by Samuel Wilson
Oakley Hall’s 1958 novel Warlock was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize and promptly picked up for adaptation by Twentieth-Century Fox. Robert Alan Arthur wrote the screenplay and Edward Dmytryk, who had helmed the solid Broken Lance in 1954, directed the film. If Warlock is the most underrated western of the genre’s golden age, it may be because two films aren’t enough to build a cult around Dmytryk as a genre specialist. When we think of Fifties westerns we think of the directors: Ford (who actually didn’t make many that decade), Mann, Boetticher, Daves. Dmytryk may not belong in their company as a director of westerns, but his film belongs in the company of their films.
Novel and film alike are revisionist westerns. Warlock is a critical riff on the Tombstone legend with all the names changed. Consciously or not, Dmytryk symbolized his film’s revisionist intentions by casting Henry Fonda, an actor who had played Wyatt Earp in Ford’s My Darling Clementine, as the novel’s counterpart to Earp, Clay Blaisdell. The citizens’ committee of Warlock, a Utah mining town, summons Blaisdell to become their marshal and tame the local cowboys who work for Abe McQuown (Tom Drake) and make short work of sheriffs. With Blaisdell comes Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), a deadly dandy with a limp who’ll take over one of the local saloons. Blaisdell thinks about the future and courts a local lady, Jesse Marlow (Dolores Michaels). But the pasts of Blaisdell and Morgan haunt them in the form of the vengeful Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone), and Morgan is quickly eager (with very good reason) to move on. In time, the townsfolk wonder whether the cure was worse than the disease.
Yet the real cure rises from the midst of the infection. While Blaisdell plays the traditional town-tamer role, we see the real hope of civilization in Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), one of McQuown’s cowboys grown tired of their vicious ways. As Gannon evolves from outlaw to lawman, becoming a deputy sheriff, Warlock contrasts his growing commitment to the rule of law with Blaisdell’s embodiment of the rule of the gun. Gannon proves capable of a renunciation necessary to civilization, towards which Blaisdell struggles in vain. Blaisdell considers settling down with Jessie, but remains ensnared in his violent past with Morgan and Lily. Morgan sees Blaisdell and himself as a breed apart – Quinn gives a more homoerotic reading of the character than the novel offers – and can’t imagine a settled life for either of them. He forces the issue on Blaisdell, provoking his friend to shoot it out with him to save Gannon, whom Morgan perceives as a rival threatening their stature. By losing on purpose Morgan wins the argument — he says so as he dies — and precipitates the film’s tragic climax. Instead of freeing Blaisdell from his past, the gunfight sends him to the edge of a moral abyss.
Blaisdell has already shown himself a figure of awesome authority by facing down a lynch mob and ordering its leader to step forward and get buffaloed. With Morgan dead he becomes a terrifying figure, forcing the town to mourn his friend, brutally kicking the cane out from under an annoyingly moralizing judge (Wallace Ford) and finally turning Morgan’s saloon into a funeral pyre. His cold rage, amplified by some terrible self-recognition, forces Gannon to post him – order him out of town. It’s an order that has to be backed by force, though everyone recognizes that Gannon stands no chance, his hand still healing after the McQuowns put a bullet through it, against the godlike gunfighter. As the saying goes, the town’s not big enough for both of them, but the truth is, the town isn’t big enough for Blaisdell even before you factor Gannon in. Morgan has convinced him that he is a breed apart, that he can’t renounce his past without repudiating his oldest friend. Whatever the outcome of his showdown with Gannon, Blaisdell has already lost once he decides that there’s no place for him in Warlock or with Jesse. In an optimistic moment he had said that Warlock was “growing up.” By the end, it seems that he had not.
Clay Blaisdell may be a doppelganger of Wyatt Earp, but he’s of the cinematic breed of Ethan Edwards and Tom Doniphon, heroes who prove antiheroes by their inability to settle down. In revisionist westerns the town tamers often have more in common with the outlaws than with the ordinary people waiting for a tamed world. The town tamers are themselves untamed, too often laws unto themselves, yet necessary in a way that guarantees their own obsolescence. Once a town is tamed, it’s time for them to leave. Fonda’s performance in such a role is a paradigm, noble yet amoral but also conscientious enough to know his limitations. Sergio Leone saw this film and thought of Henry Fonda first as his Man With No Name and finally, once he had the clout to get him, as a more evil and more doomed representative of that “ancient race” in Once Upon a Time in the West. Watch Warlock and you understand what Leone was after. Fonda’s slow-burning yet commanding performance heads a deep ensemble ranging from the eccentric Quinn and the redemptive Widmark to DeForrest (Dr. McCoy) Kelley giving perhaps his greatest performance in a relatively small role. There may not be a recognizable auteurist vision at work in Warlock, but there’s no lack of power and sweep for all that. This late monument to studio craftsmanship is one of the greatest westerns of the western’s greatest decade.
For a more in-depth exploration of the differences between Dmytryk’s film and Oakley Hall’s novel, read my essay at http://mondo70.blogspot.com/2009/03/book-into-film-warlock-1958-9.html