Rather than a reference to the occult, Warlock is a town too small to have its own lawman and has thus found itself in the hands of a bunch of San Pablo outlaws (a pre-”Bones” DeForest Kelley in fine form amongst them), a gang with a penchant for killing barbers, holding up stages and massacring Mexicans. Being not dissimilar to the villagers in Seven Samurai the townsfolk decide their only optional is outside help, namely Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn.
An obvious set-up perhaps, but one that director Edward Dmytryk - more than making up for his previous Western, the lacklustre Broken Lance - ably twists into something quite remarkable. There would appear to be no intentions of creating just another typical generic exercise, and as such the film as a whole is leant a sardonic and occasionally sour edge. It’s an element that comes through most prominently in the Fonda character. Rather than the usual “superhuman” coming into town (as Dolores Michaels puts it), he’s something of a notorious figure, well known to most and even subject of a - presumably tabloid-style - biography. Moreover, he’s fully aware of his celebrity resulting in a delicious arrogance and an edge of Hollywood glamour which Quinn would share were it not for his club foot. At one point we even learn that the pair have been supplied silk sheets during their stay in town.
Any complacency on their part, however, is disrupted by a figure from their past, Dorothy Malone, whose husband was killed by Quinn. More recently he’s added the husband’s brother to the death toll, and as we delve into the trio’s past - colourful and eventful enough to fuel at least a couple of prequels - we realise that jealousy is the key, if not exactly the kind we would at first imagine. Improbable though it may seem, the Fonda-Quinn relationship is an unusual one, and one that fully stands up to a gay reading. As such, even the bland, predictable romance that forms between Fonda and Michaels attains an added edge; as Quinn puts it: “Thinking of weddings can lead to a funeral.”
Yet this is only half the story, Warlock being as much concerned with Richard Widmark’s defection from the outlaw gang and installation as the town’s deputy. As with the Fonda-Quinn relationship there’s a teasing ambiguity with regards to Widmark’s dealings with his former cohorts, especially as one of them is his younger brother. Moreover, Widmark himself is difficult to pin down; he seems almost bashful at being a cowboy resulting in an indecisiveness that perhaps also lends him a sense of danger. Indeed, it’s such a delicate performance and one completely free of the (admittedly wonderful) grandstanding of his famed psycho turn in the original Kiss of Death. It’s also demonstrative of the film as a whole as there are no showpiece turns, which is especially pleasing with regards to Quinn, here completely free of his Zorba the Greek and The Shoes of the Fisherman excesses.
If there is a problem with Warlock then it’s the result of this busy plotting. With so much set-up, there inevitably has to be a lot of pay-off, and what this means is a lengthy finale involving three gunfights and helping of Grand Guignol. It’s a little too excessive for its own good and Dmytryk understandably struggles to maintain a decent momentum. But then he also proves an impeccable director of action (the mid-point shootout being the standout), so that even when getting a little tiresome, Warlock still manages to impress in small doses.
As with Optimum’s other Western releases to date Warlock is disappointingly free of extras. That said, the print quality is in fine condition meaning that the disc still impresses. The CinemaScope ratio is adhered to and rendered anamorphically, and whilst it doesn’t look as though much in the way remastering has gone on, the colours have a richness and only on occasion does the image struggle to be discerned (some of the long shots are perhaps a little too soft). The soundtrack is equally clear, although the DD2.0 option sadly isn’t the four-channel option (as with all CinemaScope releases) that would have greeted cinema audiences at the time.