Warlock

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Western;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone.

Warlock has surprised me in recent years by showing up in multiple chat room discussions I’ve stumbled across that deal in particular or in passing with underrated Westerns. The surprise comes from my having actually seen the picture during its initial theatrical run in spring of 1959 at a downtown movie palace (called The Palace) and not having been particularly bowled over. (For one thing, Rio Bravo had opened just a few weeks previously.)

Looking at its new Twilight Time Blu-ray, I still think that a lot of the directorial fire went out of Edward Dmytryk’s belly after he came back from the Blacklist, but Warlock isn’t another of his later pictures that never quite deliver on their potential, such as The Caine Mutiny, Raintree County (which was an admittedly troubled production), The Young Lions and even The Mountain, which had Spencer Tracy and VistaVision photography of the French Alps. Instead, this heavily psychological reworking of the Wyatt Earp saga is about as good as anything Dmytryk did after Broken Lance, courtesy of a talky but grown-up script by Robert Alan Arthur, adapted from an Oakley Hall novel. Thanks to Julie Kirgo’s liner Twilight Time notes, I learned that Hall’s source novel was a Pulitzer finalist and that Thomas Pynchon himself was a big fan of Hall’s work.

To get a little cute here on the Pynchon front, let’s just say that Warlock (the town) has its share of inherent vice. It originates with a local thug who’s shacked up just beyond town limits and played to general surprise by that literal boy-next-door Tom Drake; he’s good enough here to have had a better post-MGM career than he had. Displaying a slightly cooler demeanor than the band of hothead hoods under his wing, Drake is still a part of their regular ride-ins to wreak mayhem and dispatch local lawmen to their graves. The more moneyed citizens have finally had it and agree to pay a professional town tamer $400 a month, which embarrassingly outpaces the salary of the official sheriff. The deal is that this uncommonly polished usurper will basically set up himself up as a dictator, his approach to keeping these and other lawbreaking creeps on the straight and narrow on penalty of instant death. Expect town egos to be ruffled here and there — and to be sure, this gunman has a history of past employers eventually turning against him.

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Henry Fonda has this role, and it’s an interesting characterization. In his frequent urbane moments, Fonda recalls his own performance and visage as Wyatt Earp in John Ford’s all-timer My Darling Clementine. But other times, his manner of dress at times anticipates his dark garb in Sergio Leone’s Once Up a Time in the West, which wouldn’t be filmed for nearly another decade after some full-gonzo casting made possible Fonda’s bravura turn as one of the bedrock villains in Western-movie history. It’s as if Dmytryk and the costumers acted upon the dichotomy of the character’s personality without knowing it.

And now for the central wrinkle: Fonda has a traveling companion (his Doc Holliday, so to speak) who’s cozy enough in their uncommon buddy arrangement — say, what’s going on here? — to reduce the film’s two lead actresses (Dorothy Malone and Dolores Michaels) to not much more than marquee bait. Rarely are they credible romantic forces, even granting that Michaels is involved with a third party in what is essentially a serious bromance. As Fonda’s tag-along buddy with, I’m guessing here, a great cologne collection — Anthony Quinn is a snappy-looking silver-hair who’s faster with a gun than Fonda but with a huge inferiority complex from being afflicted by a clubfoot. Because Quinn is as restrained here as I’ve ever seen him, he’s also as good as I’ve ever seen him, and both he and Fonda tend to relegate top-billed Richard Widmark to “dependable” status when it comes to dominating scenes.

Widmark’s character, however, fits in with the movie’s sub-theme of redemption: He’s an increasingly reluctant and disillusioned member of Drake’s gang who maintains threadbare allegiance so that he can watch the back of a  younger brother (a minor but mouthy Drake subordinate) from getting killed. I did not remember that Frank Gorshin has this kid brother role, which would indicate that the mannerisms for Gorshin’s hysterical Widmark impression of later years — one of the comic’s many — came halfway from the source. (And yes, they two did look a little alike.) Eventually, Widmark has a complete change of heart and becomes officially designated town lawman, which puts him into not always unfriendly conflict with Fonda.

