Tag Archives: Edward Dmytryk

Warlock

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 2, 2014

Warlock—Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone, Dolores Michaels, DeForest Kelley, Tom Drake, Frank Gorshin (1959; Dir:  Edward Dmytryk)

WarlockPosterWarlockSpan

This excellent psychological western feels overstuffed, with a little too much plot and more good actors than it quite knows what to do with. It has two competing town tamers, one legitimate and the other less so, a Doc Holliday-character with a spotted history, a scarlet woman (often really dressed in scarlet), a wealthy if inexperienced young mining heiress, and a Clanton-esque gang of cowboy-outlaws, all coming together in one town where the law is not working.

Warlock is a mining and ranching town in Utah, but so remote that the county sheriff seldom makes an appearance.  There is a town marshal of sorts, but the opening scene shows him getting run out of town by Abe McQuown (McEwen?  McCune?  Played by Tom Drake), head of the San Pablo ranching crowd.  He’s presumably a rancher, but of the Ike Clanton sort—given to various forms of crime (rustling, stage robbery) and intimidation of the town.  His men, including Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), his brother Billy (Frank Gorshin, uncredited) and Curley Burne (DeForest Kelley), appear to be a bunch of thugs and back-shooters.

WarlockFondaQuinn

The local citizens send for gunman Clay Blaisdell (Henry Fonda) from Fort James, a sort of marshal-for-hire.  He brings with him Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), a gambler-gunman with a clubfoot, who sets up his own saloon-casino (calling it “The French Palace,” a sign they have brought with them) and who keeps off the backshooters.  Blaisdell has pleasant manners but few illusions about the cycle of civic support and distaste he can expect.  “I’m a simple man, handy with Colts,” of which he has a gold-handled pair that he only uses for Sunday best.  He gets paid a lot for his skills ($400 a month), but he expects his sojourn in Warlock will be brief.  The citizenry will soon have second thoughts about the gunman they have brought in to impose law in their town.  Blaisdell wastes no time in confronting the San Pablo gang, which he initially does effectively but without bloodshed.

Johnny Gannon appears to be having second thoughts about his participation in the San Pablo gang as well.  Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone), a former saloon girl with a past relationship with Morgan, shows up.  She was bringing a brother of Ben Nicholson, whom Blaisdell had once killed.  She seems to be trying to get back at Morgan, and thinks killing Blaisdell may be the quickest way to do that.  However, the brother is killed by Tom Morgan with a rifle during an attempted stage holdup by the San Pablo gang.  Two of the San Pablo men (including brother Billy Gannon) are arrested and Blaisdell saves them from being lynched.  They are ultimately let go in a legal proceeding in the county seat, Bright City, by a jury intimidated by McQuown.  The distant sheriff visits, doesn’t like Blaisdell’s presence, and points out to the crowd that none of them will take the deputy sheriff’s job.  But Johnny Gannon does, which sets his new authority in potential opposition to Blaisdell’s.

Meanwhile, Blaisdell quickly develops a relationship with young mining heiress Jessie Marlow (Dolores Michaels) and begins to think about marrying her and putting down roots.  Johnny Gannon forms a relationship with Lily Dollar.  Tom Morgan would prefer that neither of these happen; he wants Blaisdell to think of moving on to the next town, Porfiry City. 

WarlockFondaWid

Blaisdell to new deputy sheriff Johnny Gannon:  “I remember when I first killed a man. It was clear and had to be done.  Well, I went home afterward and puked my insides out.  I remember how clear it was.  Afterwards, nothing was ever clear again.  Except for one thing.  That’s to hold strictly to the rules.  It’s only the rules that matter.  Hold onto ’em like you were walking on eggs.  So you know yourself you’ve played it as fair and as best you could.  But there are things to watch for … in yourself.  Don’t be too fast.  When there are people after you, you know it and you worry it.  Then you think, ‘If I don’t get drawn first and then kill first–.’  You know what I mean?”

