Monday, May 7, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Warlock" (1959)

"Warlock" exists in that nether region between classic Westerns and revisionist ones, the period where the idea of two men staring each other down in the street with six-guns was beginning to seem less like grand adventure and more like a morally ambiguous bloodbath.

It's an ambitious film, lacking a clearly heroic figure -- and even the would-be villains have more than a single dimension, more than simplistic motivations.

It reminds me very much of "Unforgiven," Clint Eastwood's late-era masterpiece, so much so that I wonder if this movie played any role in inspiring it.

Henry Fonda is ostensibly the star, playing Clay Blaisedell, a notorious gunman who makes a living going from town to town. Officially he's a rent-a-marshall, but his real job is to kill outlaws ... or whoever it is that's currently stirring up trouble in the area. As he patiently explains to the town council of Warlock, eventually they'll grow fearful and resentful of him, at which point they'll have had full satisfaction from each other, and it will be time for him to leave.

He actually makes most of his money as a gambler, bringing games of chance and an entire saloon operation to town. Blaisedell even travels with a sign for "The French Palace," a bit of self-appointed royalty that he takes wherever he goes.

"The 400 dollars a month I get from you would hardly pay for the ammunition I use up in practice. Fortunately, as a faro dealer I'm an attraction. Things work out very well," Blaisedell intones.

Blaisedell is accompanied by his best friend and right-hand man, Tom Morgan, who runs the saloon and watches out behind Clay for "back shooters" sneaking up on him. Tom, who has a club foot and is nicknamed the Black Rattlesnake of Fort James, is a real piece of work. He loves Blaisedell fervently, seeing himself as his protector -- not just his life, but his reputation. Anthony Quinn plays Morgan with a slithery sort of braggadocio, and carefully hides the deep-seated resentment Morgan has toward Blaisedell.

The real protagonist, in my view, is Johnny Gannon, a member of the local gang of troublemakers, known simply as the San Pablo cowboys. Johnny only throws in with them to protect his headstrong 19-year-old brother, Billy. In an unlikely turn of events, Johnny takes up the empty job of the local deputy sheriff, which ends up putting him in between Blaisedell and Abe McQuown, the powerful cattle baron who leads the cowboys.

Johnny, if not exactly a lowlife, hasn't led a very respectable life, at one point admitting that he participated in the cold-blooded murder of 37 Mexicans who trailed McQuown's gang after they had rustled their cattle. But he takes his job as deputy seriously, even if it means sacrificing his life.

Director Edward Dmytryk makes a deliberate contrast in appearance between the hired gunslingers and Johnny. Blaisedell and Morgan are always dressed in fine waistcoats and ties, with expensive hats and groomed hair. Blaisedell is famous for his pair of gold-handled pistols, though he never actually is seen with them until the final showdown.

Meanwhile, Johnny is scruffy and unkempt, sporting a denim jacket most of the time. He upgrades his wardrobe a bit after donning a badge, but then McQuown nearly cuts off his fingers during a confrontation, so he spends the latter part of the movie looking rather pathetic, holding his bandaged hand in a timid manner.

I think it's an attempt to mix up the conception of heroes and villains, of the brave and the craven, with Johnny mincing up and down the dusty street in an unmanly gate, while Blaisedell strides slowly and purposefully in classic Western fashion. The renowned gunslinger relies more on his reputation, not to mention his back-up man, than his guts. And the reformed thug-turned-lawman is willing to stand up to 20 armed men while barely being able to hold his gun.

"When you stand to win, you gotta stand to lose, too," Johnny says.

Things inevitably build to a showdown between Blaisedell and Billy, who asks Johnny to stand with him. "I ain't backin' him, because you're my brother, and I ain't backin' you, because you're wrong," he responds.

I'm quoting so much of the dialogue from "Warlock" because it's so consistently good, screenplay by Robert Alan Aurthur, adapted from the novel by Oakley Hall. It's not the naturalistic sort of exchanges you see in later films like "Barbarosa." But it's not the dull claptrap you often found in Westerns prior to this film.

Here's one terrific piece in the only significant exchange between Blaisedell and Johnny, and probably the most words Blaisedell has ever spoken in an unbroken string in his entire life:

I remember when I first killed a man. It was clear and had to be done. Well, I went home afterward and puked my insides out. I remember how clear it was. Afterwards, nothing was ever clear again. Except for one thing. That's to hold strictly to the rules. It's only the rules that matter. Hold onto 'em like you were walking on eggs. So you know yourself you've played it as fair and as best you could. But there are things to watch for ... in yourself. Don't be too fast. When there are people after you, you know it and you worry it. Then you think, "If I don't get drawn first and then kill first--. You know what I mean?"

Here, the icy Blaisedell allows a bit of self-doubt that he never shows to the public. What if he twitched during a gunfight and actually drew a split-second earlier? Then he would have shot first, and found himself bereft of the rules he clings to as both cloak and shield for his killing.

It's a tiny sliver between murder and upholding the law, it would seem.

I should also mention that DeForest Kelley, forever Bones from Star Trek, has a delightful role as a Southern-drawling member of the cowboy gang whose loyalties are constantly in flux.

"Warlock" isn't a perfect movie. There's a pair of female complications that seem completely unnecessary to the plot. Dorothy Malone plays Lily Dollar, an old girlfriend of Morgan's who bears a death wish against Blaisedell for one of his previous exploits. And Dolores Michaels is Jessie, a pure-hearted townswoman who finds herself attracted to Blaisedell's dark sense of honor.

Both women's mushy scenes have enough momentum on their own, but in context with the story's high-minded themes, taking continual breaks for some kissy time just saps the movie of some of its narrative strength.

Still, "Warlock" is a minor masterpiece, a forgotten relic that doesn't fit easily into notions of the Western.

3.5 stars out of four

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