Tag Archives: Henry Fonda

The Ox-Bow Incident

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 1, 2013

The Ox-Bow Incident—Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan, Anthony Quinn, Frank Conroy, William Eythe, Jane Darwell (1943; Dir:  William Wellman)

This is one of those movies that is more admired than watched these days, much like Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel on which it is based.  But it’s an excellent character study and a searing indictment of mob justice.  It’s all the more remarkable when one considers that it predates the McCarthy era by a decade.  It can be taken as one of the excellent examples of social commentary from its period, along with such films as The Grapes of Wrath and Sullivan’s Travels.  It probably gets less respect than those because it’s a western, and it is less watched by western fans because it’s heavy on the social commentary—lots of talk and not so much action.

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The film’s action, such as it is, takes place in Nevada in 1885.  Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and his partner Art Croft (an early appearance by Harry Morgan) are regular cowhands and small ranchers, making one of their infrequent stops in the small town of Bridger’s Wells one spring, when they with others hear of rustling and the murder of Larry Kincaid, a well-thought-of local rancher.  The sheriff isn’t readily available, so a posse is formed with his deputy under the leadership of Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), apparently a Confederate veteran of the Civil War.  Carter and Croft join the posse in part so they don’t become suspects themselves.  In pursuit of the supposed murderers, they encounter a stage carrying Carter’s less-than-faithful intended and her new San Francisco husband.

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In Ox-Bow Canyon, the posse catches fifty head of Kincaid’s cattle in the possession of three men, led by Donald Martin (a young Dana Andrews), who claims to be a new rancher from a nearby town.  Nobody knows him, though, and they don’t buy his story.  Martin says he bought the cattle from Kincaid but doesn’t have a bill of sale.  After hearing a little, the posse decides to string up the three of them.  There is an extended sequence while one of the three, a Mexican (a young Anthony Quinn), makes a break for it and is shot in the leg.  The third turns out to be a feeble-minded old man (Francis Ford, brother of the more famous director John Ford).  Seven of the posse, including Carter, Croft and Major Tetley’s cowardly son Gerald (William Eythe), have misgivings about the lynching and stand up against it, but to no effect.  Martin is given time to write a last letter to his wife, and the hanging is done. 

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Quinn, Andrews, Fonda, Conroy and Darwell:  A necktie party.

As the posse heads out, the sheriff unexpectedly turns up.  He says that Kincaid is not dead, and they caught the ones who shot him, meaning that those the posse lynched were innocent, just as they claimed.  From what the sheriff says, he intends to take action against those responsible for the hanging.  The chastened posse makes its way back to town, where Carter reads Martin’s last letter to them as they reflectively drink in a saloon.  The split between Tetley and his son has become irreparable, and the major shoots himself.  As the movie ends, Carter and Croft head off to deliver Martin’s letter to his widow.

That the film contains so many good performances must be attributed to William Wellman, the director.  Henry Fonda in particular is superb as Carter, and this performance ranks among his best.  But a number of new, young actors (Andrews, Morgan, Eythe, Quinn) are also very good in this film.  As Farnley, the hothead who continually incites the posse, screen villain Marc Lawrence is deliciously unlikable.  Henry Davenport, as Davies, the leader of opposition to hanging, is very good.  Jane Darwell as Ma Grier, the female member of the posse, has none of Ma Joad’s warmth.  Sparks (Leigh Whipper, uncredited) provides a bit of humanity as a black man tolerated on the posse who is one of the seven objectors and prays as the men are hanged.  His character later says that his brother was lynched, accounting for his sympathy with those hung.  

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Carter (Henry Fonda) in the aftermath of the hanging: Reading the letter to the wife.

