. . . Earp

. . .

Lookin for trouble From "Across Arizona," William Henry Bishop, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, March, 1883:
Our visit happened to be timed upon the heels of a conflict making the most tragic page yet written in the annals of Tombstone. Official opinions were evenly divided about it, the sheriff extending his sympathy to one party, the city marshal, who was, in fact, its leader, to the other. City Marshal Earp, with his two brothers, and one "Doc" Holliday, a gambler, came down the street armed with rifles and opened fire on the two Clanton brothers and the two McLowry brothers. The latter party had been practically disarmed by the sheriff, who had feared such a meeting, and meant to disarm the others as well. Three of them fell, and died on the spot. "Ike" Clanton alone escaped. The slayers were imprisoned, but released on bail. The Grand Jury was now in session, and hearing the evidence in the case. It was rumored that the town party, for such were the Earps, would be able to command sufficient influence to go free of indictment. The country cow-boys, on the other hand, were flocking into town, and on one quiet Sunday in particular things wore an ominous look. It was said that should justice fail to be done, the revengeful, resolute-looking men conferring together darkly at the edges of the sidewalk would attempt to take the matter into their own hands.

. . .

Warlock by Oakley Hall, 1958

(Also at The Valve)
The judge nodded. "Just a process," he said. "That's all you are. What are men to me?" He rubbed his hand over his face as though he were trying to scrape his features off.

Warlock's prose is solid, sturdy, heavy less lively than Elmore Leonard's; less introverted than Charles O. Locke's and sculpts its characters into familiar forms: noble lawman, autocratic rancher, Byronic gambler, open-hearted cowboy, drunken judge, liberal doctor, the good angel, the wicked lady, the vacillating chorus of shopkeepers, the comic counterpoint of the dime-novel mythologist....

Familiar enough to disappoint if you've heard the book puffed as revisionist. Hall didn't aim to be the Western's Suetonius but its Thucydides.

Warlock remains very much a Western. It would have to be.

Hall isn't interested in refuting the appeal of courage and virtue. Instead, he wants to show the uses and limitations of that appeal. Yes, we see people fail (sometimes fatally) to make an immediate difference. But (unlike, say, a Pynchon novel) Warlock particularly attends successful intervention towards some newly configured sense of justice.

"It is war, not a silly game with rules."

"There are rules, Morg," Clay said.


"Because of the others I mean the people not in it. [...] Because he will have to pretend there are rules whether he thinks there are or not, just like he had to today. And if he has to pretend, it means he is worrying about the others pretty hard."

These newly shared ends, though, are always provisional in their turn, and the potential target of new champions. The true antagonists of Warlock are value systems. And any meeting between them is tense.

It occurred to him all at once that Blasedell was trying to make contact with him in some way, and immediately what he had hoped was going to be an easy conversation for him grew taut with strain.

* * *

From Leatherstocking on up, American value clashes found a home in the Western.

With few exceptions, Warlock's are familiar: the overlapping claims of elected, appointed, or volunteer sheriffs, marshals, deputies, posses, vigilantes, and federal troops; the ambiguous jurisdictions of nation, territory, county, town, property, and home; the competing interests of ranchers, cowboys, miners, entertainers, gamblers, outlaws, merchants, and corporations.

(Exceptionally, an early labor struggle is included. Thematically, that back-and-forth between middle class charity, organized worker action, and management crackdown resembles other Western fights for the moral high ground. Historically, one can draw a not-too-indirect line from hired peace officers to Pinkerton's strike-busters. But it's never become a standard genre element, given the inconvenient questions which might rise: "Order" as determined by who? "Public safety" for who? A decent place to raise whose family? Traditionally, the genre describes an incoming ethical system's victory over a decrepit ethical system. But here we have several new communities emerging at once.

There are, for instance, the miners, the bulk of the town's population. Are they intelligent and responsible enough to be entrusted with the vote? They are not, we feel, perhaps a little guiltily. Then there are the brothel, gambling, and saloon interests.... Our projected state was thus gradually whittled down, to become a kind of club restricted to the decent people, the right-thinking people, the better class of citizens....

If anything, Hall stacks the deck in favor of sustainable democracy by adroitly maneuvering Warlock's thin strip of middle class into alliance with the workers.)

(Exceptionally excluded are the Indians. Warlock's native population appears only as the memory of a once common enemy, deployed when a gesture toward unity might profit some otherwise losing party.)

* * *

But most of the Westerns I've read declare a winner and then stop.

Warlock lays value clashes out in sequence, taking advantage of the compressed lifespans of American frontier settlements like Warlock, built around a set of mines or like my own home town, built around a railroad track (which closed) or, potentially, like the thousands of suburbs dangling precariously from highways, piped water, and power lines.

