BR: Warlock (1959)

June 21, 2019 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twlight Time

Region: All

Released: May 21, 2019

Genre:  Western

Synopsis: Terrified townsfolk hire a gunslinger and his partner to protect their remote community from a vicious gang, knowing full well it’s a deal with the devil.

Special Features: Isolated Stereo Music Track / 1959 Fox Movietone newsreel (:59) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




Named after the town where morally grey and immoral figures do battle, this fairly modest western – not horror – was among several heftily budgeted studio productions by former blacklisted director Edward Dmytryk. (After being tossed in jail with nine others for contempt of Congress by the vile House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC], Dmytryk ‘cooperated’ in 1951, and was the only member of the Hollywood Ten to have resumed his career in full.)

Dmytryk was already a noted director of taut dramas and film noir – Crossfire (1947) earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director – but as he rebuilt and expanded his career, his focus on cruelty, social injustice, and the consequences of indolence became more evident: The Caine Mutiny (1954), in which the stressors of a tyrannical Lt. Commander’s behaviour are the partial result of uncaring and greedy officers; sibling rivalry and racism come to a head in Broken Lance (1954); and most epically, The Young Lions (1958) followed 3 figures as WWII exploded: a good German ensnared by the Nazis, a morally wayward drunk, and a Jew transcending frank anti-Semitism within the U.S. Army.

There’s a theory – iterated in the Blu-ray’s excellent essay by film historian Julie Kirgo – which pegs Dmytryk’s interest in films with strong social themes & messages to a strong sense of guilt for having named names of supposed communist influencers in Hollywood to get back to work, and some critics feel his later films never equaled the potency of his pre-HUAC work, but there’s no doubt of his adeptness in handling big budget productions packed with dynamic, iconic, and sometimes demanding stars.

While the name Warlock evokes a story of witches, demons, and (obviously) warlocks to contemporary audiences, it’s also an appropriate term in describing a town perpetually at war with itself rather than just the goons who come into town, harass & bully locals, and extort generous deals for not wholly stealing or flattening local commerce.

The film, itself based on a praised 1958 novel by Oakley Hall, could be summarized as High Noon (1952) with double the characters and tripled conflicts: sick of being assaulted by a nearby gang, the businessmen + 1 woman of Warlock pool their resources and pay a hired gun and his assistant to be their sheriff, as the town has no legal status and is wholly reliant on whatever wimpy deputy is sent by a nearby town to babysit.

The resulting idea and deal seems sound: operating on a clean shotgun clause, shooter Clay Blasedell (Henry Fonda) and his gambling / drinking / pimping pal Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn) get quadrupled monthly salaries for their services, and set the rules of engagement with miscreants, but must comply with the desires of the council; when both sides tire of each other, the agreement is mutually dissolved – ideally after goons are dead, and peace has returned to Warlock.

Clay falls for Jessie Marlow (Dolores Michaels), owner of the local mine, and over a short time makes plans to marry and settle – a scenario anathema to Tom whose very existence and happiness is tied to Clay’s itinerant career as a town-hopping gunslinger. The team’s relationship begins to crack when Tom’s former flame Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone) rides in, and the ugliness of his role in the two-man team becomes clear: Tom picks off approaching assassins and challengers to ensure Clay lives to resettle in another town.

Tom’s own life is stressed when Lily falls for the new deputy, former gang member Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), himself set on changing his life by following the law, and through his own actions, show the town it can stand up for itself instead of getting trapped in a cycle of hiring another shooter to kill the next wave of vengeance-fueled gang members – a nihilistic circle that’s expressed in clean, cynical terms by Curley Burne (Star Trek‘s inimitable DeForest Kelley), the only gang member liked by most of the townsfolk.

It’s a complicated story which could’ve been plodding and messy, but veteran TV playwright Rover Alan Authur’s adaptation and superb pacing keep the story threads uncluttered, and tempo brisk; co-star Malone doesn’t make an impression until Lily arrives around the midpoint, and the first quarter depicts the prior deputy’s suicidal encounter with the gang who through directorial inference, chase him out of town and quite likely, hung him from a tree.