One scene that stands out is Carter’s reading of the Martin letter to the other posse members in the bar, after they have returned to Bridger’s Wells.  As a dramatic moment, it ranks with Fonda’s Tom Joad soliloquy in The Grapes of Wrath, despite the fact that (a) the contents of the letter are never revealed in the novel, and (b) the letter doesn’t sound much like an 1880s rancher, but much more like a 1940s screenwriter (Lamar Trotti, in this case).  Fonda’s face is deliberately obscured by a hat brim for much of the reading, so his words are the focus.  This is one of Fonda’s best performances, although his character starts out fairly unlikable and is merely a witness for much of the movie.  In Fonda’s career, this film invites comparison not only with The Grapes of Wrath, but with the later 12 Angry Men.  Immediately after making this movie, Fonda enlisted in the U.S. Navy for the remainder of World War II.  Harry Morgan had a solid and long-lived career as a character actor, showing up as an unhelpful townsman in High Noon and as a quasi-comic mayor in Support Your Local Sheriff and Support Your Local Gunfighter.

It’s a fairly short movie at less than 75 minutes.  Even so, it’s hard to know what to make of the early subplot with Carter’s supposed fiancée.  Made with a small budget and not a commercial success upon its release, the film was nevertheless a Best Picture nominee in that year’s Academy Awards.   It lost to Casablanca, as it should have.

For westerns featuring lynchings, see The Moonlighter, Johnny Guitar, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Hang ‘Em High and A Man Alone, among others.

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My Darling Clementine

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 30, 2013

My Darling Clementine—Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Linda Darnell, Walter Brennan, Cathy Downs, Tim Holt, Ward Bond (1946; Dir:  John Ford)

Of all the cinematic versions of the Wyatt Earp story, this is the least accurate historically.  (Well, with the exception of 1939’s Frontier Marshal, which is a pretty good movie, too.)  But this elegant black and white retelling, with Henry Fonda as a mythic Wyatt, has a visual spareness and beauty that remain unmatched more than sixty years later.  If you know much about the historical events in Tombstone, maybe the best way to watch this classic is to just enjoy the story John Ford tells here for what it is without weighing it against the actual history.  Bear in mind the line from another Ford western (Liberty Valance) about legends becoming fact.  Ford was helping that process along for the Earps.

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Filmed in Ford’s favorite western location (Monument Valley, where he made nine movies), there are images from this movie that linger long after it’s over:  Fonda sitting in a chair on the boardwalk, tipped back on the rear legs with his leg propped against a post as he watches the town’s comings and goings; Fonda and Downs at a church social, dancing outdoors on the newly-built floor of what will be the church; Fonda and his brothers finding the body of the youngest brother in the pouring rain; a hack actor getting help from Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday in finishing Hamlet’s soliloquy; a badly shot Mature calmly looking through the poles of a corral, his hand holding a white handkerchief near his head as he selects and shoots his next target.

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Bruce Willis in a visual Fonda reference (Last Man Standing, a gangster-era remake of Yojimbo directed by western aficionado Walter Hill).  Even the chair is the same.

The most eye-catching female role here is not the Clementine Carter of the title, played by Cathy Downs, but smoldering Linda Darnell as Chihuahua, a Mexican saloon girl and prostitute in love with Doc Holliday. 

At the movie’s start, Wyatt Earp (Fonda) and his three brothers, Morgan (Ward Bond), Virgil (Tim Holt) and James, are driving a herd of cattle to California when they arrive outside Tombstone in Arizona.  Leaving young James to watch the herd, they go into town for a shave and a drink.  They return in the driving rain to find the herd stolen and James dead.  It’s obvious to us that it’s the work of Old Man Clanton (an unusually malevolent Walter Brennan) and his four sons, who were coveting the herd earlier and tried to buy it.  The surviving brothers return to town, where Wyatt, already known as a peace officer from a stint in Dodge City, accepts a job as the town marshal with his brothers as deputies.

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Walter Brennan as a malevolent Old Man Clanton.

One of his first actions is to meet and establish some kind of relationship with Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), who owns the local saloon where Chihuahua sings.  Doc is volatile and used to having his way, but he and Wyatt arrive at a wary accommodation.  There is a sense of impending doom over Doc, due to bouts of wracking coughs that indicate he has consumption (tuberculosis).  The stage brings Clementine Carter to town, a figure from Doc’s past with whom Wyatt is immediately taken.  Doc is less thrilled to see her, and he tells Clementine to leave town or he will.  The jealous Chihuahua thinks Doc will now go to Mexico with her and marry her.  Meanwhile, Wyatt discovers Chihuahua with an elaborate silver cross that James had bought for his own girl, and she tells him she got it from Doc.  Wyatt chases down the stage for Tucson and retrieves Doc.  He doesn’t come easily; the two finally face off, and Wyatt wins.