The book's uniqueness is structural. We begin with "The Fight in the Acme Corral". The disguise is thin; the fight's centrality is assumed; it's finished in about 140 pages. With 330 pages to go.

But Hector is dead, and what is there left for Achilles to do?

Warlock's people fight and kill over matters of principle. However, Warlock's people build, burn down, and re-build "matters of principle" even faster than bars or cathouses. No alliance is maintainable, because individuals themselves are divided. No settlement is final. Warlock's crops are staggered so that some conflict is always near harvest, until the soil's completely played out.

* * *

The novel includes extensive excerpts from the observations and analysis of a fair-minded intelligent contemporary eyewitness, who (in the novel) is always ludicrously mistaken as to character, motives, and outcomes.

These ironic expositions reinforce a generic convention: The straightest shooters hold the strongest principles and the clearest insights.

"I guess you will understand me. It is a close thing out there, you and the other. But I mean it is like two parts of something are fighting it out inside before there is ever a Colt's pulled. Inside you. And you have to know that you are the part that has to win. I mean know it."

As I said, it's conventional. But it conventionalizes a feeling we recognize. The people we've known and worked with and admired most did combine those things; they were more productive, and more certain of their plans and their goals and of others' positions and goals. We can sometimes almost feel them combine in ourselves: a broadly engaged clarity, and a barely-after-the-deed conviction that we knew the right way to play it.

To what extent this combination of literal and figurative grasp, this energizing overlay of rightness and righteousness, is illusory is difficult to say. Certainty in itself can exert influence, principles can be swayed by example, and the playing field adjusted to match the diagram.

"Real" or not, though, it can be lost. Rectitude can be muddied and clarity confused. Or simply trampled by those who refuse to listen: Moral deafness is learnable. It may even be a duty. What's sociopathy except loyalty to a value system which precludes parley? The Indian fighter bereft of Indians; the blood-feuding patriarch faced with rule of law; the CEO valuing stock price over customer or worker; the born-again valuing catchphrase over deed....

He began to check it through, calculating it as though it were a poker hand whose contents he knew, but which was held by an opponent who did not play by the same rules he did, or even the same game.

And so the investor pulls out, the team is laid off, the state stops funding, the cops start busting heads, the troops open fire, the amendment passes almost unnoticed....

And then it's gone. The godhead lifts. The champions fall.

I will confess that for a time I subscribed to a higher opinion of our Deputy than I had previously held. That was yesterday. Today the mercury of my esteem has sunk quite out of sight....

What's left to defend but some contested graves? When pressed, we remember with a mix of pride and embarrassment our own sincerity, and with confused bitterness the sincerity of others who lost more.

And horribly, there's no choice but to start again. We change our subscriptions, re-enlist in a different army, but the pattern stays the same. We again pledge allegiance to these manufactures a job, a family, a project, a movement, a church, a party, a town and, forever lacking control, we dedicate or squander our lives to mere hope for influence.

Again the abstraction seems miraculously held aloft, transfixed by the combined intensities of our good wills and again crashes down.

Was there a jostle? a lapse of attention? We walk or we're carried away from the gambling table we took for altar.

Better luck next time?

When he looked up to meet the eyes that watched him from the glass behind the bar, no longer friendly, he saw that what had been bound to pass had already quickly passed.

* * *

The Western takes as an interesting given that peculiar American expectation: a mobility neither exile nor nomadic, making a (discardable) home within communities nesting out from self, to family, to neighbors, to fellow laborers, and on to Mr. Smith in Washington, all able to simultaneously satisfy some rudimentary sense of justice, offer some hope of personal advancement, and satiate the wealthy.

The Western yokes action with negotiation, idealized characters with real history.

Warlock isn't a great novel "in spite of" its genre. Its atypical power is thoroughly drawn from the generic.

To quote Hall's frequently quoted "Prefatory Note":

... by combining what did happen with what might have happened, I have tried to show what should have happened.

"What might have happened" doesn't encompass "what could not have". "Should have" allows the heroic. "Did" requires the tragic.

"I have thought," the judge said bitterly, "that things were so bad they couldn't get any worse. But they have got worse today like I wouldn't believe if I didn't hear it going on. And maybe there is no bottom to it."

"Bottom to everything," the sheriff said, holding up the bottle and shaking it.

. . .

