Warlock (1959) is a movie that could be approached on a number of levels: as a psychological piece, an early example of revising the myth, an allegory and even as an apology. It’s an exceedingly complex film, which is paradoxically both its strength and its weakness, and also one that remains consistently fascinating. Essentially, this is a variation on the “town tamer” western – almost a sub-genre in itself – but the dense plotting takes it off in a number of directions.
The town of Warlock has become one of those wide open places where the law can only lurk in the shadows, hoping not to draw any unwelcome attention to itself. It has turned into a stamping ground for a band of murderous cowboys, referred to as San Pabloites, who have imposed a reign of terror on the seemingly ineffectual citizens. When one of their number is murdered and the sheriff humiliatingly run out of town the residents decide that the time has come for a positive response. A decision is taken, albeit grudgingly, to hire the services of one Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda) for the position of de facto town marshal. Blaisedell, a thinly disguised version of Wyatt Earp, arrives in town along with his friend Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn) and sets about restoring law and order on his own terms whilst also overseeing the establishment of a gambling house and saloon. The no-holds-barred tactics of the new marshal soon see him in conflict not only with the San Pablo outlaws but also with those who have employed him, and by extension with the newly appointed sheriff. This man is Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), formerly one of the San Pabloites but now a reformed character – and in truth the film is as much about him as anything else. While all this is going on, Morgan is quietly scheming away in the background and manipulating events for his own ends. Sooner or later, a showdown (or more accurately a series of showdowns) will have to occur before matters can be resolved.
Warlock is a film with a whole lot going on, arguably too much for its own good. The parallel with the Wyatt Earp story is an interesting one in that it was, up to that point anyway, much closer to the reality of the situation. Blaisedell’s marshal is no shining hero bent on bringing law to the territory; he’s a professional gunman, ”handy with colts” in his own words, seeking out another pay day and raking in a little extra on the side via his saloon. If the relationship between Blaisedell and Morgan is supposed to hold up a mirror to that between Earp and Doc Holliday then it’s a skewed image that’s presented. Morgan is a crippled soul, both literally and physically, and considerably more dangerous than his partner. So far so good, but Morgan has taken friendship and loyalty to the extreme – to the point that it has twisted itself into a kind of jealous worship. Many commentators have stated that Morgan’s feelings for Blaisedell border on the homoerotic, and I can see where that notion comes from, but I don’t buy into it myself. For one thing, the director Edward Dmytryk said that that wasn’t a correct reading of the film. While Morgan’s obsessiveness towards his friend is clearly off-centre it seems to me more a product of his insecurities and self-loathing than anything else. The other main point of interest is the pivotal figure of Johnny Gannon. It’s hard not to see Dmytryk (one of the Hollywood Ten who became a “friendly witness”) projecting himself onto this character who turns his back on friends, family and associates to follow what he views as his own righteous path. Gannon’s conversion seems justified in a particularly intense scene where he confronts his old comrades in their lair in an attempt at conciliation. This gesture is spurned and results in the kind of brutal sadism that rivals James Stewart’s mutilation in The Man from Laramie.
This was Edward Dmytryk’s last good film, but that doesn’t mean it’s not without its problems. As I said, Warlock is a movie rich in plot but such richness can bring about a slightly hamstrung end product. The fact that there are so many plot strands, and the necessity to tie them all up, means that the film has three separate climaxes. The effect of this is to lessen the impact of all of them. That, of course, is more a problem with the scripting than Dmytryk’s direction, which is solid enough and contains some well thought out camera angles. The action, when it comes along, is handled competently and the gunfights are all suitably dramatic. The three leads turn in good performances, with Henry Fonda putting a different spin on the part of the lawman to that which he created with John Ford the previous decade. Anthony Quinn keeps things fairly controlled as Morgan, though he does sail perilously close to the kind of scenery chewing that he was prone to lapse into on occasion. Richard Widmark is also especially good as the outlaw-turned-sheriff who visibly grows in stature and confidence as the story progresses. His faltering romance with a worldly Dorothy Malone (playing the fabulously named Lily Dollar) has enough realism to prevent it from merely being the kind of extraneous padding that is often the case.
As far as I can tell, Warlock should be available on DVD pretty much everywhere. Optimum’s UK disc presents the film in a very fine anamorphic scope transfer. It’s generally sharp as a tack throughout and the colours really do justice to Joe MacDonald’s classy cinematography. Unfortunately, there’s not a thing on the disc in the way of extras, but that’s about par for the course with Optimum releases. OK, this film may not be one of the front line classics in the western genre but it does help its development along. The movie’s greatest flaw is trying to pack in too much story, thus throwing itself off balance. However, there are still a lot of positives to take away from it.