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Saturday, October 6, 2018

Warlock (Fox, 1959)

The Man with the Golden Colts

Every so often I like to revisit Westerns. Watch again a familiar film. Last night Warlock was on a British TV channel (which I get here in France by satellite). I reviewed this picture back in April 2011, when I was on a bit of a Fonda kick. But as so often happens, on re-viewing, I find other merits (and occasionally demerits) that I had not commented upon, and other thoughts that cross what passes for my mind, and so here is what you might call Warlock Redux, a few more opinions on what is, after all, a major Fox A-Western of the late 50s, that oh so golden age.

It’s an odd name for a town, Warlock. Doesn’t it mean some kind of male witch? Why would a Western town be named for a thaumaturge? And where is it? There are hints in the dialogue that we are down in the Southwest somewhere, maybe New Mexico or Arizona. The movie was filmed in Utah, round Moab, and has splendid classic Western settings, with a water wagon damping down the orange dust in the town street. Most of the story happens in town, so on sound stages, but there are enough exteriors and shots of surrounding terrain to make it a classic Western, not a low-budget studio-bound affair. It was in CinemaScope and Color De Luxe. The man behind the camera was the excellent Joe MacDonald, who had started photographing our noble genre on Western Union with Fritz Lang and had been DP for John Ford on the visually splendid (and splendid in other ways too) My Darling Clementine in 1946. He had gone on to do Yellow Sky, Broken Lance and The True Story of Jesse James (all for Fox), and even the mighty epic The Fiend Who Walked the West. He would work with director Edward Dmytryk again on Alvarez Kelly in ’66. A great Western cinematographer.

Joseph MacDonald DP

I might get more of the lowdown on the origins of the place name and its whereabouts when I read the Oakley Hall source novel, which has just arrived from amazon (I’ll be reviewing that another day). It was worked up into a screenplay by Robert Alan Authur, who seems to be an author named Arthur but isn’t, a scribbler with 25 screenwriting credits, though this was his only Western, poor fellow.

RA Authur

He got it right though, or maybe Oakley did, because there is a real Western ‘tone’ to the picture and there are some great lines. It was 1959 and the dreaded revisionism was only round the corner but this was still a ‘straight’ and un-self-questioning Western of the old school.

The 1958 novel

Director Dmytryk was Canadian born but grew up in San Francisco, the son of Ukrainian immigrants. A lifelong political leftist who had been a Communist Party member briefly during World War II, Dmytryk was one of the so-called "Hollywood Ten" who refused to cooperate with HUAC and had their careers disrupted or ruined as a result, though he later seemed to recant and work again. He did few Westerns, probably the ‘biggest’ being Broken Lance. His last was a picture that some are rude about though I quite like, Shalako. He handles Warlock very well, I think, building the tension and giving us interesting character development.


The headline stars were 1. Richard Widmark, 2. Henry Fonda and 3. Anthony Quinn. I’m not quite sure why Widmark got top billing because really Fonda’s character, Clay Blaisedell, is the central figure, an unofficial marshal, what became known as a town tamer. This was not the first or last use of this Western plot device. A recent Western, Appaloosa, for example, is so close in theme that you could almost argue it's a remake. A community is dominated by a ruthless boss/arrogant local rancher and his henchmen, and the citizens call on the services of a tough gunman to clean up the town. As Blaisedell and his gambler sidekick Tom Morgan (Quinn) ride into town, we are reminded most definitely of an Earp/Holliday pairing and Warlock has much in common with the (fictional) Tombstone.
The pair are very Wyatt & Doc-ish

There was some interesting casting because Quinn plays an effete character with suppressed homoerotic leanings to his partner Blaisedell (Dmytryk denied there was any gay subtext but he must have been blind). This is said to be a departure for Quinn, who usually played pretty macho roles in oaters, but actually (see below) he was capable of a variety of subtle parts. I’ve always liked Quinn in Westerns. He started back in the 1930s with small roles. His first Western of all was as a Cheyenne in Cecil B DeMille’s The Plainsman (the one with Gary Cooper splendid as Wild Bill). Nothing subtle here. He conned DeMille by claiming to speak fluent Cheyenne, whereas he just delivered gobbledigook. He was a heavy in a top hat in Union Pacific, and an Indian again, this time Crazy Horse, in the Raoul Walsh/Errol Flynn Custer story They Died WithTheir Boots On. His first memorable and moving role in a Western was as one of the hanged men in William A Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident in 1943. He was yet again an Indian, Yellow Hand, in the 1944 version of Buffalo Bill (the Joel McCrea one for Fox) and several other Western roles followed. In 1953 there was a slight foreshadowing of Warlock when as Mexican bandit Esqueda he seemed almost to be competing with Ava Gardner for the affections of Robert Taylor in Ride, Vaquero! My two favorite Quinn Westerns are both Bs, but superb Bs, Man from Del Rio (1956) and The Ride Back (1957). He was magnificent in both. And at least he could actually play a Mexican (he was born Antonio Rudolfo Oaxaca Quinn in Chihuahua, Mexico).

