Release Date(s)1959 (May 21, 2019)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox (Twilight Time)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C-
The story of Wyatt Earp and his time as marshal in the town of Tombstone has not only been chronicled many times in cinema, but it has also been echoed in many other westerns with similar premises: a group of outlaws take over a town and an outside force comes in to deal with them. It’s basically western 101. What makes 1959’s Warlock so special is that it steers away from this tradition; it isn’t a story about good triumphing over evil, but the rule of the law winning the day over characters who’ve seen their fair share of both sides of it.
In the small mining town of Warlock in the Utah territory, a string of sheriffs have come and gone, whether by their own cowardice or by force at the hands of a group of “backshooting” cowboys intent on doing things their own way. Brought in to take care of them outside the confines of legality is Clay Blaisdell (Henry Fonda) and Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), legendary gunmen who earn large sums of money by going from town to town and running out the undesirables. Meanwhile, former cowboy Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark) becomes disillusioned by all of the violence that he witnesses and takes on the role of town deputy himself, which pits him against both Blaisdell and the cowboys, the latter of whom will soon come gunning for him.
Formerly blacklisted director Edward Dmytryk, who had previously worked on the World War II drama The Caine Mutiny, helms this adaptation of the novel of the same name by Oakley Hall. Presented as both a morality tale and a character study, the film is never committed to one character. Just when there’s someone to root for, the story takes a turn, often presenting a new shade of their personality to deal with. Good and bad do not apply as many of them, especially Blaisdell and Morgan, are of questionable ethics. Yet at the same time, Blaisdell is not necessarily a pistol-happy gunslinger looking to shoot as many outlaws as possible. He’s confrontational, but the reputation that precedes him dominates his actions, often scaring away his adversaries instead. Even in a scene in which he’s forced to draw his weapons, he tries to prevent bloodshed by firing the gun out of their hand rather than shooting them outright. On the other hand, there’s Morgan, whose sole purpose is to finish their appointed job and move on to the next town, which ultimately creates conflict between he and Blaisdell later on in the story.
Then there’s Gannon. After witnessing his posse commit what he deems to be less than law-abiding acts (to put it mildly), he refuses to be a part of their actions any longer, even if it means losing his brother's trust. He’s out to prove that he’s not a criminal, but someone who takes the law seriously, and that all must answer to it in the end. This too creates tension between he, Blaisdell, and Morgan. Further complicating matters are two blossoming relationships within the town. Blaisdell has fallen in love with the beautiful Jessie (Dolores Michaels), creating a schism between he and Morgan, while Gannon has taken a liking to the lovely Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone), newly-arrived in town, but also having a history with Blaisdell and Morgan. Add to that a variety of townspeople with their own opinions about what’s right and wrong and a group of cowboys who often don’t even trust each other and it makes for compelling drama.
To be succinct, Warlock isn’t a film about the good guy winning the day, nor is it about the action, the love story, a happy ending, or the triumph of the human spirit. It’s about people and their choices, and how those choices affect those around them, which seems pretty heady for what appears to be a generic western. And that’s the point – it’s far from generic.
Presented in widescreen with its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Warlock comes to Blu-ray via Twilight Time with a gorgeous transfer. Shot in CinemaScope by the great Joseph MacDonald (My Darling Clementine), it’s a beautiful presentation with high levels of fine detail and subtle but even grain. Everything appears sharp and clear, never muddled or overly bright, with the only flaws inherent in the occasional use of matte paintings and scene transitions. The color palette offers a great variety of hues, even within the confines of a western setting. Blacks are deep and inky and contrast levels are virtually perfect. It’s also incredibly stable with no obvious cosmetic problems whatsoever.
The audio is presented in both English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD with optional subtitles in English SDH. While it would have been more ideal to have had restored versions of the original mono and 4 track stereo options, the 5.1 and 2.0 tracks are a nice substitution. The 5.1 is a widened version of the stereo experience, pushing ambience and music into the surrounding speakers, but also repurposing a few dialogue exchanges. The 2.0 is the simpler option, but also manages to not keep dialogue hovering at all time towards the center, which is fairly standard practice. Both tracks are clean with no leftover damage, while the score and sound effects offer plenty of heft.
Extras include an isolated score track in 2.0 DTS-HD; a 1-minute excerpt from a Fox Movietone newsreel, highlighting a ballroom event held in honor of Queen Frederica of Greece, with Henry Fonda in attendance; the film’s original theatrical trailer; a scroll-through of the Twilight Time catalogue; and an 8-page insert booklet featuring a critical essay by the always terrific Julie Kirgo.
A tense and thought-provoking western with a cavalcade of character actors in tow including DeForest Kelley, Frank Gorshin, L.Q. Jones, and Joe Turkel, Warlock is somewhat of an unsung film. It’s one that film fans get caught up in easily, but the general public seems to have forgotten about, despite its frequent appearances on TV over the years. Twilight Time’s release offers a lush A/V presentation, as well as a chance at the re-evaluation of an underappreciated masterpiece.
– Tim Salmons