Wednesday, May 25, 2005


Warlock opens and closes like just about every other Western in history. At the beginning, a the peaceful town of Warlock is overrun by wild, reckless cowboys, who flaunt their hatred of authority by riding through the city streets on horseback, shooting pistols into the air. In the end, a solitary, heroic stranger rides off into the sunset, his duty completed.

In between, the movie gets surprisingly heady and complicated. For the first half hour, I kept waiting for the movie to find its footing, to bring something unique to the table, and by the end I found myself wondering how in the hell they were going to resolve this monster of a plot. Warlock does gather momentum as it goes, and builds to a surprisingly sober, thoughtful conclusion. It's certainly not the generic formula Western its high-concept premise and star casting would indicate.

The aforementioned bandits, led by the villainous Abe McQuown (Tom Drake) and his right-hand man, the sarcastic Curley (a pre-Trek DeForrest Kelley), don't actually seem to have any horrible crimes in store for Warlock. Mostly, they like to ride around and fire their pistols in the air. In fact, for the first 20 minutes or so, you keep waiting for some malfeasance to develop. It never does, though. These guys, known as the San Pedro Cowboys, aren't really horrible guys. They're more obnoxious than anything else.

But that can't keep one of their number, the upright Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), from becoming disgusted with their drunken shenanigans. He's the first to offer a compromise when the citizens of Warlock hire a marshall to watch over their beleaguered town. He's Clay Bleisdell (Henry Fonda), a legendary gunman with a no-nonsense style of law enforcement. Along with his traveling companion, gambler Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), he maintains one simple rule:

If he bans you from Warlock for any reason, and you show up there anyway, he reserves the right to shoot you dead.

This ultimatum, along with some similarly complicated interpersonal conflicts, drives the majority of the plot. Eventually, Gannon's brother (recently deceased ex-Riddler Frank Gorshin) runs afoul of Bleisdell's policy, setting Widmark and Fonda against one another in a kind of psychological shoot out that runs behind all of the other, more immediate events of the film.

As I said, it's a complicated movie, and sometimes it gets a bit over-extended and ambitious for its own good. For example, Morgan and Bleisdell have a very peculiar relationship that requires a good deal of exposition to explain to the audience once the main plot gets moving. In brief, Morgan has become fascinated, if not obsessed, with Bleisdell, and has caused some problems in the past by acting perhaps overzealously on his behalf. When the past catches up with Morgan, it causes something of a psychological meltdown, forcing Bleisdell to choose between his devotion to his lifelong friend and his desire for law and order in Warlock.

With all this going on, and Gannon's continuing clashes with the San Pedro boys, and a variety of romantic sub-plots, and the impending showdown between Gannon and Bleisdell, Warlock is stuffed to the gills with incident, conflict and drama. Most of it works swimmingly, aided by terrific, intense performances from Fonda, Widmark, Quinn, Kelley and Dorothy Malone as the scheming, vengeful Lily Dollar.

The movie's often discussed in terms of its socio-political outlook. It was made in 1959 by the brilliant Edward Dmytryk (who also made Murder My Sweet, one of the all-time great film noirs), a lifelong leftist who, despite his foreign-sounding name, was born in San Francisco. Dmytryk, in the early 50's, was one of the so-called "Hollywood Ten" who, when questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee, refused to name names and thus became unhirable in Hollywood.

After doing some jail time (really! for attending Communist Party meetings during WWII!), Dmytryk eventually relented and testified before the committee. By 1959, when he made Warlock, his reputation had been permanently tainted, although he worked sporadically until the 1970's.

So, clearly, McCarthyism and all these issues were probably much on his mind during these years, and some of that does leak into Warlock. Although its messages could be applied to nearly any interpersonal conflict, there is some Cold War ideology hiding in the corners of the screenplay. Its story essentially concerns a town with a major worry - bandits from outside want to come in and disrupt their way of life.

But instead of handling the problem themselves, they hire an outside surrogate, a bandit-hunter, to come and solve the problem for them. As it turns out, this surrogate creates a bigger problem than existed before, becoming both a catalyst for violence and a personal disruption to the community's moral sensibility.

So it's not hard to extract some larger meaning from this allegorical tale. Fonda's outside gunslinger could be taken as a McCarthyite, a Commie hunter so secure in the sanctity of his mission that nothing else, even basic decency and morality, can interrupt him in the application of his craft.

But what's interesting is how nuanced and sensitive a consideration of these issues Dmytryk had crafted. This is not the firebrand screed of a victim, Dmytryk using his camera to indict Americans for their witchhunt of a few years past. It's a consideration of these ideas from all sides, an attempt to dissect the meaning and fruitfulness of things like loyalty, morality, justice and trust to the survival of a community.

And watching the drama play out against the stunning Utah landscapes, beautifully realized in Cinemascope and captured vividly on the nice (if not perfect) print available on the newly-released DVD, is a real treat. Warlock is a difficult film, and it's not neccessarily the most exciting western of its era, but it's a rewarding and brooding look at a lot of the same issues covered in HBO's similarly-fascinating "Deadwood" - a fringe mining town searching for a soul in the midst of violent, chaotic conflict.

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