With today’s climate of mistrust and the apparent gulf of recent history that separates police and our black community heavy on my mind, I watched, or rewatched rather, Edward Dmytryk’s little seen western classic, Warlock. Though his credits cross into all corners of genre fare, the director is probably best known for his film noirs; Crossfire or Murder, My Sweet for example. B pictures. Mysteries. Crime stories. Films that depict and stylize their urban setting and characters. I believe it’s an urban sensibility that Dmytryk brings to Warlock, and that makes it so unique despite familiar trappings. Through a slight spin on the archetypal outlaw heroes coming to the rescue of a beleaguered town narrative, Dmytryk probes the complicated symbiotic nature of society’s need for authority and its resentment towards that same authority.
The film starts out as many westerns do. Small, dusty town. Violent gang rides in. The only law and order present comes in the form of a sheriff who now wishes he was anywhere else. I could be describing any one of dozens of westerns you’ve seen. The violent gang tie and drag the weakling sheriff by his horse, before murdering him. They get the town’s barber too for good measure. This story has been told so many times, its formula recycled, precisely because it is so satisfying and exciting for the viewer. But Warlock isn’t one of those movies that simply rehashes the formula, and its unique perspective on the genre starts to materialize in the next scene. The town folk meet and discuss a plan of action, with the majority agreeing they should hire Clay Blaisedell, a vigilante lawman to come and protect their town. However, there are opponents. While many suggest Blaisedell as a savior, a judge calls him a vigilante, gunman, gambler. Already we see our film’s protagonist not as a clear cut hero but as a subject of controversy. Eventually, they decide to bring Blaisedell in, and, with that, we see our star, Henry Fonda riding in, cloaked in black, accompanied by Anthony Quinn. Fonda plays Blaisedell and Quinn, his sidekick, Tom Morgan, a notorious gambler and cripple. The two are clearly modeled on Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, and adding to this effect is Fonda’s previous iconic portrayal of Earp in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine. The two actors must have starred in a few dozen westerns combined. Seeing them ride in on horses seems no promise of new material, but seeing the two play off and distort their personas is one of the film’s chief pleasures. Immediately, the judge confronts Fonda, and calls the nature of his work, murder. Fonda smiles and blows him off. He then addresses the town in the saloon, so that he can give his terms, and they can give theirs. Again, we see dissension where we usually see accord in these type of films, as the town folk quarrel over how they want the villains handled. “Get rid of them,” says one. “Wait a minute, they’re not all bad,” says another. They’re not so sure they want Tom Morgan hanging around, and finally a schoolmarm chimes in that she doesn’t approve of Fonda’s status, but she’s in the minority. Fonda starts in. “You won’t be in the minority very long. People generally begin to resent me. It’s part of the job. It will happen. I come here as your salvation at a very high wage. I establish order. Ride rough shot over offenders. First you’re pleased because there’s a good deal less trouble. Then a strange thing happens. You begin to feel I’m too powerful. You begin to fear me. Not me, but what I am.” And from this point forward the film’s main theme has been set up. Juvenal’s “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies” or “who will watch the watchmen.”
There are three key male figures in the film. One, we’ve already mentioned, is Anthony Quinn’s Tom Morgan, an outlaw with a crippling condition. Quinn is a two time Oscar winner and he should have won a third Best Supporting Actor here. Known for playing tough, vigorous characters, Quinn here is an introvert. A man who worships his partner to the point that he values Blaisedell’s life over his own. There have been readings that have suggested an early subtext of homosexuality in this relationship, where Tom Morgan harbors unrequited feelings for his running mate, and there are scenes that one can point to. When Blaisedell is shot, Morgan grabs his arm tenderly. A female character in spite threatens to stand laughing over Blaisedell’s dead body because, as she says, she knows that would hurt him worse than if he was dead. Most significantly, Tom Morgan reveals late in the film that Blaisedell is the only person, man or woman, that looked at him and didn’t see a cripple. You could also alternatively call this relationship a symptom of severe hero worship, but back to the original point, we see in him a distorting of the western sidekick. A repressed deputy. A dangerous man. Tom Morgan is a sympathetic figure…at times. He’s also a pimp, a murderer, and a violent alcoholic. He convinces Blaisedell to kill an innocent man out of jealousy.
The second key male figure is Johnny Gannon, a young delinquent, played by Richard Widmark, who actually received first billing. I find this significant, in that it establishes whose perspective we are meant to engage with. All three of the male protagonists share close to the same screen time, but instead of the town saviors, we are asked to view a member of the outlaw gang, who feels guilty for his way of life, as the hero. Gannon’s a young man who’s fallen in with the wrong crowd. This characterization points to the urban sensibility of Dmytryk I spoke of earlier.
Finally, we have Henry Fonda, who received second billing but is really the soul of the picture. At the time the movie came out, western heroes were stoic saints. John Wayne and Fonda were unimpeachable. Here, Fonda is as able and cool as ever, but he’s also a man who makes his living in violence, and there is a toll that’s represented in this film. He’s not above attention, as he wields his golden handled guns, and sells tickets to watch him essentially kill outlaws. His word is law. It’s his way or the highway, as it had always been for Wayne and Fonda, but for the first time, we see that aspect of their persona affect others. In one of the final scenes, Fonda and Widmark have a confrontation, and Fonda comes across as a last word freak, to borrow a modern expression. That he can balance these flaws with his original persona, and still maintain a believable hero is to me an achievement of supreme acting. He’s still a hero, just a flawed one. This performance bridges the gap between the Fonda of My Darling Clementine and the vicious Fonda of Once Upon a Time in the West, and it’s been said that Warlock was, the latter film’s director, Sergio Leone’s favorite film. As said before, the Earp and Holliday story has been told so many times. Even by 1959, it had fallen into the category of myth. But what if the ones saving the town become as oppressive as the original oppressors? With that angle, Warlock sets out to chart new territory. It’s a psychological western, a harbinger of the much more appreciated Unforgiven, and, in its own right, a masterpiece.