Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Warlock is possibly the high point of the "adult" western, and that's no joke. It stands out
of the hundreds of other late 50s 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 and assert civilized values.
Warlock invents an interesting group of characters around the contrary idea of peace
dispensed at the point of a gun.
Reviewers rarely pass up the opportunity to interpret the Henry Fonda - Anthony Quinn relationship.
This is one movie with "hidden" homoerotic content so obvious, it's a surprise that the characters don't
acknowledge it. Most of Warlock is standard western programmer stuff, but it's all rearranged in
an unusually intelligent pattern.
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 ranching interests. After
McQuown's men run the deputy sheriff out of town, the businessmen take the extreme measure of hiring Clay
Blaisdell (Henry Fonda), a slick professional who guarantees to clean out the troublemakers if given a
free hand. Blaisdell moves in with his Faro parlor and close partner Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), who has
been maneuvering behind Clay's back to eliminate a romantic rival, Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone). As he holds
the McQuown bunch to an uneasy standstill, Clay is attracted to a more upstanding town citizen, Jessie
Marlow (Dolores Michaels). The unknown ingredient in the mix is Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), a McQuown
man. He defects to the side of the townspeople, strikes up a friendship with Lily Dollar and eventually decides to
take the job of Deputy Marshall. That puts him in a technical bind by requiring him to arrest both the
McQuown killers and the illegal "vigilante" Blaisdell.
Warlock isn't based on history but it has plenty of parallels with the Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill Hickok
stories. Henry Fonda's awe-inspiring Clay Blaisdell 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. 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.
Along with the Faro parlor comes his shadow partner Tom Morgan, equally violent but lacking Clay's gentility. Both men
know they're not putting down roots. The town will honor the 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.
Warlock starts conventionally enough, graduating to class status with the arrival of Fonda and his early
showdowns with McQuown's uncouth cowboys. There's little honor on view, just style, as Quinn settles in to back
Fonda with a shotgun, and Fonda's blowhard adversaries pipe down when threatened by him on a one-for-one basis.
The late Frank Gorshin has to be restrained from getting blown in two, and there's a classic moment between
Fonda and Star Trek's DeForest Kelley: Fonda outdraws Kelley and makes him back down like a fool. It's great.
Robert Alan Aurthur was a prolific writer for live television who later penned exotic fare like
Lilith; in Warlock he balances a number
of star subplots along with the uneasy political framework. The feminine roles are a little uneven. Dolores Michaels
has a rather dry scene with Fonda away
from town that makes it look as if she's trying to pick him up. When not facing down hoodlums, he spends some of
his time eating her breakfasts. Dorothy Malone's Lily Dollar character (how's that for coding a woman as a prostitute?)
comes to town to seek vengeance against Fonda, and proves to be the catalyst proving that Fonda's pal
Tom Morgan has been a little too faithful and is in fact capable of being murderously jealous of his partner's
attention to women. Tom is none too pleased with Michael's presence but tickled when Malone gravitates toward
Richard Widmark's reformed hellraiser.
Widmark has top billing and his Johnny Gannon character is a tough one to turn into a hero. He just hangs around
for most of the movie, and although we know he's sincere about taking the Deputy Marshall job we fear it's because
he wants the approval of Lily Dollar. We're sure that she mainly wants revenge on Clay Blaisdell and has already
tried to have gunmen knock him off. Widmark has the crazed McQuown mad at him, as well as his own disapproving, immature
brother, the Frank Gorshin character. A rather derivative scene comes when Gannon is tortured with a hand
wound, like James Stewart in
The Man from Laramie. But the film
resolves in a trio of surprisingly original showdowns in the dusty street that resolve Widmark's, Quinn's and Fonda's
characters in classic terms. 1
Fonda is a pleasure to watch. His Wyatt Earp from
My Darling Clementine has become a money-making
self-satisfied cynic, turning his killing talents into a métier; his personal self-image is always
in need of a public relations assist. Anthony Quinn is equally fascinating. His preference for a partnership with
Fonda motivates him to decorate their apartments and take care of all the details, like bushwacking men who might
spill the beans about the killings he's done behind Fonda's back. Quinn's rough treatment of Malone's character is
indeed the action of a jealous rival. 2
Widmark's character is more on the formulaic side, but it works well enough. Since Warlock is a big-budget
studio effort, there are about 30 speaking roles and a lot of notable bits that allow us to observe good work from
Wallace Ford (Freaks), Richard Arlen, Vaughn
Taylor, L.Q. Jones, Whit Bissell and Tom Drake, who as the weasely McQuown has come a long way since his day as
Judy Garland's boy-next-door in
Meet Me in St. Louis. Wally Campo, Roy Jenson,
Gary Lockwood, and Joe Turkel are said to be in there too, if one looks carefully enough.
Fox's DVD of Warlock looks exceedingly good; it's the first time I've seen it in CinemaScope and director
Edward Dmytryk's compositions do wonders for Fox's Malibu ranch Western town, the one on a slightly sloping hill.
There is a trailer and some newsreel footage, but I have the feeling that by 1959 a non-epic western like Warlock
couldn't make news no matter how big it was. It takes time for the special titles to distinguish themselves from the crowd.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: trailer, newsreels
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 20, 2005
1. I can't help but think that there
might be a second ending to the film. (spoiler) I fell almost certain that in one television version, when
Henry Fonda's defeated town-tamer leaves town we see the Dorothy Michaels character 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. Perhaps I'm
confusing the last shot of Warlock with the ending of another film?
2. When the critics wax enthusiastic about purported homoerotic subtext in these
films, I often wonder if they're suggesting that the author would have preferred to make the characters openly
homosexual. Quinn's character is supposed to be
so devoted to Fonda that he flies out of control, although I'm sure neither the Fonda character or anyone
else in Warlock is supposed to be aware of anything overtly gay. That's the limitation of using "coded"
arguments on older movies. How do subtlties stay subtle when they are so prominently pointed out? Ernest Borgnine's
Dutch Engstrom is practically a wife to William Holden's Pike Bishop
in The Wild Bunch; he's the one character who doesn't visit the prostitutes at the end and prefers to
wait outside. I don't think that makes him gay, although I've heard that opinion directly stated from many critics,
starting with Janey Place at UCLA in the early 70s.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson