Warlock (1958), directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn and Dorothy Malone, is an intelligently crafted Western drama that deals with issues of vigilantism and Law & Order
Edward Dmytryk is one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors, who started his career in films as early as the 1920s. Never to be mistaken for a serious artist, Dmytryk, nevertheless, was a solid craftsman who made some serious movies about some serious social issues. He was also one of the pioneers of the ‘Film Noir’ movement – having made some of the early classic Noirs like “Murder, My Sweet” and “Crossfire.” Unfortunately, his career was interrupted by the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Dmytryk, who was briefly a member of the Communist party, was one of the fabled “Hollywood 10” who refused to cooperate with HUAC and had their careers disrupted or ruined as a result. The committee threw him in prison for refusing to cooperate. But, after having spent several months behind bars, Dmytryk decided to cooperate; he gave the committee names of several fellow communists who were working in the industry. After this, he was released from prison and he was able to resume his filmmaking career; and he had a good run in the ’50s making strong, complexly-plotted, star-studded dramatic films across several genres, especially Westerns and War films. During this period, he made such widely acclaimed films as “Broken Lance,” “The Mountain” and “The Young Lions.” His most celebrated film during this period was the Oscar nominated World War II Naval drama “The Caine Mutiny (1954).” In these films, he would also work with some of the greatest actors of all time, like Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. “Warlock(1959)” is probably Dmytryk’s best western, and, along with “High Noon” and “Rio Bravo,” is one of the greatest ‘Town-Westerns’ that deal with the subject of Law & Order in the old-West. The film also showcases the changing nature of the Western, which by the late ’50s has started to become more serious and psychologically complex. Unlike “Rio Bravo,” (the most famous Western from the year 1959) where the heroes and villains are perfectly delineated and the plot follows all the conventions of a traditional Western , “Warlock” is filled with morally ambiguous characters and features a multi-layered, complex plot that deals with issues arising from the establishment of Order through two different modes: vigilantism and proper enforcement of law.
Warlock is a small Utah mining town of the early 1880s suffering from attacks by a gang of vicious thugs led by Abe McQuown. The deputy Sheriff has been chased out of town by the thugs, and the town, being not incorporated, does not have authority to have its own marshal. Nevertheless, The honest townsfolk meet and decide to hire infamous gunslinger Clay Blaisedell to act as a Marshal (without legal backing). Blaisdell, aided by his trusty, clubfooted companion Tom Morgan, proceeds to clean up the town and promptly takes control of the gambling and dance parlor. But things heat up when one of McQuown’s thugs, Johnny Gannon, decides to reform himself and legally takes on the role of the Deputy sheriff. This puts Blaisedell & Morgan in conflict with Gannon, who insists on maintaining order only through proper enforcement of the law. This, coupled with the fact that McQuown and his thugs are plotting destructive revenge for running them out of town, means that Warlock is soon going to become a battleground; with the threat of a three-way-fight looming, as Gannon swears to take down both Blaisedell & Morgan as well as McQuown & gang. Things are further complicated when Lily Dollar, Morgan’s ex-lover, arrives in town thirsting for revenge; a jealous Morgan was responsible for pushing Lily’s recent lover, Ben, into challenging Blaisedell, who killed him. She now wants Blaisedell dead to punish Morgan. Lily starts getting romantically involved with Gannon, much to the chagrin of Morgan, who’s still in love with her. Blaisedell also starts a relationship with town-girl, Jessie Marlow, and decides to marry and settle down, further enraging Morgan, who wants to move on. So, even as McQuown’s gang are on their way to attack the town, a rift develops between Blaisedell and Morgan, as Morgan tries to set up a duel between Blaisedell and Gannon- leading to tragic consequences.
“Warlock” is a perfect example of how one can elevate an archetypal Western storyline with some depth in plot & characterization along with a great cast of actors to create a solid dramatic piece that transcends its genre. The basic plot, as described above, sounds very routine for a Western; the out-of-town-gunslinger, with a tough reputation and a sidekick in tow, hired to protect a town overrun by outlaws has been a staple of Westerns since time immemorial. What makes this film standout from many other Westerns operating on the same storyline is the additional moral & socio-political dimensions that Dmytryk, his writer, Robert Alan Aurthur (who adapted it from Oakley Hall’s eponymous novel) and the great actors he has assembled for the film – which includes such legends as Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Richard Widmark and Dorothy Malone – has imparted to these standard Western themes and characters. Here, all the major characters are multi-layered. In a role\performance that’s more of a precursor to his fully immoral, villainous turn in “Once upon a Time in the West,” Henry Fonda plays the central character of the archetypal gunslinger, Blaisedell, as a cold, morally ambiguous, egomaniacal pro with a dubious past. And, turning the tables on the usual hero-sidekick convention, we have Morgan, played by Anthony Quinn, who, despite being physically handicapped, turning out to be the more dominant, brainy and resourceful of the duo; who, despite being loyal to his partner to the point of being homoerotic, is not above manipulating his partner into doing his dirty work.
