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The Tin Star

A town without a sheriff isn't much of a town — and one that's watched over by a greenhorn lawman isn't much better. But when bounty hunter Morgan Hickman (Henry Fonda) rides into a nondescript western settlement, that's exactly what he finds. Since the murder of the previous sheriff, young Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) has been given a tin star to wear and a jail to watch, with the reserved blessing of the mayor and the local business leaders, who plan to replace him as soon as they find a man who suits them. And if the town harbors no love for Ben, they certainly don't like Hickman — bounty hunting can be an ugly business, and a stagecoach company's "dead or alive" reward money has led the old cowboy to the sheriff's door with a body slung over his pack-horse. It turns out that Hickman's prey was kin to some townsfolk, which means he's denied both lodging and livery. By chance, he takes a room with a local widow, Nona Mayfield (Betsy Palmer), and her young son Kip (Michel Ray). But Hickman can't stay out of the town's troubles — after local tough Bart Bogardus (Neville Brand) gets into a main-street showdown with Ben, Hickman intervenes to save the younger man's life. Aware of his inability to enforce the law, Ben asks Hickman to take him under his wing for a short while. A former sheriff himself, Hickman reluctantly agrees, but there may not be time for any of it to matter. After two half-breed ranchers murder a local doctor, Bogardus mounts a posse that eventually degenerates into a murderous, drunken mob. A 1957 title from celebrated western auteur Anthony Mann, The Tin Star is a modest entry in his notable catalog of films, offering less passion and interior drama than The Naked Spur (1953) and The Man from Laramie (1955), but it's nonetheless an entertaining matinee. The many tropes of the genre are evident: the seasoned veteran, the greenhorn, the town bully, the widow and her fatherless boy. And the plot, in the hands of another director and stars, would amount to little more than a B-picture with the half-breed killers, the posse's wild ride, and the midnight lynch mob in the heart of town. But with Mann at the helm, it plays superbly, particularly with his two leads. Only James Stewart (a Mann favorite) would have handled the part of Hickman as well as Henry Fonda, but Fonda's performance is more subdued than Stewart's turns in westerns, suggesting an inner turmoil that he rarely displays, brought on by a past that he's reluctant to talk about. Young Anthony Perkins — three years before Psycho would forever typecast him as a motel-owning deviant — is splendid as Ben, with a natural boyish earnestness that he can't hide, even when he's trying to be the town's hard-assed lawman. The supporting cast hits the right notes, and even if the story doesn't amount to much, it's a slender line which Mann uses to address some of his most prominent themes. Much of Hickman's wisdom concerns not teaching Ben how to fight, but how a lawman understands the basic psychology of individuals and crowds; it's a lesson Ben applies during the movie's climactic showdown. And as with so many Mann westerns, the final restoration is internal, as a lone man far from home finds a way to put his past behind him by arriving at a sense of justice that's both public and personal. Paramount's DVD release of The Tin Star features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) of a black-and-white VistaVision print that looks nearly flawless with strong low-contrast details, while audio is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 or a restored mono track. No extras, keep-case.

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