It’s easy to read Edward Dmytryk’s 1959 film Warlock as an examination of his own perceived failings. He of course was one of the Hollywood Ten and the only one that went on to testify to the House UnAmerican Affairs Committee as a friendly witness. Thus at the moral centre of this film we find Johnny Gannon, played effortlessly by Richard Widmark, as the former member of a gang of roughriders who questions his loyalties and ultimately chooses the law over his former friends.
On the surface this is your standard fallen-town-in-need-of-salvation that we’ve seen a hundred times before in everything from High Noon to Terror in a Texas Town. Present are the quaking townsfolk, the conflicted sheriff, the pompous judge, the thoughtful merchants and the hired gun but as the story progresses Warlock reveals itself as a much more intellectual and unusual Western than most of its contemporaries.
At first it appears the town has made a good decision in its choice of Marshal. He’s a thinly disguised Wyatt Earp and even trails in his wake – in the form of unceasingly loyal sidekick Tom Morgan – an analogue Doc Holliday. The first run-in with the lawless types terrorising the town is a triumph, and one that is carried out quite remarkably with no violence whatever. The second comes to a head in a street shootout, but this is dealt with by the hired guns as in the same manner that a grown man would swat a fly. At this point you might be forgiven for thinking this a regular Western where there will be a third and final shootout that sees the threat removed, the good guys triumph and the credits roll, but in between these two incidents two gigantic developments have taken place that will impact heavily on the story.
The first is that Billy Gannon has abandoned his former life of bullying and terrorizing and has agreed to take on the title of sheriff of Warlock, a post none of his predecessors managed to hold down for more than a few weeks. Then an extraordinary thing happens. Both he grows in the role and the role of sheriff grows around him as he flexes his muscles, gains the confidence of the town and slowly begins to crowd out the need for a such a thing as a hired Marshal.
The second is that Tom Morgan, hitherto presented as an upstanding white knight, has snuck out of town and murdered a rival. He keeps this quiet but a ticking clock arrives in the form of the woman accompanying the dead man, a woman who spits venom at him whenever they are together yet whose portrait hangs above his bed.
Such are the intricacies of the plot that by the end of the second act the original agency of the gang of outlaws almost seems an irrelevance, and indeed after their threat is dealt with several further standoffs must take place before peace can reign once again.
Warlock is a very assured film that subverts cliche and asks a great deal of attention of the viewer. It’s also given a great heft by some toothsome casting in the supporting roles: particularly fun are Frank Gorshin who barely manages to keep a lid on the manic persona he would perfect in the role of The Riddler in the 1960s Batman series and DeForest Kelly, enthralling as the oleaginous Curly, another of the gang of bandits who, like Widmark, has a late change of heart and comes to (partially) redeem his past sins.
It’s something of a mystery why this film is not more revered. It was clearly a big influence on Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and indeed Henry Fonda almost seems to be going through a dress rehearsal for his future role in Leone’s masterpiece. A absolute delight to come across this film; it deserves the widest possible audience.
Warlock – directed by Edward Dmytryk (1959)
The isolated western town of Warlock, tired of being hounded by a group of lawless ruffians, hires a famous marshall to dispense justice. That decision turns out to have consequences.
Trailer (with James Fonda introduction) here