Warlock (1959), Outstanding Western with an Odd Title

Warlock (1959) is one of my favorite westerns.  Unfortunately it shares a title with a horror/fantasy film made 30 years later. It has a stunning cast that includes Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn and Dorothy Malone. And for fans of 60’s TV shows it also has DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy/Star Trek) and Frank Gorshin (The Riddler/Batman) in supporting roles.

Widmark plays the role of Johnny Gannon.  He and his brother (Frank Gorshin, an ideal choice as there is a resemblance) ride with a lawless gang who like to shoot-up the town of Warlock between stints of cattle rustling and other such endeavors.

frank_gorshin_riddler1 brothers? 

This leaves the town terrorized and frightened and unable to attract a deputy sheriff.  So the citizens of Warlock decide to hire a notorious gunfighter named Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda), at the bargain price of $400 a month.  By law, a sheriff’s deputy only earns a tenth of that sum.  So technically and according to the sheriff, Blaisedell, the appointed Marshall is a vigilante- gun-for- hire, operating outside of the law on behest of the townsfolk of Warlock.  Unfortunately, said sheriff is counties away and of no immediate everyday use. There seems to be no takers at the paltry sum offered to a deputy, so what else can the town of Warlock do?

So Blaisedell comes to town with his good friend Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), who happens to have a club foot, but is also a pretty quick draw.  They are clearly a package deal and settle into town by opening up their gambling saloon and intimidating the unruly gang.  The story gets complicated when Widmark’s character, Gannon, decides to break ties with the gang and turn over a new leaf. As soon as he accepts the position as the town’s deputy, he finds himself caught between his former gang buddies and Blaisedell, with little support of the citizens. Further complications arise when Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone) comes to town in search of Blaisedell.  She is an old flame of Morgan’s (Quinn) and is back with a vengeance. This adds an interesting subplot the helps flesh out the main characters by adding another dimension to the story. I am not going to give any more plot points away, as I do not want to risk spoiler territory.  Suffice it to say, the conflict between Gannon (the law) and Blaisedell (the vigilante), in addition to the resolution of the Morgan, Blaisedell and Lily affair, play out with great tension, action and drama.

I thought all the main roles were well acted.  I especially liked Widmark’s low-key performance of a man with a very troubled past who is looking for redemption.  It is the kind of role he excels at.  There is a great performance by  DeForest Kelley as Curly, one of the more likeable members of the outlaw gang.  He does a great job providing comic relief and steals many scenes.  I like the way the story unfolds with surprises along the way. Henry Fonda is very capable in the thankless role of the stoic gun fighter; it is the least dynamic of any of the male leads.

Anthony Quinn’s villainous portrayal of Morgan suggests more than just a close friendship with Henry Fonda’s Blaisedell by reinforcing homosexual stereotypes (flamboyant clothes, preoccupation with interior decor, hostility toward women who pose a threat to the status quo of their relationship).  Some of the final scenes make me wonder if perhaps Blaisedell is just too afraid of society’s wrath to reciprocate feelings that he dared not acknowledge.  Of course, this is all subtext; anything explicit about such themes would have been impossible in 1959. Certainly this is all in the eye of the viewer; but I have read online that the director (Edward Dmytryk) was surprised when critics of the time commented on the perceived homosexuality of Morgan (I am not the only one to think so).  It was not intentional, in his mind.  Or maybe he did not see it but the screenwriter did.  Some people get quite hostile at the notion that Morgan’s character might be gay. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, not that there is anything wrong with that. I find it an interesting interpretation of a fictional character.

I really enjoyed this Western. The themes are more complex than average; it has no clear hero, no clear villain and it left me thinking, long after I finished watching it for the countless time. My biggest complaint is the title. I wish the town had a different, less supernatural sounding name. The title seems so incongruous to the story.

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. 8teen39
    Jul 17, 2012 @ 14:02:49

    I was afraid to read your complete post in case there were spoilers. What I did read made me go directly onto netflix and add this film to my streaming queue. Thsnkd. I’ll try to watch it this week.


    • dvdiva
      Jul 17, 2012 @ 15:17:05

      Thanks for reading. Please let me know what you think of it when you get a chance to see it. No hard feelings if it is not your cup of tea. I really try to avoid spoilers but if absolutely necessary, I add a huge spoiler alert:)


      • 8teen39
        Jul 20, 2012 @ 23:09:42

        Well, I wanted to like it but it never really grabbed me. I thought the acting was great throughout, even the smaller parts. The story seemed a little flat to me. Have you ever seen High Noon? It reminded me of that. I enjoyed Richard Widmark. I’ve only seen him in one other movie. But keep reviewing and I’ll keep watching. I think your writing and insights are both excellent. The implied homosexuality was an added characterization that was underplayed but evident. A nice touch.

      • dvdiva
        Jul 20, 2012 @ 23:28:24

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Sorry it didn’t grab you. I did watch High Noon a few years ago; I enjoyed it but failed to see why it is considered iconic. Perhaps I should dust it off and watch it again, I probably missed something. I know what you mean about the similarities. I found the complexities of the relationships and how they knit the plot together in Warlock more interesting. I also liked the the way it left me guessing about the characters’ motivations. I concluded that Morgan didn’t really love Lily, but was frustrated with love and took it out on Lily. When she found happiness, he made sure it wouldn’t last. I thought that was chilling. Thanks again for your encouraging words.

  2. 8teen39
    Jul 22, 2012 @ 00:58:46

    See, that’s what I like about your reviews and critiques. You’re able to watch something on so many different levels. That’s something I lack, but when the subtext is pointed out to me it seems so obvious. There’s a heck of a lot going on in this film. Maybe my inability to see it or hear it for myself detracted from my enjoyment. Listening to you makes me appreciate it even more. I still stand by my original assessment, except now I’m inclined to give it half a star more. Thanks. What’s the next film?


    • dvdiva
      Jul 22, 2012 @ 07:52:06

      Thanks again for your kind and encouraging words. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Enjoying a film is dependent on so many things. Expectations that are not met, mood that one is in, other confounding distractions, life experience and how it relates to the characters onscreen. I find that the exchange of opinions helps me appreciate something from a different angle. I never get upset if someone doesn’t like what I do as long as it is respectful.
      My husband and I have broad tastes in TV and film but our enthusiasm is not often matched for any particular title.

      I remember the 1st time I watched The big Lebowski and Fargo. They were both hyped but I didn’t know what to expect. Fargo took me a 2nd look (shortly after the 1st view) to get its brilliance. The Big Lebowski was appreciated better on a 2nd view 10 years later.

      As for the next film, I am not sure. Have you seen Broken Lance? It stars Spencer Tracey, Widmark, Robert Wagner, Jean Peters. I blogged about it months ago. It is another fave Western. I watched/ slept through The Immortals last night in a hotel room in Big Sky, Montana. I really only watched it because my husband wanted to and Frieda Pinto and Henry Cavill are too beautiful it is unreal. Not one to write about. Not sure how much blogging I will be doing on vacation. It is off to Yellowstone ( which I bite my tongue not to call Jellystone) today.


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