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DVD SAVANT

Warlock


Warlock
Fox
1959 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 122 min. / Street Date May 24 2005 / 14.98
Starring Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone, Dolores Michaels, Wallace Ford, Tom Drake, Richard Arlen, DeForest Kelley
Cinematography Joe MacDonald
Art Direction Herman A. Blumenthal, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor Jack W. Holmes
Original Music Leigh Harline
Written by Robert Alan Aurthur from the novel by Oakley Hall
Produced and Directed by Edward Dmytryk

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.

Synopsis:

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, Warlock rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer, newsreels
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 20, 2005


Footnotes:

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?
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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.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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