Morgan’s morbid affection for Blaisedell, which will finally drive Morgan close to sheer madness, is one of the central themes of the movie. The mutual attachment between Blaisedell and sidekick Morgan is highly unusual for a macho western- made more conspicuous with the casting of the extremely butch & macho Quinn in the role. Director, Dmytryk, has always insisted that the homoerotic undertones in the relationship was never intentional, But given the fact that it was a time of strict censorship, and coupled with the fact that Quinn is given a physical handicap, which’s what writers\filmmakers of the time used to convey something queer about a character, it does open itself to that kind of reading; the reading is reasonable but it’s in no way absolute. Morgan’s explanation for his excess devotion to his partner goes something like ‘he’s the only one who saw him as a man and not a cripple.’ His excessive attachment could also be due to the fact that he needs Blaisedell more than Blaisedell needs him; being a handicap, he cannot survive in these violent old-West towns on his own. It’s imperative to Morgan that Blaisedell remains the Number one gunfighter around, because his destiny, his pride and his standing in society is tied to Blaisedell; he’s never going to be the number one gunfighter; being the number one gunfighter’s partner is the best he can hope to do. Blaisedell giving up marshalling and settling down in domesticity is bad news for Morgan, because it will render Morgan useless and impotent – a fate that Morgan wants to avoid at all costs. Also, Morgan knows Blaisedell better than Blaisedell himself, and Morgan is sure that Blaisedell cannot be anything other than a gunfighter. Morgan is one of the most fascinating characters that I have ever come across in a Western. He has so many dimensions: from a jealous lover, to an immoral pimp who does not hesitate to push his woman into prostitution when he runs out of money, to a loyal friend and partner who zealously protects his friend from ‘back-shooters,’ yet he himself is an unscrupulous back-shooter, who treacherously kills people, and who’s not above betraying and using his friend\partner to do his dirty work, to someone who embraces glorious ‘martyrdom’ in an effort to keep his pride & worth, to maintain his friend’s undisputed gunslinger status, and to make his friend realize that he is still a cold killer not suited for domesticity. Anthony Quinn gives a brilliant performance – perhaps one among his top three career-best performances as the flawed, multifaceted Morgan.
As for Fonda’s Blaisedell, as long as he is tied up with Morgan, his is never going to be safe; he’ll be moving from town to town peddling his wares, until his luck runs out (or Morgan’s stealth & concentration runs out). And his luck is fast running out; a new breed of young & violent gunfighters are taking over the West; we see this in the course of the film, where McQuown organizes a posse of ‘regulators’ to take down the vigilante duo. Fonda is perfectly cast as Blaisedell, the well-dressed, lighting-fast, aging gunfighter whose noble visage hides a more darker persona. The film also shows that, despite charging four times the remuneration paid to a real lawman, Blaisedell still has to resort to a side business – his portable gambling Casino – to lead a comfortable life; the money he’s charging for his services would barely cover his expenses for practicing shooting. Fonda’s scenes with Dolores Michaels’ Jessie have some real poignancy to them; it portrays Blaisedell as a man who desperately wants to leave killing behind, but knows very well that he will always be the hired gunfighter who will be loathed by the same people who seek out his services. Although Richard Widmark has top billing, this is clearly Fonda’s film. Widmark looks a bit lost as a guilty-ridden outlaw turned unsure town sheriff, and is relegated mostly to the background as Fonda and Quinn takes center stage. The scenes between the understated Fonda and the outgoing Quinn are truly electric; the two actors work extremely well together, with their final confrontation being the most powerful segment of the film.
The film also has a strong supporting cast, with Tom Drake cast against type as the main baddie, McQuown, the loathsome, treacherous coward, who never face a duel without an accomplice ready to shoot his opponent in the back. Then there is the pre-Star-Trek DeForest Kelley. who has a scene-stealing cameo as a gregarious member of McQuown’s gang, and who ends up backing Widmark in the final shootout. There is also another Star-Trekker, Frank Gorshin as Widmark’s brother, whose excess pride leads to him getting killed by Fonda. The film has two major female roles, who play a pivotal part in the narrative, but as in any Western they are marginalized towards the climax, as the film becomes an all-male show. Dorothy Malone has the more meatier role of Lily, but she’s unable to pull it off with the depth required for the role, instead giving her usual overheated performance that is more suitable for a Douglas Sirk film. As a director, Dmytryk is in his elements here, pulling off a multi-character-driven, multi-layered plot to create an unusual, engaging and thought-provoking Western drama that goes beyond genre conventions. The multi-character set up and complex plotting also leads to some of the film’s problems; it’s too talky for a Western, and the abundance of characters and their complexities sometimes make the narrative a little confusing. Nevertheless, aided by Joseph MacDonald’s colorful widescreen cinematography (that gives the film both an epic sweep – exterior sequences were all shot in Moab, Utah, near Arches National Park, and the locations are magnificent – as well as a claustrophobic feel in the town sequences) and Robert Alan Aurthur’s literate script that meditates on a whole host of issues, and Leigh Harline’s wonderful music, Dmytryk manages to keep the proceeding more or less interesting at all times.
The town scenes were filmed at 20th Century Fox Studios in Century City, CA, and the design of the town is quite unique and different from other Westerns. The town itself is a major character in the film, and ‘maturing of a town’ its pivotal theme (which explains why the film is named after the town); with Widmark’s Gannon acting as a spiritual representation of the town itself; his transformation from an outlaw into a responsible lawman – who’s capable of defeating the town’s enemies singlehandedly, without the help of the vigilante duo of Blaisedell & Morgan – is a metaphor for the old-West town becoming civilized; which happens only when there is proper enforcement of the law. Throughout the film, Widmark is the only one who insists on proper law enforcement, while the rest of the townsfolk are only concerned with establishing order at any cost. But in the end, Widmark’s Gannon wins, as Blaisedell rides out of town without engaging in the customary Western showdown. The film has its share of well-staged gunfights, but the film also subverts or pulls back from many instances where we expect a showdown: even after an epic buildup, the expected gunfight does not happen; the first confrontation between Blaisedell & Morgan with McQuown’s gang is one such instance, but the most effective one is the final sequence where Blaisedell, even after outdrawing Gannon, does not shoot, instead he throws down his trademark golden colts and rides away. This means that this Western is more a drama rather than an Actioner. It’s a well structured, character-driven drama, expertly written and acted that manages to take some traditional western tropes and recreate them in a new light.