March 20, 2019
The Tin Star (1957)
Grade: 56/100

Director: Anthony Mann
Stars: Henry Fonda, Anthony Perkins, Betsy Palmer

What it's about. A black and white Anthony Mann western filmed in VistaVision. Henry Fonda is a middle-aged bounty hunter with a darkly ironic sense of humor. To collect a bounty, he is obligated to hang out in an isolated town where nobody likes him, except for young good guy sheriff Anthony Perkins, preteenaged golly-gosh kid Michel Ray, and Ray's hottie single and unattached thirty-ish mother Betsy Palmer.

It turns out that Fonda was formerly a sheriff himself, and he begrudgingly mentors Perkins, whose naivete would otherwise get him killed. The mutual nemesis of Perkins and Fonda is ne'er do well Neville Brand.

The McGaffey Brothers (Lee Van Cleef and Peter Baldwin) go on a crime spree, and a posse is formed to hunt them town. Perkins is ostensibly its leader, but Brand commandeers it. Because it is a movie, Fonda saves both Perkins and Ray, and captures and jails Van Cleef and Baldwin. Brand gins up a mob to lynch the prisoners. Perkins, backed by Fonda, must confront Brand to tame the lynch mob and make sure that the McGaffeys get a fair trial.

How others will see it. Director Anthony Mann was well respected, as was Henry Fonda and screenwriter Dudley Nichols, three reasons why The Tin Star squeezed out a Best Screenplay Oscar nod and a Best Picture BAFTA nomination. Nonetheless, the movie was only a middling box office success.

Today at, the film has 4K user votes, a fairly high number for a 1957 movie. The user rating of 7.4 out of 10 is also respectable, and it is consistent across age and gender demographics. The most-favored user reviews are uniformly positive ("excellent mix of character study and action", "Mann's most underrated western"). The pairing of old hand Fonda with understudy (and future Norman Bates) Perkins is well appreciated.

How I felt about it. My records indicate that I watched and graded The Tin Star some years ago. I have absolutely no memory of having seen the movie before. So, I watched it and completely forgot it.

This is surprising, because Anthony Mann westerns are generally memorable, particularly Winchester '73. The reason that The Tin Star is less so probably has to do with the lead, Henry Fonda instead of Mann's previous western leading man, James Stewart. Fonda is more smug than the ever-earnest Stewart, approaching Clint Eastwood's future Man With No Name character. While Fonda can pull it off, and certainly has star power, the truth is that we like Stewart better.

Fonda's character is all-knowing and omnipotent. He can see the future, and has the power to change it. No wonder why Anthony Perkins seeks to hang around him. Who needs a deputy when you have a supernatural being to tell you what happens next, and to bail you out should you get in over your head.

If Fonda's character is too much, the same can be said about Anthony Perkins. We can be sure that Perkins will be courageous and righteous, yet awkward and inexperienced at the same time. This would make him Jimmy Stewart circa-1935, though less compelling, since he is Perkins instead.

The supporting characters complete a western by the numbers. The beautiful fiesty fianceé (Mary Webster) who disapproves of her boyfriend's dangerous vocation. The beautiful thirty-something widow and ranch owner (Betsy Palmer) who, because it is a movie, has no romantic interests for ten years until Fonda shows up. The adorable tyke (Michel Ray) who looks up to gunslinger Fonda, just like the lad in Shane. The lovable and respected curmudgeon (John McIntire). And, of course, the brooding troublemaker who must be stopped (Neville Brand), destined to be shot dead in the final reel. The only suspense is whether it is Perkins or Fonda who sends him six feet under.

Given the pro forma storytelling, no wonder Stewart passed on the project and made Vertigo instead.