On their return to Tombstone, they confront Chihuahua, since Doc knows he didn’t give her the cross.  She finally confesses that she got it from Billy Clanton (John Ireland), and Clanton, who has been lurking outside the window, shoots her and flees on horseback.  Wyatt takes three shots at Clanton to little apparent effect and Virgil pursues him toward the Clanton ranch.  At the ranch, Billy falls dead on the porch from wounds, and Old Man Clanton shoots Virgil in the back with a shotgun. 

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Wyatt delivers an ultimatum to the Clantons at the OK Corral.

Meanwhile, Doc Holliday exercises his now-quite-rusty surgical skills on the badly wounded Chihuahua, using saloon tables for the operation with the assistance of trained nurse Clementine.  It’s apparently successful, and for a time Doc is the skilled surgeon of old.  However, the Clantons return with Virgil’s body to Tombstone, setting up the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  Chihuahua dies, and Holliday joins the Earps against the Clantons.  In the extended shootout, all four of the remaining Clantons are killed, with Old Man Clanton as the final member of the family to go down.  Wyatt and surviving brother Morgan (Ward Bond) head for California to tell their father what has happened, and Clementine becomes the schoolmarm in Tombstone.  Wyatt departs, leaving the sense that he’ll be back to resume the relationship.

Tim Holt and Cathy Downs in My Darling Clementine, 1946.

Wyatt and Clementine say goodbye for a while.

Fonda couldn’t be better as Wyatt Earp in his first movie role after returning from service in the navy during World War II.  As it is used in this movie, even Fonda’s hat almost becomes a character itself; both its shape and Fonda’s use of it seem authentic.  Victor Mature, whose most obvious characteristic was his physical size and robustness, is a strange choice to play the slight, tubercular Holliday, but it works well enough in the end.  Walter Brennan is excellent as Old Man Clanton, setting up a similar role for him in the parody Support Your Local Sheriff more than twenty years later.  The Clanton sons never become differentiated and don’t matter much.  There’s something of a Mexican stereotype in Darnell’s Chihuahua, but she doesn’t go so far as to attempt a Mexican accent and after enough fiery close-ups she’s effective.  Cathy Downs is beautiful as Clementine, and she doesn’t actually have to do much.  The character actors such as Alan Mowbray’s Shakespearean hack Granville Thorndyke, Jane Darwell’s townswoman Kate Nelson, and J. Farrell Macdonald as Mac the barman are excellent.  Wyatt to Mac:  “Mac, you ever been in love?”  Mac:  “No, I’ve been a bartender all my life.”

This was also John Ford’s first postwar movie, and it began another amazing run for him.  Over the next ten years, he’d make a string of some of the most remarkable westerns ever filmed.  Ford was said to have known Wyatt Earp as an old man (Earp died in 1929, spending a few of those last years in Hollywood), and this film was loosely based on Stuart Lake’s biography written soon after the old lawman’s death.  Ford claimed that the version of the famous gunfight that he shot was based what Earp personally told him, including a diagram and the passage of a dust-raising stagecoach during the shooting.  But as usual he was “printing the legend”–telling his story the way he thought it should be.  After Ford submitted his film, studio head Darryl Zanuck notoriously took some liberties with it, resulting in some new footage and a shorter cut.  (See Lost Masterpieces.)

The black-and-white cinematography by James MacDonald is remarkable, especially in low shots that bring in the sky; in rain at night; in its use of shadows and light in interior shots; and in long shots that end up in the distance on a feature of Monument Valley geography.  As the surviving Earps and Doc Holliday walk down the dirt street at dawn toward the OK Corral, they’re barely visible in long shots that emphasize the looming sky.  The movie in general has an almost palpable sense of bygone Americana.

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The mortally wounded Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) does not go gently.