Morgan watches Clay's back

The casting in Warlock was also a bit off-the-wall because the chief badman, the ruthless rancher Abe McQuown, was played by Tom Drake, usually a mild-mannered goody – he was the wholesome boy next door that Judy Garland sang about in Meet Me in St. Louis. He’s actually good, though, as the nasty, thuggish and arrogant man who thinks he owns the town and ought to.

Wholesome Tom Drake...

...is the ruthless bad guy

Widmark plays one of McQuown’s men, Johnny Gannon, who is disgusted by his boss’s loathsome dealings and cowardly back-shooting, and goes over to the other side, taking the job as official deputy, thus finding himself in conflict with both his former employer and the gunslinger hired to restore law ‘n’ order to the place. Widmark was memorable and powerful, and on a Western roll. Warlock came after Yellow Sky, Garden of Evil, Broken Lance, Backlash, The Last Wagon and The Law and Jake Wade, and in all of these he was very good. I also think he was an excellent Al Sieber later on in the TV movie Mr. Horn. Of course John Ford used him but only when the great director was over the hill: Two Rode Together and Cheyenne Autumn were two of Ford’s last, and weakest, Westerns. And some of the choices of Western roles Widmark made later on were, shall we say, regrettable. Still, overall his Western record s a very good one. In Warlock, Widmark is strong. Gannon seems guilty and remorseful for his earlier crimes, and actually afraid of both Blaisedell and McQuown, but he shows that true courage which is not fearlessness but rather being afraid and doing it anyway. The film actually has much to say about fear.

Dick pins on the badge

As for Henry Fonda, he is, of course, magisterial. To me, Fonda ranks with Gregory Peck, Joel McCrea, James Stewart and the like, right up there with the greats of the genre. Frank James in Jesse James and The Return of Frank James, superb as the decent cowpoke in The Ox-Bow Incident, unforgettable as Wyatt Earp in Ford’s splendid My Darling Clementine, perfect again for Ford as the martinet Colonel Thursday in Fort Apache, utterly authoritative and convincing as the bounty hunter in Anthony Mann’s The Tin Star, it’s hard to say which Western he was best in. True, some of the later pictures he did were pretty dire (I am thinking of such trash as There Was a Crooked Man and My Name is Nobody) but that is true of all big Western stars. Even the greatest of them all, Gary Cooper, had to do those stodgy Warners Westerns of the early 50s like Dallas, Distant Drums and Springfield Rifle. In Warlock Fonda’s Blaisedell is melancholy, disillusioned and unsatisfied. When he rocks back on a chair you can’t help thinking of that scene in Clementine, and of course this Blaisedell is very Earpish.

What could be more classic?

The two female leads are taken by Dorothy Malone and Dolores Michaels. However, in such a male story they get to do little. Blaisedell dallies a little with Jessie (Michaels) and they even get engaged but it becomes clear that he is never going to settle down with a woman. (Quinn’s jealousy when Fonda announces his engagement to her is palpable and furious.) The love of his life is Tom Morgan, even after he dies.

   Blaisedell: “I suppose I figured Morgan and I…”
   Jessie: “I’m not Morgan.”
   Blaisedell: “Maybe I’ll have to find another Morgan.”

Lily (Malone) arrives on the stage with vengeance in her heart, wanting to have Blaisedell shot down, and she develops something of a relationship with Deputy Gannon, but Gannon is, relatively, a minor character and there is little time (even in a movie at 2 hours +) to build this love interest into much.

Ms. Michaels only did three big-screen Westerns, about the best being her part as the poor, abused May in The Fiend That Walked the West. Malone was a much more experienced Western star and one thinks in particular of her Julie in Colorado Territory with McCrea, her Karen with Randolph Scott in The Nevadan, and her splendid derringer-wielding Virginia in Jack Slade. She co-starred with Fred MacMurray twice (At Gunpoint and Quantez) and ended Westerns hovering between Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson in The Last Sunset. She was a fine actress and very beautiful.

Les belles blondes

Another good thing about Warlock is the plethora of old-friend character actors lower down the cast list. There’s Wallace Ford as the irascible Judge Holloway on crutches, DeForest Kelley as a McQuown henchman who sees the light, and the likes of Regis Toomey, Vaughan Taylor and Whit Bissell as townsmen. You can even spot Don ‘Red’ Barry and LQ Jones in bit parts.

