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Warlock (1959)

by Glenn Erickson Jun 01, 2019

As the first wave of ‘adult’ westerns began to fade, 1959 gave us a burst of genuinely adult stories about the famed lawless towns of the frontier. Henry Fonda is at his moody best in a replay of his earlier Wyatt Earp, de-mythologized as just one more self-oriented opportunist in a land where even lawmen have an angle to play. But Fonda’s gun skills are impressive, and his deadly Clay Blaisedell is halfway to becoming the soulless ‘Frank’ from Once Upon a Time in The West. Edward Dmytryk almost rights his capsized directing career, and Robert Alan Aurthur’s screenplay delivers both an intense drama, & great gunslinging action.


Warlock
Blu-ray
Twilight Time
1959 / Colo / 2:35 widescreen / 122 min. / Street Date May 21, 2019 / Available from Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring: Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone, Dolores Michaels, Wallace Ford, Tom Drake, Richard Arlen, DeForest Kelley, Frank Gorshin, Vaughn Taylor, Don Beddoe, Whit Bissell, Don ‘Red’ Barry, Wally Campo, Walter Coy, Ann Doran, Roy Jenson, L.Q. Jones, Joe Turkel
Cinematography: Joe MacDonald
Art Direction: Herman A. Blumenthal, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor: Jack W. Holmes
Original Music: Leigh Harline
Written by Robert Alan Aurthur from a novel by Oakley Hallmall
Produced and Directed by
Edward Dmytryk

 

Fans familiar with Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah will want to check out this original western thriller. Warlock is possibly the high point of the ’50s ‘adult’ western, and that’s no joke. It stands apart from hundreds of other town-taming westerns by virtue of a script that actually has something to say about the problem of Law and Order in barely-established frontier towns. Most genre pictures simply have some everyman like Fred MacMurray stand up to assert civilized values. Warlock invents an interesting group of characters around the problematic idea of peace dispensed at the point of a gun.

 

Richard Widmark gets top billing and the most emotional scenes, but Warlock belongs to Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn. Does this sound like your neighborhood? The town of Warlock is overrun by wild, murdering cowboys. Rancher Abe McQuown (Tom Drake) is determined to keep Warlock terrorized so that it won’t grow and threaten his interests, which include rustling. After McQuown’s men run the deputy sheriff (Walter Coy) out of town, the businessmen on main street go to the extreme measure of hiring the notorious Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda), a slick professional gunman who guarantees to clean out the troublemakers… if he’s given a free hand. Blaisedell moves in with his business partner Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn). The less savory Morgan maneuvers behind Clay’s back to hide some past dirty business with Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone), a woman who now wants Clay dead. As he holds the McQuown bunch to an uneasy standoff, Clay is attracted to an upstanding local, Jessie Marlow (Dolores Michaels), and considers settling down.

The wild card ingredient in the mix is Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), a McQuown man. Johnny defects to the side of the townspeople, and strikes up a friendship with Lily Dollar. When the townies become frightened by Clay’s methods — as Clay said they would — they try to break their contract. Johnny decides to take the job of Deputy Marshall. That puts him in a technical squeeze play between the McQuown killers, who are now calling themselves official ‘regulators’ of justice, and the equally illegal vigilante Blaisedell. Johnny may be the only real law in Warlock, but he is no match for Clay, especially when Morgan backs him up.

Fonda is beginning his persona shift from the decent cowboy of The Ox-Bow Incident to the verminous outlaw of Once Upon a Time in The West. His Clay Blaisedell talks the values of the ‘old Fonda,’ steering a crowd away from a hanging, but he’s also beginning to freeze into a rigid killer, whose charm hides a basic corruption. For western style and class, Fonda is remarkable. He’s no longer a young man, but he walks the line as well as any screen gunslinger ever — a dead-eye stare, the balance of a ballet dancer and a sensational way of speaking when a gunfire exchange is imminent. His face-off with DeForest Kelley is worth re-viewing two or three times — I’ll get back to that in a minute. Fonda’s grudging envy of Widmark’s character is displayed in the smallest of smiles.

