The 1950s was a decade that produced some fascinating Westerns. Long before the term revisionism was applied to the genre, screenwriters and directors were turn to the politics of the day to fashion tales set in the Old West that had an entirely new way of looking at things.

Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn in "Warlock"

Director Edward Dmytryk’s “Warlock” (1959) begins like a conventional town-taming Western but Robert Alan Arthur’s script, based on Oakley Hall’s novel, includes many complex characters and twists that elevate this film to a whole new level.

Abe McQuown (Tom Drake) and the lawless cowboys from his San Pablo ranch want things done their way in the nearby mining town of Warlock. The movie opens with them humiliating and running out the deputy sheriff while the scared townsfolk watch from behind their closed doors and windows.

Soon enough, the Citizens Committee decides to hire Clay Blaisdell (Henry Fonda), a feared gunfighter who has tamed several frontier towns, as the marshal despite reservations expressed by some of its members. Blaisdell arrives with his club-footed partner Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), who takes over the local saloon and establishes a Faro parlour so that the duo can make some money on the side while they tame the town.

Anthony Quinn in "Warlock"

Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark) is a member of the San Pablo gang who is already troubled by the violence of McQuown and its impact on his younger brother Billy Gannon (Frank Gorshin). Johnny leaves the gang and later takes on the vacant position of deputy sheriff, which pits him against both Blaisdell and McQuown’s boys.

Billy and two others members of the gang are gunned down when Blaisdell decides to enforce an order barring members of the McQuown gang from Warlock, setting in motion a string of showdowns that have some unforeseen consequences.

Arthur’s script provides a lot of material to the three main male leads and Widmark, Fonda and Quinn turn in great performances. But the screenplay doesn’t do justice to the movie’s two women characters – Jessie Marlow (Dolores Michaels), a peace-loving citizen who develops a romantic relationship with Blaisdell, and Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone), a woman of easy virtue and a former lover of Morgan to whom Johnny Gannon takes a shine.

Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark in "Warlock"

Scenes in which Henry Fonda’s laconic killer suddenly begins romancing the town’s Ms Goody Two Shoes just aren’t convincing. Just as frustrating is the effort to inject some romance between Johnny Gannon and Lily Dollar (probably the most suggestively named female character in a major Hollywood production till Pussy Galore in the James Bond flick “Goldfinger”).

Much has been made by some reviewers of the purportedly homoerotic relationship between Blaisdell and Morgan but I find it hard to accept. Morgan is a just a twisted character, a cripple who’s convinced himself that Blaisdell is his meal ticket and that nothing should be allowed to come in the way of their partnership.

I always have time for any decent movie starring Richard Widmark, and he’s pretty good in “Warlock” as his character is transformed from a bystander to one who gets to play a key role in shaping events. Widmark received top billing in “Warlock” and was originally cast as Blaisdell before suggesting that the role be offered to Fonda. 

The movie’s cast includes L Q Jones and a pre-Star Trek DeForest Kelley. “Warlock” is available on DVD in Regions 1 and 2 in a great transfer that shows off the wonderful cinematography by Joe MacDonald.