Blaisdell has posted the San Pablo gang, meaning that they can’t enter town without an armed confrontation with Blaisdell.  Brother Billy Gannon and another come into town in defiance of that posting.  Gannon tells Billy, “I ain’t backin’ him, because you’re my brother, and I ain’t backin’ you, because you’re wrong.”  Blaisdell, with a slight deference to Gannon, tries not to kill Billy but is left with no choice.  Gannon, thinking to avoid further such bloodshed, goes to the San Pablo ranch to dissuade them from coming to town.  They beat him up, and Abe McQuown puts a knife through his right (gun) hand. 

When the gang comes in force, Lily begs Blaisdell to help Gannon.  He’s willing, but Gannon insists that it’s his duty alone.  He tries to help anyway, but Tom Morgan holds him out with a gun, revealing the truth about the Nicholson brothers and their deaths.  When Gannon confronts the gang, one of them, Curly, unexpectedly keeps off the backshooters and the wounded Gannon is even more unexpectedly successful with the help of a few of the townsfolk.  But he’s not done.

Tom Morgan doesn’t like the way things have gone, with Gannon having become the local hero, and has been drinking heavily.  He tries to push Gannon into a shootout.  Blaisdell intervenes now, locking Gannon in one of his own cells and killing Morgan, going slightly crazy.  Gannon then orders Blaisdell out of town, and Blaisdell says he won’t go, setting up yet another confrontation the next morning.

WarlockFonda

As Blaisdell walks down the street the next morning, he’s wearing the gold-handled Colts.  Gannon’s wounded hand doesn’t work very well, and Blaisdell outdraws him easily with his right hand.  Then he throws the gun in the dirt.  He outdraws him again with his left hand, and throws that Colt in the dirt, too.  He gets on his horse and rides out of town, seemingly leaving Jessie behind.

This is black-listed director Edward Dmytryk’s best western, and it put him back in the directing mainstream.  Richard Widmark has top billing, but Henry Fonda has the dominant character.  Anthony Quinn is excellent, and so is Dorothy Malone.  Tom Drake and DeForest Kelley are both very good in smaller roles.  Dolores Michaels is adequate but mostly forgettable.  Based on a very good novel by Oakley Hall, the story brings with it echoes of the Wyatt Earp story and of Fonda as mentor to an inexperienced lawman, as in Anthony Mann’s The Tin Star two years previously.  It has a memorably articulate screenplay by Robert Alan Aurthur.  Leigh Harline, who had won Academy Awards for Pinocchio (1940) and done the music for Broken Lance, among many others, provided an excellent score.  Shot in color around Moab, Utah, and on the 20th Century Fox lot.

WarlockWideBelg

This is another of those 1950s westerns that makes a point about about how townspeople are uneasy with those they hire to enforce the law and with the violence used to do it (e.g., High Noon, The Tin Star).  But it has a lot of other things going on, too.  It moves right along and could probably have been a bit longer, to wrap up some of the plot’s loose ends.

Dorothy Malone was in several good westerns, from Colorado Territory to Quantez to The Last Sunset.  DeForest Kelly showed up as a gang member in other films, like The Law and Jake Wade and Tension at Table Rock, and this is one of his best.  Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda were at the peaks of their careers in westerns, although they would continue to make more through the 1960s, with Fonda moving into a couple of memorable spaghetti westerns (Once Upon a Time in the West, My Name is Nobody) around 1970.  Anthony Quinn, who was always good in westerns (The Ride Back, Man from Del Rio, Last Train from Gun Hill), did not make many more, moving more into ethnic roles in big movies (The Guns of Navarone, Zorba the Greek, Lawrence of Arabia).  Silent film star Richard Arlen has a small supporting role.