If you want a more historical recounting of the Tombstone saga, and in particular the famous gunfight, try Tombstone or Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp.  So what’s incorrect in Clementine?  There was no Clementine historically, and Wyatt’s relations with women were less fastidious than this movie depicts.  James was the oldest of the Earp brothers, not the youngest, and the positions of Morgan and Virgil were switched in this film.  It was older brother Virgil, not Wyatt, who took on the job of marshal in Tombstone.  The Earps did not come to Tombstone driving cattle; they came to a booming mining town looking for gambling opportunities and maybe a quick mining strike.  The country around Tombstone isn’t much like Monument Valley.  Wyatt didn’t meet Doc Holliday in Tombstone; they’d previously met in Fort Griffin, Texas, and had been friends for some years.  Doc came to Tombstone after the Earps were already there.  Doc was a dentist, not a surgeon, and he was from Georgia, not Boston, although he was trained in Philadelphia.  He was not killed at the OK Corral, but died in a Colorado sanitarium six years later.  His mistress was not Mexican, but a Hungarian prostitute, Big Nose Kate Elder, and she outlived Doc by more than 50 years.  The Earps’ opponents at the shootout were not Old Man Clanton and three of his four sons—he had only three and he was dead months before the shootout.  Ike and Billy Clanton were in the fight; Ike ran and survived, and Billy was killed, along with the two McLaury brothers.  The gunfight itself was a more stand-up and shoot-it-out affair than depicted in the movie with less moving around, and it was over much quicker.  Some of the more interesting aspects of the real-life story happen during Wyatt’s vendetta ride after the shootout at the corral, and that aftermath is not depicted at all in this film.  And that’s for starters.

Some of these less-than-historical elements have their roots in earlier cinematic versions of the story.  For example, for a Clementine figure re-entering Doc’s life in Tombstone, Doc as a surgeon rather than a dentist, a dramatic operation on a saloon table and Doc being killed in Tombstone, see Frontier Marshal from 1939, with Randolph Scott as Earp and Cesar Romero as Doc.

Wyatt and Clementine dance--he clumsy but enthusiastic, and with great joy. "Make room for our new Marshall and his Lady Fair".

The marshal dances with Clementine, as Monument Valley looms in the background.

John Ford was indisputably a great director, but he could be nasty to work with.  Three-time Oscar winner Walter Brennan would refuse to work with him again after this film.  And Henry Fonda, who had an extraordinarily successful history with Ford by the time this was made (Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath), would have his own falling-out with Ford about ten years later.

For historical reading on the actual Tombstone and the Earps, try Paula Marks’ To Live and Die in the West or recent biographies of Wyatt by Allen Barra or Casey Tefertiller. 

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On the set of My Darling Clementine, 1946.

Note:  As of Oct. 2014, this classic was released on a Criterion Collection DVD, complete with commentary, extras, a fully-restored version of the 97-minute theatrical release, and even a 103-minute pre-release cut.  It’s the best way to see the film.  However, the earlier 2004 DVD has an excellent commentary by film historian and Ford biographer Scott Eyman that is worth listening to.

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Fort Apache

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 28, 2013

Fort Apache—John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Shirley Temple, John Agar, Pedro Armendariz (1948; Dir:  John Ford)

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A Custer-esque poster, reminiscent of a print often seen in 19th century saloons.

This is the first of Ford’s cavalry trilogy from the late 1940s, a landmark series and an extraordinary achievement in the western genre.  This initial entry revolves around the conflict in leadership between Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda, with a streak of white in his hair), a by-the-book martinet with no experience in dealing with Indians, and the more reasonable, pragmatic and experienced Capt. Kirby York (John Wayne).  The Chiricahua Apaches under Cochise have left their reservation (the leadership of Cochise would place this in the early 1870s) and gone to Mexico.  It falls to Thursday’s command to deal with them.

