminal the harder it is for him to get out of them. Now I’m getting literally almost.
The film has good intentions that gets carried away with itself. You think you’re going to get a good strong film with Harris in the lead you’d think so at least. It goes down hill fast with silly characters that attempt to make a dark film gripping that actually becomes sloppy. The heart of the film is mushy not strong and rigid enough to withstand the action, its blurred by an idea which you see get knocked about which is a shame really. I don’t think I’ve wasted my time though, it does have a story (of sorts) which has Harris at the heart which you feel, just a shame on the execution.
- The Deadly Trackers (1973) (westernsontheblog.blogspot.co.uk)