Screen Reviews
The Tin Star

The Tin Star

directed by Anthony Mann

starring Henry Fonda, Anthony Perkins, Betsy Palmer

Arrow Video

The Tin Star (1957) is an under appreciated classic Hollywood Western directed by Anthony Mann and starring acting legends Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins. The film may have been shot in black and white, but the themes it explores are never that easily defined. The idea of what it means to be a real man in the West has seldom been this nuanced, thanks in large measure to the two leads who learn much more about life and themselves from their short time together than they ever expected.

When ex-lawman-turned-bounty-hunter Morgan Hickman (Henry Fonda) arrives in town to collect a bounty, he finds himself becoming a reluctant mentor to the town’s young and inexperienced sheriff, Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins). Ben thinks the badge he wears on his vest gives him respect and authority, but the bullying livery stable owner, Bart Bogardus (Neville Brand), runs roughshod over the greenhorn sheriff, forcing him into a crisis. Does he abandon his sworn duty or learn how to make the tough decisions and face those who challenge his authority? While awaiting wire transfer of his bounty reward, Hickman imparts his lessons on life, reading people, and how to handle a gun to his eager protégé, while also trying to make sense of his own place in the world. Hickman wants to help Ben stand on his own and protect his town but doesn’t want him to follow on his own path, which led him to be a calloused and cynical bounty hunter.

The Tin Star, Anthony Mann (1957)
courtesy of MVD Entertainment
The Tin Star, Anthony Mann (1957)

Ben is looking to prove he’s a man, and Hickman wants to prove his wasted life is worth redemption. The way these seemingly different men grow and mature over a few days together is what sets The Tin Star apart from the standard 1950s western. Anthony Mann’s direction is terrific, drawing nuanced performances out of all of his cast, not just Fonda and Perkins, but Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef, and Betsy Palmer. Mann uses the VistaVision widescreen format to its fullest. The huge depth of field allowed by the process allows the entire scene to remain in sharp focus, making the entire town come alive with activity and creating some impressive moments of added tension in standoff scenes where everyone involved is on screen and in focus. A scene early on has Bogardus filling the foreground, illustrating his power over Ben, who is standing lower and farther back in the frame, making him seem weak and small. Hickman then walks across the street to intervene, physically and methodically filling the void between the two men. All of this is done essentially in a single shot. While it may not jump off the screen, it is a terrific use of the VistaVision process to tell the story visually and not have to rely on exposition to tell you who all the characters are. The scene is basically replayed late in the film but with the roles very much reversed.

The Tin Star is far from a forgotten film, but its reputation has been lessened over the decades. It is certainly a film worthy of remaining in the cultural sphere, and the new Blu-ray from Arrow helps to preserve the film’s legacy. The transfer is lovely, and the disc features a number of nice extras, including an audio commentary by film historian Toby Roan, a video essay by author and critic Neil Sinyard, and an interview with Peter Bernstein, son of legendary composer Elmer Bernstein.

The Tin Star


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