fortapache2 Henry Fonda as Col. Owen Thursday

West Point graduate Thursday rose to be a general in the Civil War, but afterward he was reduced in rank as the military shrank to its peacetime size.  He feels that small-time Fort Apache in Arizona Territory isn’t worthy of him, and, Custer-like, he wants to reclaim supposed past military glories in his new posting.  He’s overly concerned with insignificant military niceties and too stubborn to accept advice from more experienced subordinates.  His highest-ranking subordinates are Captains York, who also saw service as a colonel in the Civil War but has since acquired considerable experience out west dealing with the Apaches, and Collingwood (silent film star George O’Brien, who played older officers in all three of Ford’s cavalry trilogy movies), older than York and with a longer and warmer acquaintance with Thursday.  Collingwood is on the verge of retirement, just waiting out the days or weeks in this remote outpost until his final retirement orders come through.  Unlike Thursday, York has enough experience to realize the outpost’s vulnerabilities.  As York sees it, not everything needs to come to a fight, including the current situation with Cochise.  To complicate matters, Thursday’s daughter Philadelphia (an almost grown-up ShirleyTemple) shows up at the post and develops a romantic interest in young West Point graduate Lt. Michael O’Rourke (John Agar).  O’Rourke is the son of the post’s Irish sergeant major (Ward Bond)—now a non-commissioned officer, although he was a Medal of Honor winner and a major in the Civil War.  To Thursday, that would be a highly unsuitable match.

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Thursday shows some signs of being able to learn as he and York discover that the Apaches have left their reservation because they’ve been systematically cheated by a corrupt Indian agent, who’s also selling guns and alcohol to them on the side.  York is sent with Sgt. Beaufort (a Mexican and former Confederate major, played by Pedro Armendariz; the sergeant speaks Spanish as does Cochise) on a diplomatic mission to find Cochise and persuade him to come back.  In reliance on York’s word, Cochise and his people come far enough back to parley with Thursday.  However, Thursday is certain he knows best, and he is grossly and unnecessarily offensive to the Indians, precipitating a battle.  He is sure that savages with no training cannot have the military capability of defeating U.S. cavalry, no matter how outnumbered that cavalry might be.  Going against York’s advice, Thursday charges into an ambush, with York and young O’Rourke ordered to stay behind with the supply train.

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The result is the massacre of all Thursday’s men, including Collingwood and the elder O’Rourke.  In the final scene at the post some years after the event, York is now the commanding officer, and not-quite-so young O’Rourke is his second in command, now married to Philadelphia Thursday.  Members of the press are asking York about Thursday’s supposedly heroic last stand and a famous painting of “Thursday’s Charge,” and York confirms the glorious myth—“Correct in every detail,” he says of the overblown and obviously inaccurate painting.  It’s a foretaste of the Liberty Valance valedictory:  “When the legend become fact, print the legend.”

There are the usual Ford cavalry characters here:  Irish sergeants led by Michael O’Rourke (Ward Bond), Fergus Mulcahey (Victor McLaglen) and Quincannon (Dick Foran); young, mouthy lieutenants (John Agar); beautiful eastern young women (Temple) inexperienced with the west; savvy long-time military wives (Emily Collingwood and Mary O’Rourke, played by Anna Lee and Irene Rich); noble Indian leaders (Cochise, played here by Miguel Inclan); former Conferates now serving well out west (Armendariz); and scurrilous Indian agents (Silas Meacham, played by Grant Withers).  There are names that will recur in future parts of the cavalry trilogy:  Quincannon (a stereotypical Irish sergeant played by twice by McLaglen in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande) and Kirby York (played again by Wayne in Rio Grande).  No Ben Johnson or Harry Carey, Jr., yet, though; they’ll have to wait for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  Young lovers Agar and Temple were in fact married at the time, although they’d be divorced in a couple more years.

fortapache1  Production still:  Wayne, Fonda, Agar and Temple

These three movies were not conceived as a trilogy, and, though they all have typical Ford weaknesses (nostalgia, sentimentality, broad stereotypes), they have his strengths as well, including his unparalleled visual sense.  This, like the others, was filmed at Utah’s Monument Valley (although the Fort Apache set was located in Simi Valley, California), and is in black and white.  In some ways, the plot of Fort Apache is the strongest of the three.  It’s based on a short story by James Bellah, “Massacre.”

In addition to Custer, an Arizona inspiration for the story might be Lt. Howard Cushing of the 3rd Cavalry.  Cushing led his troopers into an Apache ambush at Bear Spring northwest of Fort Huachuca in Arizona Territory and was killed.  He is sometimes referred to as “the Custer of Arizona.”

