The town of Warlock is being browbeaten into submission by a local rancher named Cabe McQuown (Tom Drake) and his gang of cowhand thugs. Cabe and his fellas show up into town periodically to raise a ruckus, and cause turmoil. They’ve also run off (or killed) several sheriffs in a row and generally make it known that they don’t want anyone telling them what to do. When the local barber is shot dead in cold blood, and the latest sheriff run out of town, the local citizens decide to take extreme measures. Instead of requesting a new sheriff from another district…..they decide to hire a gentleman of great prowess who has a reputation for taking law into his own hands….essentially being paid to handle rabble-rousers. We learn that this man basically goes town to town, enacting justice wherever he’s paid to deal it. His name is Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda). He also brings with him a sidekick with a crippled leg, named Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn). Clay and Tom arrive as the town’s hopeful heroes, and despite the fact that they warn the citizens that their brand of justice will wear out its welcome someday, the town lets them have control. They quickly take over the saloon, renaming it the French Palace, and begin to set things straight with a thorough, purposeful insistence upon letting the gang know that they mean business. One of the gang members named Johnny (Richard Widmark) quits the gang and decides to volunteer to be the actual town sheriff setting up confrontations of authority, moral rightness, justice, heroism, and masculine identity between Johnny, Clay, Tom, and the gang.
Perhaps Edward Dmytryk’s best film (he had some good film noirs too), this magnificently scripted work by Robert Alan Arthur is as good as it gets, with multi-textured portrayals like Fonda’s anti-hero “bad sheriff” persona, to Anthony Quinn’s embittered sidekick, who’s filled with devious plots of his own, to Dolores Michaels, as Clay’s love interest, Jessie, who’s anti-violence stance strikes a blow against the masculine mystique, to Dorothy Malone as Lily Dollar, the hooker who’s out for revenge, and also Richard Widmark’s conflicted bad-guy Johnny, who looks for redemption in his new role as Sheriff. All of these machinations are magnificently framed by Joseph MacDonald’s CinemaScope photography. Dmytryk’s feel for pacing and set-up is remarkable too, particularly in the scene when Clay confronts the gang for the first time in the saloon….the spatial relationships of the characters and their motivations coming into play as antagonistic and opposite of each other across the room, with various shotguns held at the ready and eyes watching. It’s a cool yet suspenseful moment, emblematic of the kind of tensions at play in this masterful film.
But let’s talk more about Fonda, who I think was one of the best actors to appear in westerns. It is said that Sergio Leone got the idea of casting Henry Fonda as the bad guy in Once Upon a Time in the West after watching Warlock. It’s not hard to see why. Perhaps for the first time here, one really views Henry Fonda as a hard-nosed, arrogant SOB. He has this way of presenting plain statements of fact in this film that come across as condescending and callous…..like he’s been there before and is shocked that you HAVEN’T been there. And although he’s technically supposed to be the hero, he’s kind of like those bad cops in the bad cop movies. You kind of root for him because he’s cool, but you kind of don’t root for him because you feel like you can’t trust him. I think it’s one of Henry Fonda’s greatest and most varied of roles. He’s macho and gritty and pompous, but also sad and melancholy and sentimental. There’s this moment near the end where he’s overcome by sadness at the loss of a friend and displays this renegade spirit of self-destruction and becomes unhinged….setting the entire saloon on fire. The image of him standing in front of the burning building is chilling. Not only does Clay set the west “on fire”, he tosses his guns in the dirt at the end of film, saying goodbye to the west, to his way of life, to everything he knows to be true. He goes off into the sunset not knowing what is next. What a brilliant film.