Eye For Film >> Movies >> Warlock (1959) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jeff Robson
The Western in the Fiftiees was a conventional thing, wasn’t it? The good guy rode a white horse, the bad guy wore a black hat. Right and justice always prevailed, while a spotlessly pure rancher’s daughter waited to be claimed as the hero’s prize. A staid, moribund genre just waiting for Leone and Peckinpah to ride into town and blow it away.
Figured wrong, pardner. Yes, there were hundreds of films like that. But there were plenty that questioned and subverted those conventions, while still retaining the assured direction, tight scripting and technical prowess of Hollywood in its prime.
Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller engaged in wholesale gender reversal with Johnny Guitar and 40 Guns. Robert Aldrich tackled borderline-incestuous themes in The Last Sunset and took his ‘tough guys and tougher broads’ noir template down Mexico way in Vera Cruz. Anthony Mann and James Stewart brought a harder edge to conventional formulas in Winchester ’73 and The Man From Laramie, while Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott boiled the genre down to its essentials in The Tall T and Comanche Station - classics where stereotypes become archetypes and their elemental conflicts have the universal resonance of Greek tragedy.
Not a bad collection – and we haven’t even mentioned High Noon, Shane, The Searchers or Rio Bravo. If further proof were needed that directors and writers of the era weren’t afraid to try something different, one need only look at Warlock, reissued in a spanking new restoration at this year’s London Film Festival.
It opens with a complete subversion of a genre staple – the high street shoot-out. A wild card rancher, Abe McQuown (Tom Drake) has come into town to challenge the local sheriff. He comes out – then sees McQuown has placed hidden riflemen everywhere, ready to backshoot him as soon as he makes a move. The sheriff drops his gun and flees, whereupon the bad guys beat him up, humiliate him and run him out of town. While the locals look on and do nothing.
It soon becomes clear this has been a pattern for a while. As in High Noon, the frontier folk aren’t hardy pioneers taming the awakening land, but small-town nonentities ready to look the other way and rely on someone else to do the dirty work of upholding the law. As no one will take up the vacant sheriff’s post, the ‘citizens’ committee’ decide to hire an unofficial ‘marshal’ to tame the town. They choose Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda) a Wyatt Earp-ish legendary gunslinger known for bringing law and order to towns by being even more darn scary than the outlaws he takes on.
He duly arrives, accompanied by his club-footed friend and mentor Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn) and their travelling casino operation. Initial encounters prove he’s in a different league to the rancher’s blustering thugs and things seem to take a turn for the better. Blaisedell even begins a cautious courtship of Jesse Marlowe (Dolores Michaels), the local nurse and orphaned daughter of one of the town’s pioneers, who had been a fierce opponent of his appointment.
But trouble rides into town in the shape of Lily (Dorothy Malone) a rejected old flame of Morgan’s who’s nursed a burning hatred of Blaisedell ever since he killed Ben Nicholson, the man she aimed to start a new life with. Morgan murders her travelling companion, Nicholson’s brother, and tries to pin the blame on McQuown’s men. The townsfolk are equally keen to use Blaisedell to settle all their old scores, but are dismayed by his even-handed refusal to give in to mob justice and disapproving of the portable saloon he’s brought with him.
As matters get increasingly complicated, Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark) – one of McQuown’s men who quit after one killing too many - volunteers to become sheriff, instigating some ‘proper law’ and resolving to find the real killer. Even though this puts him against his own brother, Billy (Frank Gorshin). Lily finds herself drawn to the troubled but essentially decent Johnny. But Morgan realises that to keep the truth hidden and maintain his friendship with Clay, he’ll have to destroy them all…
A heady stew, indeed. And underpinning it all is one of the least ‘sub-‘gay subtexts I’ve ever seen in a mainstream Fifties American movie. Quinn’s penchant for floral waistcoats and his supervising of the interior decorating arrangements when he and Clay arrive in Warlock ("I’ve ordered new drapes from San Francisco") are the outward trappings of a devotion that’s clearly lasted for years but can never be properly acknowledged.
Instead, it’s twisted into an obsessive determination to keep Clay safe and never let anyone (least of all a woman) come between them. When Lily tells Morgan she wants to kill Clay, not him "because he’s the only person you’ve ever cared for" and Morgan says Clay’s "the only man who looked at me and didn’t see a cripple" I suspect most contemporary audiences would have got what they were talking about.
Even if you don’t buy that interpretation (and judging by the IMDB message boards there are many people who most definitely don’t) it’s still a fascinating subversion of one of the genre staples – the manly bond of the two tough guys who have to watch each other’s back. When Morgan sees Clay’s relationship with Jessie developing, it’s yet another threat to their life together. But it also causes Clay to question how much he too needs his partner – and whether he wants to leave his old life behind. And all the while a confrontation with ‘official’ law, in the shape of the new sheriff, is looking increasingly inevitable…
Dmytryk keeps it all ticking along nicely with the assurance of an old pro, while giving all the central relationships and subtler nuances room to breathe. The screenplay’s taut and literate, John MacDonald’s lush Technicolor cinematography is a masterpiece of winedark richness and the sets and costumes are as striking as anything Leone could have created. And the performances crown it perfectly. Widmark, given top billing, has a role that could have been made for him, Equally adept at playing heroes and villains, here his character’s a little of both; desperate to leave behind a violent past and find love and happiness, but unsure if he’ll ever be strong enough. Quinn, never a great actor, but often the right man for the job, grabs a meaty, literate part by the scruff of the neck and gives one of his finest turns. And the two female leads transcend their stereotypical characters (saloon girl and ministering angel) just as much as the men.
Fonda, of course, is superb. This film marked the leaving behind a back-catalogue of all-American heroes (from his earliest appearances in John Ford’s The Grapes Of Wrath and Young Mr Lincoln, through to My Darling Clementine and his Broadway run as the crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow) to portray a much more complex character – one whose clear-eyed straight arrow determination can become deadly ruthlessness. It was the start of a path that would take in the equally fascinating Firecreek and culminate in his magisterial turn as Frank in Once Upon A Time In The West.
Blaisedell is much less an out-and-out villain, and indeed his belief in the law, even the flawed and twisted version he enforces, is one of the character traits that offers him hope of redemption. But you’ll be guessing right to the end as to whether it’ll be enough… Throw in Dr McCoy from Star Trek as a punk would-be gunslinger and The Riddler from Batman as Widmark’s doomed little bruv and you’ve got a premier package. Yes, some of it’s a bit overblown and ‘Freud For Beginners’. But for those unconvinced of the Western’s ability to tackle any theme it darn well-liked this will serve as a welcome corrective; hopefully the reissue will lead to a reappraisal of Broken Lance, Dmytryk’s equally fine ranch-house reworking of King Lear.
And if you’re already a fan, fingers crossed it’s a prelude to a bells-and-whistles DVD. Because any Western connoisseur worth the name should have this in their collection.Reviewed on: 15 Oct 2015