. . . Warlock, 1959

. . .

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.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.