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A Princeton legend: Richard Widmark

‘Warlock’

Published: Wednesday, March 26, 2014 1:38 p.m. CST • Updated: Wednesday, March 26, 2014 2:58 p.m. CST

In the late 1950s, Richard Widmark was into the heart of his movie career. He had a touch of gray to his hair, and on the silver screen, it even sparkled like the precious metal with highlights of gold, setting off his vivid blue eyes. His striking appearance gave him a vulnerability that added to the earthbound flawed heroes he could now play.

“The only real security comes from a belief in oneself – and that goes for every man, whatever he does to make a dollar.” He had that belief in himself, and it was present on the screen. Widmark made the second of his three movies (“Broken Lance,” “Warlock,” and “Alvarez Kelly”) for Edward Dmytryk in 1959. He had died in the ghost town shadows, as the bad guy Clint Hollister in the final showdown of “The Law and Jake Wade” (1958). You knew he was “gonna get it” when he smoked that last stogie, gave Wade a Tommy Udo “grin’n’gnawf,” and got in the last smarting remark of the movie. 

This time, though, he is the redemptive hero, Johnny Gannon, a man struggling to do the right thing in “Warlock.” It is a fascinating movie with an impressive cast, from an honored novel, and a director of politically flawed repute. The director, Dmytryk, was one of the Hollywood Ten who was blacklisted by the film industry for refusing to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, during the Red Scare of the McCarthy era. He spent some time in prison, and then after finally testifying in 1951, his career was back on track. The movie was adapted from the Oakley Hall novel that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1958 (“A Death In The Family” by James Agee). Hall wrote primarily about the historical American West.  

“Warlock” is a small Utah mining town in the early 1880s that is overrun by rough men of all cuts. The citizens find themselves incapable of fighting back, so they hire famed shooter and town tamer Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda) to come in and mop up the thugs. Initially, Clay’s efforts are applauded, but after a while things start getting complicated.

Former outlaw Johnny Gannon, put off by the gang’s activities for some time now, yearns to be more law-abiding. He becomes the new sheriff after his brother Billy (Frank Gorshin) is killed by Blaisedell in a showdown and now becomes a law enforcement competitor of Clay. (Widmark lost his real life brother, Donald, four years earlier due to a head injury from being shot down as a pilot during World War II.) A woman from Clay’s past turns up saying Clay and his partner Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn) are murderers. Warlock is too small a town for all of these figures to peacefully live together, and the plot thickens.  

Widmark as Johnny Gannon is a very sympathetic character and impressive after being the villain in so many films. Widmark and Fonda are a great balancing act in the movie.  You see just a glint of one of the most evil villains on film to come in Fonda’s Blaisedell character, “I remember when I first killed a man. It was clear and had to be done.” Director Sergio Leone saw Fonda in this film and cast him as the cold blooded assassin Frank in “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968).

In a 1932 article in the Bureau County Republican, it reports of Student Orations from the PHS commencement. Richard Widmark, class president, speaks on “The Also Rans” in history who through defeat (in presidential elections) are all but lost to the nation and then accomplish greater things in another capacity.

Edward Dmytryk was cut from that same cloth, though, in a different kind of politics. The politics of fear and smear. Though just halfway through a successful directing career he is defeated, imprisoned, and then comes back to make some of his best movies.

Widmark would not have made any of his films for Dmytryk, if the director had not persevered. There may not have been “The Cain Mutiny” (1954) or one of my favorites, “The Left Hand of God” (1955) as we know them, both with Humphrey Bogart. It’s not hard to believe that Dmytryk (one of the Hollywood Ten who became a “friendly witness”) saw himself as the Johnny Gannon character who parts from his friends and family to follow his own righteous path.

Widmark’s speech is kind of prophetic, in part, giving his later connection to Dmytryk and his role as Johnny Gannon. I don’t know what kind of relationship he had with Dmytryk, but he didn’t think much of directors in general.  

“Directing is a terribly over-rated field; a lot of people are in on a pass these days. Any actor who has survived has had to direct himself a lot of the time, but frankly, I think it’s a very dull job. Only a handful of men ... do it well.” 

Widmark and Fonda starred in two movies together, the other being “Madigan” (1968), and they were both in “How The West Was Won” (1962) but in different segments. Two years after the death of his wife of 55 years, Jean Hazelwood, he married Henry Fonda’s widow, Susan Blanchard, in 1999. She was Fonda’s third wife, and the families were good friends.

The cast is very impressive and interesting. Anthony Quinn as Tom Morgan, Fonda’s right-hand man, with his club foot and over-the-top hairdo is a stone cold killer and always great to watch. The ladies’ roles are not as big but do have their moments.  Dorothy Malone as Lily Dollar, what a great name, is the lady from Blaisedell’s past.  Dolores Michaels is Jessie Marlow, the local girl who Fonda plans to marry and settle down with. She says to Fonda’s character Blaisedell, “And so they’ll come into town and you’ll shoot them all down dog-dead in the street. Is that it?” The dialogue! Good stuff. 

Frank Gorshin plays Widmark’s kid brother, Billy, and that in itself is almost laughable in that later on in their separate careers Gorshin would have had to of been a constant and tiring reminder to Widmark of the character that he tried to distance himself from, Tommy Udo, from “Kiss of Death” (1947). Gorshin’s high, deranged cackle for the Riddler character in the 1960s live action “Batman” TV series was inspired by Widmark’s Tommy Udo. He played the role in 10 episodes and one TV movie.

DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy from Star Trek) as bad guy Curley Burne, though in a small part, turns in possibly the best acting performance of his career. This is a Widmark gem of a movie that kind of got lost in shuffle. The movie is full of the stuff that makes you want to give it more than one viewing; the great supporting cast, sharp dialogue, Morgan’s “Viking funeral,” and the twist at the end. If you get a chance, cowboy up, and give it a look. 

We’ve got more fireworks coming with Widmark, John Wayne, and John Ford, one of the directors who did it well.  

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