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The people of Warlock, Utah, are continually terrorized by cowboys working for rancher Abe McQuown (Tom Drake, the character's name pronounced "mack-KYUNE"), who wants to stunt the town's growth for the sake of his cattle. The movie opens with McQuown's men running the current deputy sheriff, Thomson (Walter Coy, Ethan Edwards's brother in The Searchers), out of town, threatening to kill him.
Warlock's desperate citizenry, including retired judge Holloway (Wallace Ford), storekeeper Henry Richardson (Vaughn Taylor), Buck Slavin (Bartlett Robinson) and others decide to hire unsavory professional gunslinger Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda) as town marshal, agreeing to his terms of almost dictatorial power. He arrives in Warlock with his club-footed "manager," gunfighter and pimp Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), the two immediately buying out and taking control of the local saloon, a longtime pattern established by these guns-for-hire.
Almost immediately, they impress the town's leaders when two of McQuown's cowboys, Curley Burne (DeForest Kelley) and Billy Gannon (Frank Gorshin) try goading Blaisedell into a gunfight, but he stares them down and the conflict dissipates without any blood being spilled. Meanwhile, Billy's older brother, Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), haunted by the gang's brutal murder of a band of Indians, and concerned about Blaisdell's extremist measures, volunteers to replace Thomson as deputy sheriff, hoping to restore law as well as order to Warlock.
Directed by Edward Dmytryk, Warlock is chiefly interested in Fonda's character, despite his second-billing to Widmark. Many contemporary reviews have noticed that the film finds Fonda roughly halfway between the innately decent cowboys and other characters he'd played in the past and the soulless villain he'd so masterly create for Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West less than a decade later. Early scenes hint at a variation of the Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday story, which Fonda had already done for John Ford in My Darling Clementine (1946). Instead, Fonda's Blaisedell is an unapologetic opportunist, moving from town to town where its settlers are prepared to hand him virtually unlimited power and authority to shoot anyone with impunity. He enjoys his celebrity status and the financial rewards until the townsfolk realize they've made a deal with the Devil, sacrificing the law in the name of expediency. Aware of this inevitability, Blaisedell and Morgan at that point simply move on to the next troubled town.
Blaisedell is an expert gunfighter with a fast draw (as was, apparently, Henry Fonda; whose moves had to be slowed down, according to the director) with gold-plated colts, a celebrity. He seems aware of the oppressiveness of his demands and that he might well be the lesser of two evils yet believes law and justice aren't practical alternatives if they're even possible.
The film was met with mixed reviews and box-office, the main reason probably being the decision to cast so many actors against type, particularly Tom Drake, a former MGM star known for his wholesome boys-next-door. Anthony Quinn, for once, doesn't play his stock salt-of-the-earth, larger-than-life semi-literate hero. His Morgan is a Shakespeare-quoting, well-dressed dandy, who shares rooms with Blaisedell and, before he even arrives, fusses about redecorating the spread. (hint, hint) It's basically the same kind of coded homoerotic relationship shared by the Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd characters in Ben-Hur, if less overtly than that was. Dmytryk denied ever intentionally implying that Blaisedell and Morgan were lovers, but certainly Morgan's devotion toward Blaisedell is far needier and more extreme than the usual Western movie partnership.
Complicating this relationship - the movie doesn't have the usual love triangle; it's more like a pentagon! - is Blaisedell's interest in virginal Jessie Marlow (Dolores Michaels), who he seems interested in corrupting with his plain-speaking cynicism. Blaisedell also must contend with new deputy sheriff Johnny Gannon, which ends, not convincingly to my mind, with Blaisedell ceding a kind of grudging respect for Johnny's bravery, if not his gun-slinging skills. And there's Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone), former prostitute of Morgan's who wants Blaisedell dead. Dmytryck's direction expresses little interest in these women, which is entirely given over to the men and their relationships with one another. They're as superfluous as it would be sticking Katherine Ross and Jessica Walter into the middle of The Wild Bunch.
Richard Widmark was nearly 45 at the time and really too old to be playing the disillusioned Johnny Gannon, though his performance, as with Fonda and Quinn, is excellent. Some of the film's best moments, however, come from players that, in some cases, didn't even rate billing in the credits. Frank Gorshin had to this point mostly appeared in low-budget movies like Hot Rod Girl and Invasion of the Saucer-Men, but both he and genre veteran DeForest Kelley (each years away from their signature TV roles) impress in their confrontation scenes with Fonda's Blaisedell. L.Q. Jones, Roy Jenson, Gary Lockwood, Joe Turkel, and Paul Comi also have impressive little moments in unbilled parts, mostly as members of McQuown's gang.
Beyond its offbeat approach and the fine acting, Warlock is notable for its several unusually well-conceived, suspenseful gunfights, making the ending tense but rather anticlimactic, as well as not entirely believable given everything it leads up to.
Video & Audio
Although Fox has worked wonders with its high-def transfers of numerous ‘50s CinemaScope titles, fixing "CinemaScope mumps" and even more impressively restoring the look of the original DeLuxe prints, Warlock comes as a bit of a disappointment. The image is sharp and the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio (2.0 also offered) is great, but the color is inexplicably sapped of the kind of rich hues one has come to expect (The Bravados, released in 1958, being a prime example). It looks like whomever remastered this title was working with greatly faded source elements that even computer tweaking can't bring back, or maybe Twilight Time was stuck with an older video master. It's not terrible, but the color is so desaturated I initially wondered if it might have been an artistic choice, a la Huston's Moby Dick but, no, it's merely faded, badly. Optional English SDH are included. Limited to 3,000 units.
Supplements are limited to an isolated music track, excerpts from a Fox Movietone Newsreel, and a trailer.
Not quite as outstanding as it wants to be but still unusual, intriguing and involving, Warlock is Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.