On one level Warlock is a standard late-50s Western in which a tough marshal is hired to clean up the eponymous town, which has been treed by an evil rancher. Been there, done that, you might say.
But actually it goes a good deal deeper than that. Edward Dmytryk’s experienced direction of three top stars (Richard Widmark got top billing, followed by Henry Fonda and then Anthony Quinn) and a subtle, interesting screenplay (Robert Alan Aurthur from an Oakley Hall novel) make this a quality Western with something to say.
The Fonda/Quinn relationship has a definite whiff of Earp/Holliday about it but it also has a (daring for the time) implicit yet clear homoerotic side. Both men dally with females (Dorothy Malone and Dolores Michaels) because that was expected, in 1959 movie theaters as much as in 1870s cow towns, but both fail and both really love each other. Quinn’s jealousy when Fonda announces his engagement is palpable and furious.
We get a lot of gunplay and some traditional showdowns in the street and saloon. It’s a classic Western in that regard and in fact it seems to have been an attempt to comment on the Western archetype and the hollowness of the myth. It also has a whiff of end-of-the-West about it as Fonda’s Clay Blaisedell is already a dinosaur.
Disillusioned and unsatisfied
All three principals are extremely good - Fonda, of course (he was never anything else) but also Quinn in his leg brace and fancy vest and Widmark in his trademark jeans jacket. Richard switches sides and changes from one of the baddy cowboys to marshal of the town, pinning the famous star to that jacket. Quinn forsakes his usual macho roles for this effete saloon keeper who imports fancy drapes and satin sheets (satin sheets were 1950s code of course). Fonda is melancholy, disillusioned and unsatisfied. He has that far-away look in his eyes. He knows that his way of life is doomed now that peace is coming to the West and he wants, intellectually, to retire from marshaling and settle down with Dorothy (well, who wouldn't?), but he can’t. He doesn’t really love her. The love of his life is Tom Morgan.
The jilted lover
The three principals are supported by Tom Drake, classic sensitive goody, usually, but here playing an especially nasty boss of the heavies. Stalwarts such as Wallace Ford, Richard Arlen and Vaughn Taylor make up the townsfolk. DeForest Kelly (Bones of Star Trek) is another baddy who changes sides and backs up Widmark.
Everything leads up to the Fonda/Widmark clash we know must come. There will be the quick-draw showdown in the main street at sun-up. There has to be. The gunmen approach each other, grim-faced. The camera goes to their hands and their holsters. And then…
Well, you’ll have to watch it.