Director: Edward Dmytryk
Cast: Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn
Synopsis: The town of Warlock is plagued by a gang of thugs, leading the inhabitants to hire Clay Blaisdell, a famous gunman, to act as marshal.
Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock is a superior example of the kind of movies Hollywood began producing when it found that television – it’s bastard cousin – was beginning to make serious inroads into an audience it had previously taken for granted. Star-studded, shot in Cinemascope, and adult in subject matter, with complex themes underlying a deceptively straightforward plot, Warlock provided the kind of bold, morally questionable entertainment that American TV wouldn’t be allowed to show for another couple of decades. However, although it was on its last legs, the Production Code was still in operation at the end of the 1950s and so writer Robert Alan Aurthur’s adaptation of the novel by Oakley Hall relied heavily on suggestion when exploring some of the more controversial themes such as the unnatural devotion displayed by gunfighter Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn – Heller in Pink Tights) for his long-time friend Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda – 12 Angry Men, Fail-Safe).
Warlock is the name of the lawless town in which the story takes place. It’s been overrun by a man called McQuown (Tom Drake) for no other reason than he can apparently. Actually, being management type, McQuown has hired a number of men to do his overrunning for him, amongst whom are the Gannon brothers, Johnny (Richard Widmark — To the Devil a Daughter) and Billy (Frank Gorshin). Johnny’s beginning to have second thoughts about how McQuown’s men are terrorising the good – but cowardly – folk of Warlock, particularly when he witnesses one of his compadres shoot a barber for nicking him while shaving. But the townsfolk finally decide they’ve had enough after seeing another deputy sheriff run out of town, and employ gun for hire Clay Blaisedell to act as Marshal.
Blaisedell arrives with his faithful sidekick, and equally accomplished gunslinger, Tom Morgan in tow. Blaisedell’s a pragmatic type who’s under no misconceptions about what his employers think of him, and of how they will treat him once he’s cleaned up their town. Initially, however, he earns their gratitude when he faces down one of McQuown’s thugs (a pre-Star Trek DeForest Kelley) without spilling blood.
Up to this point, Warlock appears to be a fairly conventional Western, but things quickly grow complicated as Blaisedell settles into his job and a series of power struggles begin to form. After walking out on McQuown’s organisation, Johnny Gannon volunteers for the position of sheriff, which places him in direct opposition with both his former employer and Blaisedell’s unofficial lawman. Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone — The Big Sleep), the girlfriend of a man Blaisedell killed in the his previous job arrives in town accusing both him and Drake of being murderers, and Blaisedell’s friendship with Morgan is put under severe strain when the former man begins a relationship with local lass Jessie Marlowe (Dolores Michaels).
Now this friendship between Blaisedell and Morgan is the one aspect of Warlock that has provoked the most debate over the years. There’s a strong argument for their relationship being a homosexual one, or at least for Morgan to harbour unrequited homosexual feelings for his friend, although, having been made in the 1950s there is no way that the movie could come right out and say that was the case. Dmytryk himself has stated there was no intent on his part to suggest any homosexual undercurrent between the two men, but he didn’t write the script, and there just seems to be too many clues pointing towards a deliberate suggestion of gay undertones to be ignored – even for someone like myself who dislikes the way so many seem to look for a gay slant to everyy male-male screen friendship. It’s not just that Morgan’s objections to Blaisedell’s growing relationship with Jessie are a little too strenuous for comfort, but it’s in the way that we see Morgan in the earlier scenes happily setting up house in their new home, ordering drapes from San Francisco and, as we later learn, silk sheets from China. If the two men’s friendship is nothing more than that, then why bother to include all these questionable details? Some object to the idea, but for me it adds a unique dimension to an already complex and intelligent story.
This multi-layered storyline calls for some major resolutions in Warlock’s final act, and unfortunately the movie struggles to keep its shape as it struggles to tie together all loose ends so that we get three mini-conclusions instead of a final, conclusive wrapping up. The impressive cast cope admirably with their challenging roles, however, with Henry Fonda in particular delivering an intelligent interpretation of a man slowly coming to grips with the realisation that, with the passing of the Old West, he has become a man out of time. Widmark suffers a little by comparison, although still manages a highly competent performance as the symbol of change sweeping the wild west at the end of the 19th Century, but Quinn is surprisingly effective as the man whose inability to accept change comes at a high price. Unfortunately, Malone and Michaels are short-changed – while the male relationships are deep and complex, the women are nothing more than cyphers with no defining characteristics to speak of.
(Reviewed 2nd April 2014)