Warlock by Edward Dmytryk, 1959

I probably won't collect much hate mail by claiming that the spaghetti Western culminated in Once Upon a Time in the West, with My Name Is Nobody a yodel-lay-ee-hoo echo in the Spanish hills, and Henry Fonda (of all people) central to both. Along with Ennio Morricone's score, Fonda's Frank is what straps Sergio Leone's wobbling tower of set pieces together, even while he contributes to its imbalance: the Good, the Ugly, and the Italian Girl can't possibly hold the screen against Bad Fonda's intensity or shock value.

Fonda had played clean, and Fonda had played brittle. But how had Leone intuited that Fonda could use Lee Van Cleef as a toothpick? For decades, it seemed the most brilliantly foolhardy piece of casting-against-type I knew.

Until the first time I saw Warlock.

Clay Blaisedell thinks it over
"That was his favorite. He had it printed in his head."
- Luciano Vicenzoni on Warlock and Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time in Italy

The mannered acting, message-burdened scripts, aging stars, and ever stiffer rhythms of post-WWII Hollywood (reaching sclerotic apotheosis in Peckinpah's crying jags) could be made shapely only by the most forceful directors: Ray's Johnny Guitar, Lang's Rancho Notorious, Mann's Jimmy Stewart series, Hawks's plot-defying Rio Bravo.... Only Budd Boetticher approximated the balanced terseness of Western fiction's prose.

Warlock's an engaging curiosity in the less successful crowd. Its story riffles through the social studies textbook before pseudo-resolving in big grins and choked-back tears. ("Stay away, Shane! Stay far far away!") The great Joe MacDonald's Cinemascope is rewarding but not quite redemptive. Richard Widmark's prematurely wizened deputy pays penance mostly by looking out of place, and his neurosis and Dorothy Malone's ultra-archness clash like fuschia and salmon.

Am I my brother's gun's keeper?

Anthony Quinn plays the "Is he sublimated or do they just remember to close the door?" Sal Mineo / Mr. Smithers role, except more robust, what with being Anthony Quinn. To make sure we know homosexuality's a disease regardless, on top of being a murderer and a misogynist, he's "a cripple" (i.e., he limps). Despite those liabilities, his adored reacts a lot more strongly to his loss than James Dean did....

The Black Rattlesnake of Ft. James

In the Black Rattlesnake's defense, Henry Fonda's Clay Blaisedell is pretty worthy of adoration, since he's what makes the movie more than a case study in compromised ambition. Unlike most reviewers, I even like his love scenes with proper lady Dolores Michaels. It's refreshing to see someone attracted to a transgressor not because he's confused or reformable but just because he's a shortcut to transgression.

Blaisedell defines the exact midpoint on the line I'd been unable to draw from My Darling Clementine to Once Upon a Time in the West. He's closer to the historical Wyatt Earp than John Ford's, but he's still Wyatt Earp: flesh disturbingly relaxed around a ramrod sense of right; the defender of order, if no longer quite law.

That vector shifts him from taking part in a community to taking part in a process. The change benefits his income and wardrobe. It could even be viewed as beneficial to the community. In particularly tangled circumstances, an outsider can define and resolve problems more effectively than those who are part of the tangle. Anyone who's ever worked with a good consultant will recognize Blaisedell's rhetorical use of "of course" and his matter of fact detachment:

"People generally begin to resent me. I don't mind it when it happens. It's part of the job. But it will happen. When that happens, we shall have had full satisfaction from one another."

But even if he provides satisfaction to the town, he doesn't belong to it, and he has only one human contact outside it. With his technocratic pride, his carrion crow hunch, and his near sneers at the weak and noisy, he's not far from Frank: the defender of mere orders and, finally, the sociopathic carrier of an untouchably solipsistic rectitude.

And when Blaisedell kicks the crutch out from under an old man, we've crossed the Leone line.

I won


Rob Carver writes:

Nice tip of the hat to "Warlock", one of my favorite Fonda films, if a bit wordy for a western and all the better for it. Quinn was eerily goofy in that one, and Widmark was so neutered - all the more to make Blaisedell a more troubling figure to me when I first saw it on TV. Even though the straight-jacketing of the Hollywood Western of the time was close to breaking open, Fonda's quiet, assured menace made one hell of an impression on me, well beyond the conventional heroes or villains other HW westerns were presenting. You could almost compare Blaisedell to Ryunosuke in “Sword of Doom”, in the way he has a code and sticks to it, until the sadly soft ending. I always prefer the ambiguous, such as “Yellow Sky”, “Blood on the Moon”, or “One-Eyed Jacks”, to the white hat/black hat setup, as it allows for interpretation rather than the bland pablum with horses and gunfire. This was also one of the first Hollywood westerns I feel that portrayed hetero sexual attraction well, or as well as they felt they could; you’re right about Dolores Michaels looking to transgress – elegantly repressed lust was never done better in a western from that time.


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