Warlock (1959)

When it’s on: Monday, 16 July (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Warlock, Edward Dmytryk’s Western released at the tail-end of the genre’s golden age, turns out to be a complicated affair. Characters are morally obscure, and with a lengthier running time than normal for the 1950s, back stories and motives are expanded upon. It also has a foot in both camps – complex plotting and characterisation versus an old-fashioned set-up and trappings of 1950s cinema, which makes it difficult to pin Warlock down. The two hours of film serves up some sag, but it’s never less than intriguing and, best of all, when the climax arrives (in Warlock’s case, the finish turns into finishes as a series of resolutions are reached) it’s never clear who will emerge standing.

Warlock refers to a small town, which plays unwilling guest to a gang of rowdies. The law quickly emerges as inadequate. Sheriffs are picked off with each visit of the villains; a wall on the gaol features a list of names, each of which has been chillingly crossed out. In desperation, the townsfolk put their money on the line and call in the services of Marshall Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda), a Wyatt Earp type with a history of clearing just the sort of trouble they’re experiencing. Accompanying him is Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), his constant shadow. The pair don’t come cheap, but they quickly see off the thugs, and by their deed even convince one of their number, the conflicted Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), to turn his back on lawlessness and become Warlock’s Deputy Sheriff.

All straightforward enough, but as the story progresses so the characters unravel. Blaisedell starts as the ultimate vigilante solution, quick on the draw and effortlessly authoritative. Yet his ‘super human’ status is undermined. The Marshall’s tangled relationship with his right-hand man runs deeper when we discover Morgan goaded him into killing someone years ago, earning him the endless resentment of Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone), who subsequently takes up with Johnny. Even more critical is Blaisedell’s sense of hubris. There comes a point in the film where his belief in his own godly status takes hold of him, which becomes dangerous when it’s clear he needs to leave Warlock in order for it to have a chance of settling down.

It’s a brilliant performance from Fonda, some years away from Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West, yet already hinting at the cold ruthlessness in those blue eyes. But if he isn’t exactly a good guy, then Quinn’s Morgan is greyer still. The devotion he displays to Blaisedell is touching enough, and has led to suggestions of a latent sexual subtext, something Dmytryk denied. I guess that angle’s there if you want it to be, but I prefer to see him as simply clinging on to the better man, perpetually ‘owing’ the Marshall for his gunfight with Miss Dollar’s lover (which happened because of Morgan’s love of Lily and his jealous obsession with seeing off her man, indeed it’s a fatal character flaw that’s seen him stick with Blaisedell). One thing Morgan most certainly happens to be is corrupt. When Johnny goes out to meet the gang on Warlock’s streets, Blaisedell should be by his side, only Morgan holds him at gunpoint, leaving him to stare at the ensuing action impotently from his window.

And then there’s Widmark, Dmytryk’s frequent collaborator and earning top billing in Warlock despite Fonda’s presence. For me, he’s quickly becoming one of the more interesting actors I’ve written about on these pages, and after being offered the part of Blaisedell initially, he’s more powerful as Gannon, seeking atonement and trying to steer his gun-happy brother away from harm. He features in one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, where he visits the gang in their hideout and tells them to stay away from Warlock. It sounds like a fool’s errand, and that’s just what it becomes as he’s brutally attacked by the thugs and has his shooting hand stabbed. Only the timely intervention of Curley Burne (DeForest Kelley) spares him from further harm.

Warlock isn’t perfect. The last half hour is a series of climaxes as the various issues dominating the narrative come to a head, and each loses weight while another comes around the bend. The best turns out to be Johnny’s showdown with McQuown’s men, partly for the switching of sides by one of the gang but also because it marks Gannon’s moment of redemption. Morgan’s end feels like it goes on for a very long time, though Quinn does a good job of keeping his character’s pain hidden beneath drunken bravado.

I’ve chosen the poster used in this blog because I think it sums up Warlock nicely as a film of interlocking lives and the events leading them to this point. It’s certainly an interesting piece of work and I love its move away from characters who are either GOOD or BAD, rather real people with legacies that are part explained but mainly stay with them on the screen, motivating everything they do.

Warlock: ***

3 Replies to “Warlock (1959)”

  1. It’s a very complicated film, isn’t it Mike? Perhaps too complicated for its own good in a lot of respects. I feel the shadings of the characters and the way their lives are woven together is very well done; it draws you into the story and forces you to care about them. Of course that does lead to the problem of the movie building up to a climax too often though.

    It’s good to see you highlighting Widmark. I think he was a terrific actor and the more I watch him at work, the higher he rises in my esteem.

    1. Thanks Colin. It’s the second Widmark film I’ve covered for the site. Two very different films with Widmark playing two entirely different characters, but in both instances he left his mark through sheer force of personality. I guess he’s more the tortured hero in this rather than the villain he basically plays in The Bedford Incident, yet in each performance he suggests a lot more going on behind what shows on the screen. It’s called acting, I expect, but it’s good acting. It makes him memorable, far more than the mere caricatures they could have been in lesser hands.

      1. Yeah, I just had a look and I see I’ve featured nine movies where Widmark appeared. I’m pretty sure I’ll add to that tally in the future too. He was a very accomplished performer who could play villains, heroes, and everything in between with apparent ease. When you look at a list of his credits he appeared in a huge number of films. The fact he played the lead so often and that, physically, he wasn’t the classical leading man type says much for his acting abilities.

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