Monday, March 12, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Warlock (1959)

WARLOCK (1959) is an excellent Western with an incredibly deep cast, produced and directed by Edward Dmytryk.

This was my first time to see WARLOCK, and I enjoyed it tremendously. It takes one of the classic Western plot lines, taming a town, in unexpected directions; interest is heightened by a number of ambiguous and unpredictable characters, and I appreciated that the story sometimes zigged when I thought it would zag.

The film has a meaty, thoughtful plot without being overly self-conscious about it; at the same time, while there's much to dig into and think about, I also liked the film's somewhat elliptical storytelling. Not everything is spelled out, and we're left to guess, to an extent, at past relationships or things left unsaid, and I think that's a good thing. The film runs a fairly lengthy 122 minutes, but it held my attention throughout.

Nasty rancher Abe McQuown (Tom Drake) and his cowhands regularly rustle cattle and shoot up the frontier mining town of Warlock. After McQuown's men drive a sheriff out of town, the citizens band together and hire town tamer Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda). Blaisedell shows up in Warlock with his longtime friend and companion, Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), who sets up a faro game in the saloon to supplement Blaisedell's income.

Blaisedell promptly drives McQuown and some of his men out of the saloon, and cowhand Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark) is so disgusted with the McQuown bunch that he leaves McQuown's employ and eventually becomes the town's official Deputy Sheriff. This somewhat pits Gannon against Blaisedell, as Gannon is an official government employee, while Blaisedell is the equivalent of a hired gun -- who incidentally makes four times Gannon's new salary.

The deputy sheriff job also puts Gannon at odds with his own brother (Frank Gorshin), who remains determined to drive Blaisedell out of town.

Meanwhile Lily (Dorothy Malone) shows up in Warlock with a chip on her shoulder, eager to settle an old score with Blaisedell and Morgan; as it happens, she also falls in love with Gannon. Blaisedell, for his part, considers marrying Jessie (Dolores Michaels), but can a man who's known nothing but being a hired gun settle down?

The story goes deep into the characters. Gannon once participated in a very bad thing when he worked for McQuown, and his new job might be a means of redemption; Widmark believably sells his character's gradual transformation. Morgan, on the other hand, initially seems to be a loyal friend to Blaisedell but ultimately shows himself to be weirdly obsessed with making sure Blaisedell is "top gun." For his part, Blaisedell seems quietly tormented by all the killing he's had to do, even though he's always done it "by the rules," and his final shootout threatens to send him over the emotional brink.

Among the supporting cast, DeForest Kelley is of note as a cowhand who's a bad dude with his own code of honor, which comes into play during a terrific gunfight sequence. In that same sequence we see that the town of Warlock is ready to grow up, just as some of the characters have done.

It was great to see Tom Drake in this, very believable as the main villain, 15 years past playing the "Boy Next Door" in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944). The supporting cast is incredibly deep; beyond the actors I've already mentioned, the cast includes Wallace Ford, Richard Arlen, Regis Toomey, Whit Bissell, Don Beddoe, Ann Doran, L.Q. Jones, Don "Red" Barry, and Hugh Sanders.

WARLOCK was filmed in CinemaScope by Joe MacDonald, with location shooting in Moab, Utah.

I appreciated Leigh Harline's unobtrusive scoring, given that the bombast of Elmer Bernstein's music interfered with my enjoyment of Fonda's previous Western, THE TIN STAR (1957). I also found THE TIN STAR somewhat emotionally manipulative, and that feeling was missing here. WARLOCK was simply a well-done, substantive Western filled with interesting characters. I recommend it.

WARLOCK was released on DVD in 2005; more recently it was reissued by Fox Cinema Archives. It's also been released on VHS.

A side note: As it happens, Dorothy Malone passed away this past January just a few days after director Dmytryk's widow, Jean Porter. My joint tribute to the two actresses may be found here.


Blogger Bill O said...

The Fonda/Quinn relationship one of those ambiguous aspects - tho much clearer in retrospect.Frank Gorshin Widmark's bro - he'd later parody him in Batman.

8:34 PM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

I think "Warlock" was perhaps one of the last really fine adult westerns. There is ambiguity at play perhaps, particularly between Blaisdell and Morgan, though I have to say that hints of homosexuality does not strike me when I watch the film, as has been suggested subsequently.
When westerns were this well-made and cast they remain hard to beat.

12:50 AM  
Blogger Bill O said...

Not to belabor this, but the relationship, and I'm sure it was intentional, is inescapable to modern eyes. Sometimes "deviants" of that era were given a physical flaw - like Quinn's limp.

In The Big Combo '55, Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman are clearly gay - one character even remarks, "Come work for me. I'll make MEN of you." But for contemporary viewers, and censors, there no "hints of homosexuality." It's the "Purloined Letter" principle - hiding in plain sight. If you don't expect to see it, you won't.

6:34 AM  
Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

Oh this sounds like a Western that I'd be interested in. Thanks for the review Laura!

12:39 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks to you all for your comments!

I'm often oblivious to such things but yes, the Fonda-Quinn relationship did have me scratching my head trying to figure it out. One interesting aspect among many.

Raquel, if you don't see it in the meantime, WARLOCK will be on Turner Classic Movies May 5th!

Best wishes,

12:54 PM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

Excellent review. I am sure you will sway those who have yet to see this movie.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you so much! I hope so. :)

Best wishes,

7:22 PM  

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