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The Tin Star

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 13, 2013

The Tin Star—Henry Fonda, Anthony Perkins, Betsy Palmer, Neville Brand, John McIntire, Lee Van Cleef (1957; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

Grizzled bounty hunter Morgan Hickman (Henry Fonda) meets green sheriff Ben Owens (Tony Perkins in one of his first roles):  “How long you had that badge?”  “Since Sheriff Parker…uh, got killed.”  “Nobody else wanted it, huh?  How come they picked you?”  “I’m only temporary.”  “You’re more temporary than you think.”

The title is a generic sort for a western featuring a lawman; in fact, a short story with this name was made into the classic High Noon.  In this case Hickman has come to town to collect the reward on an outlaw he brings in, dead and draped over his pack horse, only to find himself despised by the respectable townspeople.  The inexperienced sheriff is just finding his way in a difficult job and tells Hickman he’ll have to wait for his money until he gets confirmation from the party offering the reward.  This means Hickman will have to spend at least several days in the hostile town until he can get paid.  The town bully and livery stable owner is Bart Bogardus (played by experienced villain Neville Brand, who was said to be the fourth most-decorated American soldier during World War II); Bogardus thinks he’d be a better sheriff than Owens.  Hickman bails Owens out of a difficult situation with Bogardus and unintentionally becomes the young sheriff’s mentor.

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Hickman (Henry Fonda) submits a claim to the green sheriff (Anthony Perkins).

Meanwhile, the hotel won’t rent Hickman a room, and he finds accommodations with young widow Nona Mayfield (Betsy Palmer) and her half-Indian son.  In addition to making a place for himself as sheriff, Owens is also trying to get Millie Parker (Mary Webster) to marry him.  But she’s the daughter of the previous (and now dead) sheriff, and she won’t marry him unless he takes off the tin star.  The beloved town doctor (John McIntire) is killed, and Owens loses control of his posse to Bogardus.  It becomes a mob.  Meanwhile, Hickman and Owens find and capture the killers, but may not be able to hold them against Bogardus and the mob.  As Hickman and Owens become better friends, Hickman reveals that he had been a lawman in Kansas when his own family needed help, and the townspeople he thought were his friends wouldn’t provide the assistance he needed.  He now has few illusions about the relationships between townspeople and those they hire to protect them, and he thinks they ask too much while providing too little in return.

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Hickman gives the youngster a few tips.

In the final confrontation between Owens and Bogardus, Hickman puts on the star again in support of Owens, but Owens, armed with what he’s learned from Hickman, is the one who has to deal with the situation.  And at the end Hickman takes off with the young widow and her son to find another town that wants somebody to wear a star.

tinstarpalmerfonda Romancing the widow.

This is one of a number of westerns from the 1950s that explored social issues, especially one of those concerned with a sense of community and how much townspeople owe to those who enforce the law against the lawless.  (Compare it with High Noon, Man With the Gun, At Gunpoint, 3:10 to Yuma and Rio Bravo, for example.)  The townspeople usually come off badly in such situations, so much so that it has become a cliché (see Support Your Local Sheriff, for example, which exploits that cliche to comic effect).

The cast here is appealing, with a good relationship between American everyman Fonda and the young Tony Perkins.  Palmer is attractive and straightforward as Fonda’s romantic interest.  John McIntire is his usual avuncular self as the town doctor, but he’s basically the same character as Walter Brennan in At Gunpoint.  McIntire was a Mann favorite, and shows up more colorfully in Winchester ’73 and The Far Country, too.  Villains Brand and Van Cleef do exactly what they’re supposed to do.

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Anthony Mann directs Fonda and Perkins in a scene.

This is the better one of the two good westerns directed by Anthony Mann that don’t feature James Stewart.  (The other is Man of the West with Gary Cooper.)  Mann was more interested in psychological and social issues than some directors of westerns in the 1950s, but he knew what he was doing.  This is in black and white, at a time when most movies with ambitions (even westerns) were in color.  But it doesn’t suffer for all of that.

For another movie featuring Fonda as an experienced ex-lawman helping a younger and greener peace officer, see Warlock, made a couple of years later.

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