"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Tin Star (Paramount, 1957)










Fonda redux



 



The Return of Frank James was the Fritz Lang-directed sequel to Jesse James that Fox brought out in 1940. We reviewed it back in February when we were looking at the ten best Westerns of the 1940s. In between the two Jesse James pictures, Fonda acted for John Ford in Drums Along The Mohawk, a semi-Western of mixed quality, also for Fox, which we have also already discussed. Then came the very fine films The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), My Darling Clementine (1946) and Fort Apache (1948), which you can find reviewed by clicking the links. That was the last of Fonda's Westerns for almost a decade. Had he decided that they weren't for him?

It wasn't until 1957 that he leaped (or climbed, anyway; he was never one to leap) back into the saddle with another horse opera. But it was a very good one: The Tin Star.

Paramount’s Western offering for that year was directed by Anthony Mann, no less, and starred Fonda, rather than James Stewart (who had fallen out with Mann at the time of Night Passage), as a hard-bitten ex-lawman, now bounty-hunter, teaching a thing or two to green young sheriff Anthony Perkins in a town that wanted law and order but wasn’t prepared to stand up for it. Close to ten Western years may have passed for Fonda and he was 52 but he hadn’t lost a bit of the magic.

It’s a good story, Oscar-nominated and tightly written by Dudley Nichols, as the young sheriff is determined not to allow badman Lee van Cleef and his brother to be taken out of his jail and lynched but the townsfolk won’t back him up. The Tin Star comes between High Noon and Rio Bravo, not only chronologically but also in theme. Occasionally 1950s America sickly-sweet (the mother-and-son bits), it is for the most part taut and gripping.

It's classic Mann because the hero is an outsider, a man with a past, even an unsavory past. Bounty hunters are not nice people in Westerns (except Steve McQueen on TV).

It’s classic Fonda, too, as, embittered, he looks down on the mean-spirited townspeople and goes his lonely way. He is only doing this job because he is good at it. He is a classic loner. Henry Fonda could make a bounty hunter seem noble. He meets attractive young widow Betsy Palmer and takes a shine to her young son by an Indian father. The mother and son are ostracized as he is, and soon the three form a family.

Perkins is boyish and worried. His movements are coltish and awkward and contrast with Fonda's grace and fluidity. (Later, as the apprentice learns from the master, Perkins becomes confident and supple in his movements too).

Neville Brand is sufficiently nasty as the man who would be sheriff. But he is far from the greatest Mann villain. He is not charismatic or charming, or a reflection of the hero. He's really only a small-town bully. John McIntire is a crusty old Doc with a heart of gold - perfect for him. Good old Russell Simpson is in the town too. All great stuff. Mann's two Westerns for Columbia (The Man from Laramie and The Last Frontier) had suffered a bit from the weakish support acting but in this Paramount one he was back to top-class Western character actors. 

There is some nice black & white photography from (Shane-Oscared) Loyal Griggs in the California location shots, although a lot of the movie is filmed ‘in town’, on the effective Paramount set in LA, so it's not like other Mann Westerns in that respect (except maybe The Far Country). There’s a good Elmer Bernstein score. Mann’s direction is seriously classy and he gets a fine performance from Fonda. The role would have suited James Stewart “just fine” but Fonda is grittier, more credible as bounty hunter. It became the sort of basis for Fonda’s TV series, The Deputy, and made his name, his reputation as a Western lead and probably a fistful of dollars to boot.

In a sort of anti-High Noon moment Fonda picks up the tin star and this is a symbol of his re-integration into society. You can't run away from responsibility. With the badge he has gained a new family, though in the end they leave the town to Perkins and set off for Calfornia - a traditional destination in Westerns which represents a new frontier, another pioneering beginning. In the opening image of the film he rode in, alone, from a high point. In the last and symmetrical image he rides out in a buckboard with dependents and chattels. It's a classic Mann journey, in which the character travels in space but also develops and changes as a person.

Maybe not quite up to the best of Mann’s work with Stewart for Universal, this is still a first-class Western. It's a morality tale, of course. It’s all about a man doing what a man’s gotta do. But there’s also the idea that the teacher learns as much as the pupil, which is an interesting element.

It’s an intelligent, taut Western well worth the watch. And Fonda is great.


 

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