Adapted by Robert Alan Arthur from a novel by Oakley Hall, Warlock is a minor though worthwhile western. It was directed by Edward Dmytryk, and it is informed, I believe, by Dmytryk’s own recent past.
Let us pause to recall that past. Dmytryk was one of the Hollywood Ten—Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Ring Lardner, Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo were the others—who in the fall of 1947 refused to answer questions posed to them by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was investigating Communist influence in the Hollywood community and in Hollywood moviemaking. The legal basis for their refusal was the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which states in part, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” The ten were silent, then, because Congress had no business coercing them to disclose their political beliefs or the beliefs of others in the Hollywood community; they were absolutely entitled to these beliefs and their free expression. The House of Representatives, disagreeing, charged the men with contempt of Congress, and the courts in the appeals process sided with Congress. Dmytryk spent a year in prison, after which, blacklisted in Hollywood, he faced financial ruin. Urged by his wife to what was (she felt) necessary for their survival, Dmytryk returned to HUAC in spring 1951, this time answering all its questions and “naming names,” that is, outing as far Leftists colleagues and associates, twenty-six in all. (The other nine of the Hollywood Ten held fast, however.) Dmytryk repudiated the Communist Party that he had joined in 1944 and succeeded in having his name removed from the Hollywood Blacklist. But none of his subsequent films matched the clarity and power of Hitler’s Children (1943), an anti-fascist film made during the war. (His most celebrated film, which is terribly overrated, was released just three months prior to his first appearance before HUAC: Crossfire, a postwar film noir assaulting anti-Semitism and graced by Robert Ryan’s sly portrayal of a murderous Jew-hater—a homophobe in the novel by Richard Brooks upon which the film is based.) Dmytryk could be a remarkable director of actors, and his one substantial claim after filing turncoat testimony is that he guided Humphrey Bogart in one of the most brilliant performances ever given by an American film actor: Captain Queeg, in The Caine Mutiny (1954). If John Wayne in Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) uncannily anticipates President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Bogart as Queeg frighteningly anticipates the paranoid president that the then-sitting vice president, Richard Nixon, would one day become.
Dmytryk’s insistence in Warlock on the justice of “law and order” is a veiled attempt to paint as righteous his self-revised politics for the sake of financial security. As morally indefensible as this course was, evil must be assigned elsewhere: to those who placed people in such circumstances that required them to choose between solvency, even survival, and the integrity of their own connections to colleagues and their past. The U.S. was in the grip of a sordid panic—ironically, the projective result, most of all, of its own “successful” conclusion to the Second World War by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our wartime allies, the Soviets, were now our Cold War adversaries, and U.S. officials desperately worried that the Soviets would do to us what we had done to Japan. Having established a fearsome precedent, and determined, despite that, to hold onto the notion of our own goodness, we could only assume that those whom we considered worse than us—they weren’t—would not hesitate to strike us with the ever increasingly holocaustic weaponry that the arms race generated.
The United States was thus in the grip of bizarre (and largely unconscious) rationalizations; so was Dmytryk, who in turning against friends and associates had ultimately turned against himself. This self-division, with its attendant repressed guilt, helps explain the dark, twisted nature of Warlock. Whatever else it is or is not, Warlock is Dmytryk’s most personal film.
Nineteenth-century Warlock: a western mining town that is being terrorized by a gang of vicious thugs. The citizens of the town hire a professional gunman, Blaisdell, who has a near legendary reputation. Accompanied by Morgan, a clubfooted gambler whose job it is to pick off “backshooters” in order to keep fights fair, Blaisdell succeeds in banishing the culprits with an impressive show of nonviolent determination. But then a Warlock-bound stagecoach is held up by two members of the criminal bunch, who are also arrested for the murder of one of the passengers, a man accompanied by a sometime prostitute, out of jealous love for whom Morgan, in fact, had fired the fatal shot while hiding in the hills. The two prisoners are brought back to Warlock. Gannon, the brother of one of them, who has uncomfortably existed, generally drunk, on the gang’s fringes, becomes the deputy sheriff so that he may protect the boy from both Blaisdell and the townfolk; sober now, he remains on, dedicated to bringing law and order to the town—a mission that traps him in between his former gang and the hired gun. When he visits his former cohorts to warn them against coming into town for a showdown, the gang leader mutilates his draw hand with a knife. The next day, he faces the thugs alone; inspired by his courage and determination, people of the town (unlike those in High Noon) assist, while at gunpoint Blaisdell is prevented by Morgan from joining in, Morgan all the while hoping that Gannon, whom his former mistress now loves, will die. Disgusted by this and one other revelation, Blaisdell turns against Morgan, who tricks his only friend, the one person who never made him feel like “a cripple,” into a duel in which he outdraws Blaisdell but with the outcome, nonetheless, of Blaisdell’s killing him. Overwhelmed by guilt, Blaisdell forces a showdown with an exhausted Gannon but heroically backs down, throws his guns into the dirt and leaves town.
Dmytryk proceeds with a modest amount of skill. For instance, both Gannon’s rehabilitation and Morgan’s physical infirmity are handled in a sensitive, understated way. The town’s atmosphere of dread is convincingly rendered, and the relationships, to the extent that these matter, are thoughtfully portrayed. While the film pales in this regard by comparison with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo a year earlier, Morgan’s obsession with the woman he loves intrigues; he performs, arranges or attempts to arrange three murders over her, he keeps an enormous portrait of her on display in his room, and yet he finally threatens to kill her if she dares to come between him and Blaisdell. (Go figure.) The central relationship between the two men, regrettably, remains inconclusive, but it isn’t hard to imagine that Dmytryk was drawing on his own sense of self-division, probably unconsciously, and just as unconsciously identifying with Morgan to an almost pathological degree. Certainly something “dark” appears to pervade the Blaisdell-Morgan relationship—something hidden, unwholesome. This “something” surely masks the political underpinnings of Dmytryk’s blacklisting ordeal. By the oddest of coincidences, playing Blaisdell is none other than Henry Fonda, who was himself, many believe, blacklisted, but who chose to ignore the stigma and was a big enough star to prevail. Fonda is, of course, one of the greatest American actors ever, but he isn’t at his best here, making little attempt to penetrate Blaisdell’s personality, the self-deluding and morbid turns and twists of which should exactly complement the emotional contours of his moody, calculating and feral friend, Morgan. (In light of the performance that he gave in Carol Reed’s 1956 Trapeze, Burt Lancaster might have fared better than Fonda in the role.) On the other hand, a real aura of ambiguity surrounds Anthony Quinn’s variously crippled Morgan. This sometimes happens; the great actor is bad here, and the lousy one is quite interesting.
But the heart and soul of the film belongs to Richard Widmark as Johnny Gannon. In a conflicted role encompassing physical torture and multiple torments, Widmark admirably avoids hints of masochism, pessimism and self-pity. The sweetness, gentleness, quiet authority and humble perseverance that he enacts all generate tremendous concern for Gannon’s welfare and for the vulnerable future of America that he represents. After a dry stretch, Widmark is once again the marvelously sensitive artist of Jules Dassin’s Night and the City and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out (both 1950).
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