 

This is one of Anthony Quinn’s best movies, free of overbearing bluster and ‘earthiness.’ His too- devoted, too- loyal Morgan is really a conniving Iago character. Quinn has a terrific drunk scene, where Tom Morgan revels in his chap-book reputation as a rattlesnake killer. But Tom also quotes Shakespeare, suggesting a background of refinement. Critics rarely pass up the opportunity to call out the ‘hidden’ homoerotic relationship between Blaisedell and Morgan. It’s so obvious, it’s a surprise that somebody in town doesn’t acknowledge it directly. Most of the tale is standard western programmer stuff, but it’s all rearranged in an unusually intelligent pattern.

Warlock has plenty of parallels with the Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickock stories, even though it isn’t based on history. Henry Fonda’s awe-inspiring Clay Blaisedell really is the fastest man alive and his services come steep. By hiring him Warlock makes a figurative deal with the devil, sort of a Neighborhood Association contract that’s all perfectly extra-legal. In exchange for standing up against troublemakers, Clay gets an exclusive gambling franchise, a Faro parlor. The unstressed part of the deal is that he also becomes the law unto himself, a warlord. What he says goes, and if he decides to kill somebody – anybody – it’s the town that carries the ultimate responsibility. Neither Blaisedell nor his crude associate Tom Morgan believes in putting down roots. The town will honor its new protectors only until they’re no longer needed. Then Clay and Tom will be an unsavory liability, a reminder of civic lawlessness in action.

Politically speaking, Warlock is a departure from the Cold War norm of ’50s westerns. If the provisional township of Warlock is an underdeveloped country, McQuown is its entrenched dictator, and Blaisedell an outside ‘interested party’ that can keep the peace but eventually will become oppressive as well. Johnny Gannon is the humane democratic alternative, who can lead the country to civilized status. But Gannon has little local backing, and can’t match the military punch of either of his opponents. Edward Dmytryk directed and produced as well. Is Warlock more interesting because he’s once again pushing (in a subtle manner) a political statement?

 

But only critics worry about politics in Hollywood westerns. Warlock begins conventionally enough, graduating to class-A status with Clay’s first showdown with Abe McQuown’s uncouth cowboys. There’s little honor but much on view, as Quinn settles in to back Fonda with a shotgun. Fonda’s blowhard adversaries soon pipe down when he challenges them on a one-for-one basis. Johnny Gannon’s younger brother Billy Gannon (Frank Gorshin) is a cocky fool who must be restrained from getting blown in two. The gun-challenge between Fonda and Curley Burne (Star Trek’s DeForest Kelley) cues a classic moment: Clay outdraws the smart-mouthed Curley, who is left no choice but to backpedal like a craven weasel. It’s great.

(Fans of DeForest Kelley will like a Trivia anecdote from the set of Warlock, found at the IMDB.)

The show gives us the expected choice of Bad and Good women, neatly compartmentalized. Dorothy Malone is excellent as the prostitute Lily Dollar, a name that should have won a prize for coded comment. Lily all but broadcasts her former humiliation being pimped out by Tom Morgan — and he still can’t understand why she looked for something better. Dolores Michaels gets to put some sauce in the pert & polite Jessie Marlow, basically coming on to Clay on a secluded hillside. Ms. Michaels began as the ‘101st harem babe on the left’ in Howard Hughes’ flesh parade Son of Sinbad. Both roles are a notch above the usual love interest figures seen in upscale westerns.

Robert Alan Aurthur was a prolific writer for live television, who also contributed uncredited to Robert Rossen’s psychodrama Lilith. In Warlock he brings freshness to author Oakley Hall’s star subplots. Dolores Michaels’ scenes with Fonda are more than curious — when not facing down hoodlums, Fonda’s Clay behaves like a dapper gentleman and spends some of his time eating her breakfasts. Dorothy Malone’s Lily Dollar comes to town to seek vengeance against Fonda, and her backstory illuminates the sickness of Tom Morgan’s partnership with Clay. None too pleased with either woman, Tom offers backbiting comments, as if he were a female rival for Clay’s attention. Tom is perversely tickled when Lily gravitates toward Richard Widmark’s reformed hell-raiser — having been jilted by Lily long ago, Tom is eager to savor Lily’s misery when Johnny dies.

