Many Westerns devolve into cliched parodies of the genre: stagecoaches, barroom brawls, cabaret dancers, scenic vistas, crooked card players and most importantly, showdowns on Main Street. Thankfully Warlock avoids most of these, with the notable exception of gunfights.
Though Westerns are usually generically plot driven with little characterization, among the factors which sets Warlock apart is the simple fact that the characters do have a bit of a backstory and a much more complicated interplay than you’d expect from the genre.
Warlock’s a bit of a backwater mining town, and one senses that perhaps the mines have begun to play out a bit, leaving the town on the backside of economic prosperity. A gang headed by Abe McQuown (Tom Drake) runs relatively roughshod over the town, coming in and shooting up the place at will and driving out several Sheriffs in succession.
Finally fed up, the remaining townspeople come together to hire their own marshal- as no one really wants the job. For a top dollar salary of $400 a month they get Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda), a hired gun who goes from town to town cleaning them up until he wears out his welcome and moving on to the next stop. Along with Clay is his longtime club-footed friend Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn).
Soon after getting to town, Clay and Tom run the most of the gang out of the local saloon (though without the required brawl). ‘Most’ only because gang member Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark) has decided that the gang is just too unsavory and decides to abandon them and stay in town on moral grounds.
Quite a bit goes on throughout the picture, but we must share a few things without spoiling the entire picture. Johnny eventually becomes marshal and reasserts the law (legally) in Warlock, standing off both against his former friends and gang-mates and also pushing back against Clay and Tom’s desire to take matters into their own hands and take out the gang.
Of course, there’s an excellent final gunfight with a surprise death, but enough of that.
There’s also a bit of love interest in play, provided by Tom’s former flame Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone) and town debutante Jessie Marlow (Dolores Michaels). Lily’s affections move on to Johnny while Jessie takes an eye to Clay. There’s a deep history to Lily, most of which is only hinted at. It’s clear though that she clearly cared deeply for Tom at one point, though his prostitution of her not only burned that bridge but also gave her quite a bit of additional baggage- and rightfully so.
There’s also a bit of a love affair between Tom and Clay, though not to the erotic levels that some have seen here. Over the years they’ve moved from town to town and have grown incredibly close, so much so that it’s pretty clear that one can’t survive without the other. As Tom says at one point about why he’s so dedicated to his friend, “He’s the one person who saw me and didn’t see a cripple.”
Directed by Edward Dmytryk, Warlock doesn’t feature much in terms of scenic vistas or traditional songs a la John Ford, but it does have a deep story focused on how people grow over time. Johnny, Clay and Lily all show quite dramatic transformations throughout the picture, in each case moving on from one clear period of their lives into another. In contract, it’s Tom who fails to change and adapt, to his detriment.
Though (gasp) not among my favorite actors, it’s hard not to say that Henry Fonda may be perfectly cast here as gun for hire Clay Blaisedell. His strength is always in the more quiet and stern portrayals, and here he’s perfect as a feared man who’s also a bit of a loner, heading out to the hills for target practice rather than taking it on the outskirts of town. Fonda’s Clay lacks any moral ambiguity as everything falls neatly into black or white buckets.
Propping him up in a somewhat atypical casting is Anthony Quinn. Though usually the rough and tough leading man, here he’s almost passive on the surface. If you scratch behind the surface, you realize that perhaps he’s the more powerful of the duo, pulling all the strings, calling all the shots, and covering the ‘star’ from the rear. His jealousy begins to peak as he realized that his life of town-hopping with Clay is winding down as Clay’s relationship with Jessie blossoms. Well done.
Dorothy Malone’s also wonderful here, as the scorned woman who is incredibly vengeful against Tom for his past transgressions, and perhaps has a jab or two for Clay as well for good measure. Every scene with Malone and Quinn is wonderful to see, with Quinn looking earnestly for any opening to rekindle their prior relationship and Malone looking just as hard for a knockout blow for her former love. Things get even more heated once Tom tries to arrange surreptitiously a showdown between Clay and her new love, Johnny.
If there’s a weak link here, it’s Richard Widmark. Not that he’s bad at all, but rather that the other leads are so darned good. (Fonda steals the picture.) He does with some difficulty manage to sell completely flipping sides in coming the town’s deputy sheriff, but at the end of the day he is a bit overshadowed by Fonda and Quinn.
There’s a lot of other things about Warlock to really enjoy beyond the fine plot and the wonderful acting. The film feels closed-in, almost to the point of claustrophobia, with the feeling increasing as the pressure builds on screen. There’s also the changes in wardrobe as the plot unfolds as both Johnny’s and Clay’s attire change significantly as their relationships change: Johnny as he becomes deputy and Clay as his attention moves from Tom to Jessie.
Even for the non-Western fan, Warlock is a film which may take repeated viewings to get the most out of.