You think you’ve gotten around to most every Western worth its spurs, the ones directed by the Four Masters of the genre; John Ford, Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway and Henry King.
You figure saddling up for the Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart collaborations, and even the more twisted takes on the genre by Nicholas Ray and surely you have Westerns covered.
And then somebody talks up “Warlock,” a title I’ve skipped by dozens of times, despite the cast of favorites and the colorful support.
It’s a “town tamer” tale with a heaping helping of “My Darling Clementine” about it. Warlock’s a town being bullied by murderous cattle thieves. Their deputy is chased off, humiliated. Let’s bring in the gunman Henry Fonda and, instead of a gambler/gunslinger played by Victor Mature, trade up for the great Anthony Quinn.
Instead of a Clementine, we’ll sub in the righteous, church-going mine heiress, played by Dolores Michaels, who sees something noble in the hard man who makes his living killing goons and the brutes who employ them.
This Edward Dmytryk film is a morally ambiguous Western, as one might expect from the director of “The Caine Mutiny” and “The Young Lions.” The town named Warlock might have summoned and hired a town tamer to be their marshal working “outside the law.” But they pay lip service to being conflicted over killing that comes at a terrible social cost and fails to solve the problems that simplistic thinking, to this very day, thinks it’s supposed to.
The aged, hobbled “judge” (Wallace Ford) rants about the dangers of such men, of “any man who sets himself above others,” above the law, above lives of those he’s allegedly protecting.
And Fonda’s veteran town-tamer Clay Blaisedell is experienced enough to know the life cycle of the job, when folks figure he’s gotten “too powerful,” which always happens when the big trouble is over, and ask him to leave.
Richard Widmark is a conflicted member of the “San Pablos” boys, a cattle operation out on dusty range and this film’s version of the Clanton family or its scores of genre imitators. They’re led by Abe McQuown (Tom Drake), a hard case fond of using numbers, lots of men with guns, to intimidate the town and run the old deputy out.
He’s also big on projecting. Nobody talks about “back shooters,” the lowest of the low in gunfighting, more than McQuown. Nobody’s quicker to resort to such deadly cheating. That makes him a law unto himself. What kind of man is he?
“Worse than he oughta be,” Johnny Gannon (Widmark) admits. “Gettin’ worse all the time.”
Johnny’s come to a fork in the road with this outfit. And even though his hotheaded kid brother (the famous comic and TV “Batman’s” Riddler Frank Gorshin) is remaining, Johnny opts to ask for the newly-open deputy job.
That sets him up in opposition to the new mercenary marshal, and gets the attention of the newcomer-to-town, the sometime prostitute Lily (Dorothy Malone, quite good). She’s a witness to the robbery and murder that sets this story in motion, and it turns out she’s been tracking Blaisedell and her ex-lover Morgan across the West, hunting for revenge and the man who might give it to her.
“Warlock” is a film of fanciful gunslinging, with even the drunkest gunman able to knock a pistol out of a foe’s hand or wing him just so. Blaisedell surprises us by resorting to that, and stern pronouncements, to settle disputes designed to antagonize him into violence.
DeForest Kelley, a few years shy of “Star Trek,” plays a gang member particularly adept at such egging on.
The script has the townsfolk too cowardly to back up their dutiful previous deputy, but quick to rally behind their new marshal, and just as quick to defend their new deputy of dubious origin. We hear Widmark’s Johnny Gannon blithely admit to participating in a mass murder, with I guess the fact that they were “Mexicans” meant to minimize this damning confession and let audiences of the day pass over it.
The exteriors present a more interesting, populated and developed town than is common in “oaters” of the era, with trees and lots of businesses (run by veteran character actors) besides the two or three saloons we see and hear mentioned. Aside from the gunfights, it’s a fairly static movie, Cinerama with lots of tight two-shots on shiny, newish looking saloon and salon sets.
But the film’s true novelty is its true “love story,” the one that isn’t with the latest incarnations of the “dance hall girl” from “Stagecoach” or the righteous “Darling Clementine.” It’s not particularly subtle, obvious enough that you have to check the credits to make sure Gore Vidal didn’t do a rewrite in between drafts of “Ben-Hur.”
It’s the Homoerotic on the Range connection between Blaisedell and the worshipful, ruthless co-dependent Morgan. He’s the man who travels with his partner from town to town, snazzily-dressed and given to redecorating every apartment like the most tasteful bordello in San Francisco. Morgan’s the “faro dealing” gambler and saloon operator who “looks out” for his partner and tries to break up his new female attachment. He’s the gunman who’s got his back in a shootout.
“Playa, how’d you think you stayed alive this long?”
Whatever Blaisedell figures is going on here, an attachment he will come closest to articulating in the third act, Morgan leaves no doubt. He can’t quit Clay.
Those two performances become the most intriguing in the film because of what the players — Quinn especially — let us pick up on and ponder.
This subtext never takes over the film, but it comes close, and it’s a fascinating choice by someone — novelist Oakley Hall (he also wrote the novel Redford’s “Downhill Racer” skiing movie is based on), screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur (he went on to write “Grand Prix” and “All That Jazz”), Dmytryk or Quinn himself.
It lends what would have been a modestly-interesting variation on well-worn themes something extra, another film from that legendarily “quiet” decade, the 1950s, that lets us see the roiling social undercurrents that would produce the not-quiet-at-all 1960s.
Rating: “Passed,” violence
Cast: Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone, Richard Widmark , Dolores Michaels, Wallace Ford, DeForest Kelley, Tom Drake and Frank Gorshin
Credits: Directed by Edward Dmytryk, scripted by Robert Alan Aurthur, based on a novel by Oakley Hall.. A 20th Century Fox release on Roku, Amazon, Tubi etc.
Running time: 2:01