This is also an exceptionally well-paced, tightly cut film in which no scene feels abrupt, and there’s zero fat; this is an excellent example of how to organize and choreograph multi-character conflicts and slowly winnow the focus from a batch to a select few, in a series of confrontations rather than one big showdown.

The breadth of the characters and shared moral grey zones by gang members, hired guns, and townspeople also inspired composer Leigh Harline to write one of his best scores. Instead of recapping a main theme, much of the score covers the shifting morals and power plays, and features some striking modern orchestral colours. (Twilight Time’s Blu features a stereo isolated music track.)

Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography does features gorgeous rocky landscapes, but the bulk of the story takes place in town, and the barren exterior scenes demarcate Warlock’s isolation, cult off from easy commerce and safety routes by valleys, sheer cliffs, and broiling sunshine.

The evil of moral indolence and cycles of pointless violence are over-iterated – a sometimes common trait from prolific TV writers accustomed to writing message plays in 90 and 60 min. teleplays for the average TV viewer circa the 1950s – but the dialogue is clean, sharp, and precise, and the cast is uniformly strong.

Widmark is way too old for the role – his supposedly a twentysomething brother to green gang member Billy (unbilled Frank Gorshin, playing 19!), and Quinn’s ‘southern’ accent and stainless steel grey hair don’t work, but the dialogue and direction and caliber of surrounding character actors maintain a solid consistency. (Curley’s speech on ‘the circle of violence’ has repetitive elements, but Kelley, in one of his best film roles, delivers it with a sly grin and unsubtle physical gestures, showing Curley as a reasonable man turned cynic, aware of what’s coming, but inured to violence.)

That of course changes when Johnny’s pretty much tortured while doing his job, and Curley sees the change in leader Abe McQuown (Tom Drake); rather than telling him to stop (which he knows is futile, especially in front of the gang), Curley teases Abe’s ego and gets him to stop and let Johnny live another day so Abe can kill him in person come sunrise.

Also among the unbilled cast are western veterans L.Q. Jones (The Naked and the Dead, Flaming Star, The Edge), Joe Turkel (The ShiningBlade Runner), prolific Roy Jenson, and blink fast and he’s gone Gary Lockwood (2001: A Space Odyssey, Model Shop).  Fonda’s turn as a totally grey figure may well have inspired Sergio Leone to cast him as the blue-eyed, soft-smiling killer in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968); Fonda’s plays Clay stoic until the end, when a close death ruptures his own sense of purpose, and he confronts his contented employers.

For their nice Blu-ray, Twilight Time also retained the original theatrical trailer and Fox Movietone newsreel that features Henry Fonda in a questionable tie and Greece’s Queen Frederika wearing a peculiar crown. In her excellent essay, Julie Kirgo deftly links important commonalities between Dmytryk’s film and John Ford’s My Darling Clementine  (1946), the moody version of Wyatt Earp which starred Fonda.

When his term with Fox ended, Edward Dmytryk’s career shifted towards a small spate of glossy productions – The Carpetbaggers (1964), Mirage (1965) – before he became a hired gun on international productions, each more impersonal and increasingly odd, such as the ridiculous euro-western Shalako (1968), and the fascistic-styled black comedy Bluebeard (1972), with significant dollops of nudity.

Robert Alan Aurthur scripted Grand Prix (1966) for former TV director John Frankenheimer, the Sidney Poitier couplet For Love of Ivy (1968) and the Odd Man Out remake The Lost Man (1969) which Aurthur directed, and co-scripted Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979).

Among the film’s few leading female leads, Dorothy Malone appeared in occasional film and assorted TV series (notably Peyton Place), whereas Barbara Michaels’ breakthrough never quite happened in spite of also co-starring in Fox’s hugely popular April Love (1957). After a handful of films – the western One Foot in Hell (1960), and war films Five Gates to Hell (1959) and Battle at Bloody Beach (1961) – Michaels appeared in a few episodic TV series before apparently retiring in 1963.

Oakley Hall’s novel (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) was followed by The Bad Lands (1968) and Apaches (1986). His 1963 novel The Downhill Racers was adapted into Downhill Racer (1969) with uncredited contributions by the author.



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan





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