 

Henry Fonda had defected to the stage for much of the 1950s, while Widmark was currently the film’s strongest box office name. Johnny Gannon is a tough character to turn into a hero, as he just hangs around for most of the movie. Although we know Johnny is sincere about taking on the Deputy Marshall job, we fear it’s because he wants Lily Dollar’s approval. Widmark ends up on the bad side of Tom Drake’s psychotic Abe McQuown, and he struggles to keep his immature brother Billy from challenging Clay Blaisedell to a shoot-out. Widmark gets to show several kinds of anguish, the strongest being a scene when his Johnny Gannon is tortured with a hand wound, much like James Stewart suffered in Anthony Mann’s The Man from Laramie. But we’re more interested in Clay Blaisedell’s evolving attitude toward Johnny — Clay envies Johnny’s simple humanist morality, which the showboat gunslinger fears he has lost.

A trio of surprisingly original showdowns in the dusty street resolve Widmark’s, Quinn’s and Fonda’s characters in classic terms.

Here’s a question … was there once a second ending to Warlock? (spoiler) I’m certain that in one television viewing, when Clay leaves town, we see Jessie Marlow meet him in a wagon at the end of the street. In this DVD she remains behind with the other townspeople and watches Fonda go. I’m beginning to believe that I’ve confused the last shot of Warlock with the ending of another film.

Fonda is a pleasure to watch. His Wyatt Earp from My Darling Clementine has become a self-satisfied, high-earning celebrity. Clay has turned his killing talent into a métier; his personal self-image is always in need of a public relations assist. Anthony Quinn is equally fascinating. Morgan’s preference for a partnership with Fonda motivates him to decorate their apartments. He takes care of all the details, like bushwacking men who might spill the beans about killings he’s committed behind Fonda’s back. Morgan’s rough treatment of Malone’s character is indeed the action of a jealous rival, who flies out of control when he feels his devotion is not appreciated. Neither Clay nor anyone else in Warlock is aware of anything overtly gay, just extreme partnership conflicts. That’s the limitation of applying coded arguments on older movies. How do subtleties stay subtle when they are so prominently pointed out?

Every buddy movie is going to attract this interpretation. In The Wild Bunch, Ernest Borgnine’s Dutch Engstrom is practically a wife to William Holden’s Pike Bishop; he’s the one character who doesn’t visit the prostitutes, preferring to wait outside and whittle pieces of wood. I don’t think that makes Dutch gay, but I’ve heard that opinion directly stated more than once, starting with Janey Place at UCLA in the early ’70s.

Warlock is a big-budget studio effort with about thirty speaking roles and numerous notable bits that allow us to observe good work from Wallace Ford (Freaks), Richard Arlen, Vaughn Taylor, L.Q. Jones, and Whit Bissell. As the villainous McQuown, Tom Drake shows an entire different personality than he did as Judy Garland’s boy-next-door in Meet Me in St. Louis. Frank Gorshin is practically a main character but doesn’t even receive name billing. Wally Campo, Roy Jenson, Gary Lockwood, and Joe Turkel are said to be in there too, if one looks carefully enough.


 

The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Warlock is a good encoding of this absorbing western drama that finds an exceptional dramatic foundation for its more traditional western action. The show came out on DVD in 2005, in an okay transfer that at least was letterboxed, showing us the film’s CinemaScope compositions for the first time. It was released again as an inexplicably pan-scanned Fox Cinema Archives DVD, angering more than one cash customer.

The negative for this show may have faded. The image is sharp and stable, but colors are not ideal and the contrast is consistently milky, with no good blacks. Colorists these days can get better results from almost anything, so perhaps this is an older transfer?  That’s an uninformed guess. Another Fox western from the same year called The Bravados looks perfect on Twilight Time disc, so something happened to this particular title. The film is so good that the slightly sub-par image is not all that much of a detriment.

The original poster for Warlock fashions a graphic from a circle of guns. Tell people about a movie called ‘Warlock’ and they always expect a Satanic theme, and the poster suggests it as well.

Essayist Julie Kirgo contributes liner notes that praise the film’s mature themes and conflicted characters. She also notes the fine work of both screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur and novelist Oakley Hall, who was admired by none other than Thomas Pynchon. Other extras are a fuzzy trailer and some newsreel footage of Greek royalty visiting the set. But I have the feeling that by 1959 a non-epic western like Warlock couldn’t make news no matter how big it was. And when film criticism turned to genres in the 1970s, nobody was promoting the graces of a director with negative blacklist issues. Andrew Sarris didn’t even include Edward Dmytryk in his menagerie of notable directors.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Warlock
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Isolated Music Track essay by Julie Kirgo.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
May 30, 2019
(6018warl)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.