Film Review: Warlock,
Edward Dmytryk, 1959
" The last of a remarkable cycle of 1950s law and order Westerns which examined the nature of individual integrity contrasted with the hypocrisy and self-interest in a superficially respectable town....the finest psychological Western ever made",
Michael Coyne The Crowded Prairie, 1997, 94
" The worried, liberal response to the classic western",
Scott Simmon, The Invention of the Western Film, 2003, 288
"Striking,admirably mounted western on the 1950s theme of social responsibility".
Phillip French, The Observer 5 May 2012
Warlock, Edward Dmytryk, 1959
Warlock is a very good film indeed. It is like High Noon without the impeccable lawman at the helm. The Sheriff (Walter Coy) gets run out of town because he values his skin. Warlock's townsfolk cower, peering out from behind shutters, too scared even to come out, let alone intervene. The town is controlled by wealthy mine owner McQuown (Tom Drake), so the terrorised citizens turn to Clay Blaisdell (Henry Fonda) who is a mercenary gunslinger and who brings with him his close friend Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn). The relationship has been scrutinised by critics and there are certainly suggestions that they are very close indeed. Phillip French, for example refers to "strong homoerotic undertones". The plot is essentially a reworking of the Wyatt Earp - Doc Holliday relationship which was the basis for the source novel by Oakley Hall.
Clay quickly brings law and order to town, being tough and ruthless enough to take on the gang who terrorise the town's population on behalf of the Mine owner. But, as Blaisdell observes, "At first you're pleased, because it's a good deal less trouble. Then a very strange thing happens, you begin to feel I'm too powerful. And you begin to fear me. Not me, but what I am." Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark) is wracked by guilt at some of the gang's methods which leads him into drunkenness and to questioning his involvement with the gang. Gannon is reputedly the director Edward Dmytryk's vision of himself. Dmytryk was one of the Hollywood Ten, and the only one to co-operate with the Hollywood Un-American Activities Committee. As such he is well placed to deconstruct heroism, and his success in doing so is the film's greatest strength and is its essence. Throughout the film it is unclear as to who exactly is the hero. Is it Blaisdell or Gannon or neither of them? There is certainly not the typical Western dichotomy between good and evil, and each of these men is locked into a struggle with their identity. Gannon wrestles with his conscience, his background and his status in the community. Blaisdell, superficially more assured, nevertheless is troubled by his relationship with Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone).
Warlock has a very well written, intelligent script that gives the characters depth, although the plot could be seen overcomplicated. This is especially true of the convoluted scheming of Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn) on his friend's behalf. The actors respond with great performances which are less stylised but similar in their quality to those in the better Spaghetti Westerns. Fonda's Clay foreruns his more sinister but equally compelling acting in Once Upon a Time in the West.
Despite having all the ingredients for success, including a fine cast and a good reception from the critics, it was not a success at the box office. One could speculate that the movie was less attractive because of its preoccupation with Male angst, even reflected in the posters relegating its leading lady to fourth in the list of stars. Nevertheless I have to agree with Michael Coyne that "Warlock is a masterpiece among Westerns and deserves wider recognition as a classic." (Michael Coyne The Crowded Prairie, 1997, 103)
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© Chris Smallbone Novembe 2012