Bones is a gunman

We get a lot of gunplay and some traditional showdowns in the street and saloon. A stage hold-up too. The marshal stands down a lynch mob, Earpishly. It’s a classic Western in that regard with many of the tropes 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 Blaisedell is already a dinosaur. Civilization is coming to the frontier and there are only a few wide-open towns still to clean up. Warlock is a psychological Western which is also full of action.

There’s a slight tinge of the dime-novel Western here and there. The flashy gold-handled Colts of Blaisedell, for example (in various languages the movie got its title from them, Der Mann mit den goldenen Colts, L'homme aux colts d'or, El hombre de las pistolas de oro, and so on).

Though Blaisedell says they're only for Sunday-go-to-meetin'

There are other dime-novel references. In fact at one point Blaisedell shows Morgan a magazine featuring Morgan, ‘The Black Rattlesnake of Fort James.’

Slightly odd poster

Fonda and Quinn look rather good in their fancy frock coats and they spare little expense on the amenities of life, doing up their saloon into the fancy French Palace and importing rich drapes and Chinese silk sheets from San Francisco. Widmark, though, sticks to his trademark jeans jacket – except when he goes to dinner with Dorothy.

DeForest Kelley told an anecdote about the shooting of this movie while on the Star Trek convention circuit, about the time Princess Sofia of Greece was visiting the set and Kelley flubbed a scene by falling over a chair onto his backside and saying "Oh, shit," in front of the princess. Fonda told him the following Monday not to worry about it because he had danced with the princess over the weekend and ascertained that she had no idea what "shit" meant. This did not stop Kelley from getting a standing ovation at the commissary when the cast and crew broke for lunch.

Dmytryk tells in his biography that Hank Fonda was such a fast draw with his Colt that the director and editor had to slow up the action so the audience could savor it properly.

Everything leads up to the rancher/gunslinger/deputy clash we know must come. There will be the quick-draw showdown in the main street at sun-up. There has to be, and there is. Dymtryk choreographed the finale meticulously. 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.


  1. I agree, Jeff, about the importance of re-watches very often. I re-watched "WARLOCK" not so long ago and my liking for it had increased considerably over the time. A classic western, gripping, adult and immensely entertaining.
    I have to admit though that the supposed gay subtext isn't there for me particularly. Seems to me to be about two men who have been friends and worked together so long there is a reliance by the one upon the other. Maybe there's more but I don't see it, or maybe just don't want to.

    I do like Widmark in westerns but can easily get your point about the rather sneering or sour aura. I find Kirk Douglas can evoke the same aura.

    As for Fonda, yes utterly superb as usual. To your great list of his fine western performances I would only add the later "FIRECREEK" where he again gave a superb performance of a bad man that you could not help but feel some empathy maybe.

    1. Westerns often feature deep male friendships. Perhaps it is only these days, when 'gaydar' is so much more finely tuned, that we read more into them.
      I too like those Westerns Fonda did with his pal James Stewart, such as Firecreek and The Cheyenne Social Club.

  2. Excellent piece. But I have a more favorable reaction than you to Richard Widmark in westerns. He was especially good in ‘The Last Wagon.‘
    Now I look forward to your take on the novel, which I read years ago - and liked - but only dimly remember. As I recall, it was more “philosophical,” and more obviously a reworking of the Earp story. Thomas Pynchon loved it!
    Oakley Hall also wrote a series of western/mystery novels recountng the fictional adventures of Ambrose Bierce. Good stuff.

    1. Yes, Widmark could be good. I too thought The Last Wagon above average.
      Have just started the novel. Already gripped!

  3. Hi Jeff

    'Warlock' is a classic, brilliant western, with a great cast: Fonda, Quinn, Widmark...
    I'm glad you liked Widmark in this movie. I always liked him in westerns. I'm still waiting for your comment on 'The law and Jake Wade', one of my favorites.


    1. Yes, I must get round the TLAJW. I remeber it well, and remember liking it, but I Don't recall it well enough to write a review now. Must get a DVD and watch it again!

  4. Jeff, a really good write-up of a really good Western movie. First of all, I like the movie, but it can't hold a candle to Oakley Hall's sweeping, myth-busting, and trail blazing Real Western Story told through a work of fiction. Also, you have to keep in mind the time period Hall was writing this thinly disguised Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday story. WARLOCK the novel was published in September of 1958. During the 1957-58 TV season THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF WYATT EARP starring Hugh O'Brian had finished 6th of all shows in the ratings. The 1957 movie GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas had finished 12th at the box office of all the movies released that year. The TV show and movie were both fashioned in the Stuart N. Lake WYATT EARP: FRONTIER MARSHAL(1931) mold.

    Enjoy Oakley Hall's WARLOCK the novel.

    1. I've just started. The Earpishness is already apparent!