 

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Calling the Shots: Great Directors of Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2013

Calling the Shots:  Great Directors of Westerns

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”  Billy Wilder.

scorseseHugo

What makes a director of westerns great?  Criteria include the following: 

·         Ability to tell stories:  Does the story flow?  How well can a viewer follow it?  Some directors are interested in mood and style to the exclusion of story.  They can also be great directors, but westerns are rooted in stories, and in certain kinds of stories.  If there is inadequate attention to story, or if it’s hard to follow and doesn’t flow, or if it causes the viewer’s attention to wander, the other elements of the film had better be unusually strong to retain our interest.  Some directors seem less interested in story and are still great.  Consider Howard Hawks, who in recruiting Robert Mitchum for El Dorado in 1966, responded to Mitchum’s questions about the movie by telling him the story didn’t matter because the movie had “some great characters.”  And Sergio Leone would often not pay much attention to plot and story while he was playing with mood and visual style.  But they’re both great directors of westerns nevertheless.

·         Visual style:  Film is primarily a visual medium, and those directors who are remembered as the greatest either have their own distinctive visual styles or are linked for several movies with an excellent cinematographer.  It can be hard to distinguish which parts of the visual style are the responsibility of the director and which of the cinematographer.  But the director bears the ultimate responsibility for how the movie works, and they both have to perform well to score high in this area.  Think of Sam Peckinpah and Lucien Ballard in this context, or John Ford and Winton Hoch.

SearchersMonumentValley

·         Use of actors:  It’s no accident that certain particularly effective directors develop relationships with actors that they tend use over and over again.  They tend to reinforce each other’s strengths.  John Ford and John Wayne are the best-known such director-actor pairing, but Anthony Mann-James Stewart, Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott and Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood also come quickly to mind.  Ford and Wayne worked together from 1939 until the end of Ford’s career in the 1960s, but more frequently these actor-director partnerships flourish for five years or less.  The best directors often get good (or even great) performances out of actors that don’t do as well in other contexts.  Think of Howard Hawks’ use of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (and maybe Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo.  That’s one of the things that tends to make us think of Hawks as a great director.

·         Connection with traditional themes:  Sam Peckinpah’s connection with traditional western themes often causes questions in the mind of his viewers, but it’s undeniably there—sometimes revisionist in sensibility, but always there.  This is one of John Ford‘s strengths, too, although he can also seem too connected with nostalgic Americana.  Other directors who are great seem to lack the sense of connection and go straight for the revisionist elements.  These may produce great movies but not necessarily great westerns.  That’s one reason why there has been a discussion for decades about how great McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman is.  Some think it’s one of the greatest westerns, but it has a fairly low sense of connection with traditional themes and remains rooted pretty firmly in the early 1970s.  Altman was a great director, and you couldn’t consider you’d seen his best work without watching McCabe, but it’s not inarguably a great western. 

·         Innovation:  In westerns, as in other genres of movies, it can get tiresome to watch the same movies over and over under other names.  Something has to be different, and the great ones bring innovation with them.  John Ford’s stories often seem based in a nostalgic Americana from another era, but he was the first to see the possibilities of Monument Valley as a location and nobody has used it more effectively.  And his visual sense was cutting-edge in its time.  Anthony Mann’s anguished protagonists (usually played by James Stewart) were different than what had been seen in westerns before, but they ushered in perhaps the greatest era of western movie-making in the 1950s.  Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were innovators whose innovations have stuck in the genre.

·         Body of work:  It’s pretty hard to be considered a great director of westerns with only one western.  That means, in a film-making business where not that many westerns are made, that there are few directors you can point to as up-and-coming directors of westerns.  A director of a great western (Michael Mann with Last of the Mohicans, James Mangold with 3:10 to Yuma, the Coen brothers with True Grit) might make only one western in an entire career.  So one of the considerations in being a great director of westerns is to ask, “What is the totality of his work in the genre?”  Not every western John Ford or Howard Hawks made was great, but you have to take them all into account, the great and the less-great, when assessing the director. 

·        Influence on others:  If you have any sense of cinematic history, it’s impossible to watch violence in a current western without considering how The Wild Bunch changed the depiction of violence on film.  Certain kinds of shot (a rider in the distance, a tight close-up focusing on the eyes) remind one of Sergio Leone’s style, as does music involving chanting or whistling.  Effective use of wide desert vistas, especially the geological formations in Monument Valley, calls John Ford to mind.