For a movie shot by the great and underrated Joe MacDonald (a Dmytryk regular who also photographed Clementine), Warlock has a lot of those static compositions we see in too many Fox widescreen pictures from the era, and it was around this time that my 12-year-old self started to notice that the color values of, say, even minor Paramount releases blew concurrently released Fox titles out of the water. The presentation here can’t do much to alleviate these built-in limitation, but again, this is a picture that makes it on the strength of some not infrequently pointed writing, two key performances and a posed moral dilemma that remains intriguing.

There is also, for Western fans, a remarkable roster of bedrock supporting players, with familiar faces like L.Q. Jones, Richard Arlen, Ann Doran and Gary Lockwood entering and leaving before they can barely make an impression. Also around are a bearded Wallace Ford as a judge and borderline crackpot; Don Beddoe, who to my recollection must have played enough pioneer town docs to rate a career citation from the Dropsy Foundation; High Noon heavy Ian MacDonald (he was Frank Miller, in fact) as a guy named … MacDonald; Walter Coy, who was John Wayne’s massacred older brother in The Searchers; plus DeForest Kelley in a fairly important role as a gang member with a conscience.

And yes, you probably asked for it, so you’re going to get it: There’s also good old ubiquitous Whit Bissell, the actor who told Melvyn Douglas to shoot the sick cattle in Hud; tried to make sense of Kevin McCarthy’s pod rantings in Invasion of the Body Snatchers; and  “invented” Michael Landon’s hairier self in I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Back in its heyday, I read once that if the porn industry were ever to be outlawed, the entire Southern California economy would go with it. This must have been what it was like in the ’50s and ’60s when Bissell’s incessant employment presumably facilitated studio cash flows. There’s no way you could have this kind of movie without Bissell showing up somewhere — though in this case, Beddoe had already cornered the market (again) regarding Warlock’s doctor role, relegating Bissell into playing yet another “town father” — one of his specialties.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Between the Lines’ and ‘Warlock’

The River’s Edge

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Ray Milland, Anthony Quinn, Debra Paget.

The River’s Edge (with a “The”) hasn’t anything to do with plain old River’s Edge (1986), whose sundry plot points centered on wayward teen slackers, a murder victim and an inflatable blowup doll that Dennis Hopper loves in one undesignated fashion or another. Instead, this earlier near-namesake has other things on mind, but in its own way managed to be nearly as tawdry by the tepid standards of 1957, when I first managed to see it at age 10 on a double bill with Pat Boone’s screen debut in Bernardine. This was the great thing about neighborhood theaters at the time: “It’s OK, mom, we’re going to see Pat Boone, and I know how much you dig ‘Love Letters in the Sand’” (true enough) but failing to add that the co-feature featured an adulterous love triangle and at least one exceptionally blood-soaked killing for its day.

Though it’s tempting to say that director Allan Dwan had been involved in visual communication since the days that people drew illustrations on the walls of caves, his career only went back to 1911, which was still just three years after D.W. Griffith began dabbling in moving images himself. That was a 46-year career up to this point with four more still to go, and though Dwan got mired in “B’s” after directing some higher-profile projects in the 1920s, he did bring enough storytelling distinction with what he was given to become an auteurist figure to ’70s film scholars. Dwan’s Silver Lode (1954), which was late in the game itself, is solid by any standards.

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The River’s Edge, filmed in CinemaScope and with a fairly electric dose of DeLuxe Color, is impressive in how Dwan and veteran production designer Van Nest Polglase made it look more expensive than it possibly could have been — something noted by ace film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini in a sometimes gently amusing commentary carried over from the old DVD. But they also point out continuity problems more likely than not are the result of the limited budget. One case in point are the da film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini in a somet film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini in a sometimes gently amusing commentary carried over from the old DVD imes gently amusing commentary carried over from the old DVD y-for-night photographic limitations in an otherwise well-shot outing from Harold Lipstein, whose credits included the absolutely gorgeous-looking Heller in Pink Tights for George Cukor three years later.

And yes, Edge at least has “elements” of noir — or so say these authors of one of the definitive noir books, even though the picture is in color and often takes place in the wide open spaces during daylight hours. Certain key elements are definitely here, though, including a heavy sexual undercurrent and stolen money that has put one of its principals (Ray Milland) on the lam. Plus a dissatisfied wife (Debra Paget) at the center of two competing males — though in this case she’s simply more dissatisfied than the usual all-out noir “Trouble.” Paget is, however, playing a redhead, which is always a good way to accrue noir-ish bonus points.

In a locale that just as easily could be known as South Hellhole, NM, we begin with what’s presumably this rural route’s only known pink Thunderbird — with its driver/stranger (Milland) asking for directions to find the area’s best known guide (a role played by Anthony Quinn, who had just won his second supporting Oscar in five years, though he took the money and ran here all the same). Living with Quinn on his spread, if that can possibly be the word, is parolee Paget — a marriage that kept her from going back to jail (say, how about a movie about the court system that so ruled?).

Still, despite legitimate feelings for Quinn, she’s had it: he’s nearly gotten badly gored just outside; the kitchen appliances blow up; a scorpion crawls into one of her high heels; and the shower rains mud all over her when she’s trying to look extra nice for her man’s birthday.

Quinn’s place is no efficiency but a trailer whose incredibly shifting dimensions amuse Ursini and Silver (and likely many viewers) to no end. From the outside, using a movie’s screen size as an analogy, it’s about the size of a nickelodeon peep show from around the time Dwan started directing. But if it’s an indoor shot, we (comparably speaking) find ourselves in an Imax frame; it’s like when the screen expands at the beginning of Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It. Be that as it may, Milland shows up carrying a cache of cash (stolen), and the divulgence of some past history emerges. Paget is his former lover and partner in crime (which got her sent to prison), and Milland would like to reclaim her, as well as get Quinn to guide him across the border into Mexico where he hopes to escape with his bounty. Through circumstances having to do with all the dead people who seem to materialize whenever they cross Milland’s path, regretful accessory (and, again, parolee) Paget joins them on the mountainous trek as well.

Milland is the same kind of corrupt smoothie he played in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and is effortlessly superb at it, while Quinn is atypically a nice-guy cuckold instead of his standard force of nature (read: Zorba the Anything). Paget is OK with a couple standout scenes, though she seems to have been foisted on Dwan due to her status as a 20th Century-Fox contract player (she’d been the center of another love triangle between brothers Richard Egan and Elvis Presley just half-a-year earlier in Love Me Tender). This is the kind of movie where you’re in danger of being killed merely by being in the supporting cast; those dispatched include not just a a cave-dwelling rattlesnake but a harmlessly grizzled Western “old-timer” played by Chubby Johnson, who’d previously sat atop the stagecoach with Doris Day during her great Deadwood Stage opening to Calamity Jane.

As if this weren’t exactly the kind of screen entertainment we 10-year-olds wanted to see, there’s also a heavy sexual undercurrent throughout the entire narrative, something that Dwan (per Ursini and Silver) loved injecting into his films — and at his age, no less. When he made Edge, Dwan had recently come off Slightly Scarlet, a tantalizingly lurid James M. Cain adaptation for Edge producer Benedict Borgeaus that featured another redheaded ex-con (Arlene Dahl) lounging around provocatively while sis Rhonda Fleming (redheads, redheads) tried to have Dahl’s back despite the latter’s abject looney-tune-ness. Two decades earlier, Dwan had directed the Shirley Temple version of Heidi, but now he had the kind of material where the big boys played. Oh, Allan, you devil.

Depending on how you feel about marginal The Restless Breed or how adequate or not Dwan swan song Most Dangerous Man Alive turns out to be (I recorded it maybe a year ago off Turner Classic but haven’t gotten to it yet), Edge was not too arguably his last smoothly finessed film, one that always comes up with compelling framing and actor blocking when there couldn’t have been much time or money to help. Interestingly, Dwan lived 20 more years after he retired in 1961, a remarkable achievement — though it’s not so much that he lived to be 96, as impressive as that is. It’s that he lived to be that age despite at one point having directed three Vera Ralston films in a row at Republic — the third a World War II drama where Phil Harris found a way to perform his No. 3 Billboard hit The Thing. Good genes, buddy.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Great Buster’ and ‘The River’s Edge’