Grey_Fox_posterThousandPiecesPoster

·         Film-making adventurousness:  Doing something new is always a risk, because films are marketed along traditional lines, pitching them in ways that have worked before.  Studio executives always want something that’s worked before, as opposed to something different.  Doing the different thing may produce a great western without producing the kind of financial returns that get a studio’s or distributor’s attention.  The Grey Fox, A Thousand Pieces of Gold and Lone Star were modestly successful films that were great westerns without spawning a horde of imitators, or, in the case of two of those, without even being available on DVD.  But the urge to do something in a different way will be essential to keeping the westerns genre (or any other) alive.  It’s a constant process of referring to the past (since the western as a genre relates uniquely to the history of America’s west) and infusing it with something new.  That challenge can be having the discipline and skill to balance the urge to reach for one’s own vision without tipping over into self-indulgence (the curse of Sam Peckinpah).

Having said all that, below is a an idiosyncratic and fairly short personal list containing a ranking of the greatest directors of western movies.  This will be followed by short lists of directors that might be great if we expanded the list a bit, lists of the greatest directors of westerns still working, and some others.  Each of the greatest directors and the near-greats will get an individual future post.

The Greatest Directors of Westerns Since 1939

  1.  John Ford
  2.  Anthony Mann
  3. Howard Hawks
  4. Sam Peckinpah
  5. Budd Boetticher
  6. Sergio Leone
  7. Clint Eastwood
EastwoodDrifter

Clint Eastwood on the set of High Plains Drifter, 1973.

Near-Great Directors of Westerns

  1. Walter Hill
  2. Kevin Costner
  3. John Sturges
  4. Delmer Daves
  5. Simon Wincer
  6. William Wellman

Greatest Directors of Westerns Now Working

(Those Who Have Made More Than One).  If any of these guys made one more great western, and maybe just one more good one, they’d vault on to the list of greatest directors.  Eastwood’s last western was Unforgiven, more than twenty years ago, and he’s now in his 80s.  Walter Hill is getting up there, too.  But Costner and Wincer could each come up with something, although Costner doesn’t often direct any more.

  1. Clint Eastwood (already on the Greatest Directors list)
  2. Walter Hill
  3. Kevin Costner
  4. Simon Wincer
  5. The Coen Brothers

DeTothAndre de Toth

Notable Directors of Westerns

1.  Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rawhide)
2.  Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men)
3.  Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Day of the Outlaw, The Bounty Hunter)
4.  Jacques Tourneur (Canyon Passage, Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita)
5.  Edward Dmytryk (Warlock, Alvarez Kelly, Broken Lance)
6.  Don Siegel (The Shootist, Two Mules for Sister Sara)
7.  Andrew V. McLaglen (Cahill U.S. Marshal, Shenandoah, The Way West, McLintock!)
8.  Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The War Wagon, The Train Robbers)

Antonia Bird in 2004. Antonia Bird

Female Directors of Westerns

They’re still quite rare.  Most of these are within the last twenty years.  But one of them, Nancy Kelly, made a western that’s on the list of 55 great westerns.  Now, if somebody would only issue a DVD of A Thousand Pieces of Gold.  After all, there are many others not so great for which a DVD is available.  (The MfTV designation means it was made for television.)

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story

Maggie Greenwald, The Ballad of Little Jo (MfTV)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Antonia Bird, Ravenous

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff 

Suza Lambert Bowzer, A River of Skulls

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV)     

Lang  Fritz Lang

One-Eyed Directors of Westerns

Raoul Walsh and Andre de Toth were both genuinely one-eyed.  The others tended, especially as they got older, to wear an eye patch over a weaker eye.  Two of these directors even made 3-D films during the brief fad for those in the early 1950s:  House of Wax and The Stranger Wore a Gun by Andre de Toth, and Gun Fury by Raoul Walsh.  With only one eye, they could of course not see the 3-D effects at all.

John Ford

Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men, etc.)

Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, Rancho Notorious)

Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, The Bounty Hunter, Day of the Outlaw)

Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar)

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone