Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Single Shot

The beauty of the motion picture is its ability to convey a world of ideas in a single image.

Example: The 1959 Western "Warlock," when the two famed gunmen, played by Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn, are seen approaching town, their traveling gambling house/brothel "French Palace" following behind them.

The shot is an explanation and criticism of American civilization, capturing the tawdry and transient nature of the society that was quickly put up on this once-almost empty continent. A civilization constructed by exiles and vagabonds.

The two aging gunfighters, Fonda and Quinn, seem to themselves have painted faces (the makeup of Hollywood at least). Kabuki masks-- as we'll see in the story, the masks of fame.

The movie is yet another takeoff on the Earp-Holliday legend. The first two-thirds of the film follow the real story fairly closely. For comparison, watch "Warlock" after viewing the excellent 1993 flick "Tombstone." The way similar events are handled is fascinating.

"Tombstone" went back to the history, attempting to reconstruct historical reality. "Warlock" is a layering upon 70 years of legend and myth. Taking "Tombstone" for a facsimile of reality, one can see how the Western genre, in the form of "Warlock," simplified and stylized the story-- in so doing, digging for deeper meaning. Which is the purpose of art.

Compare the scene of Fonda and Quinn approaching town with a similar one in "Tombstone": the arrival with baggage of the Earp family. "Warlock"'s view is more true, if less factual. It does what "Tombstone" cannot-- it captures both the fame, and the unstable vagabond nature of the Western hero. Again, it does this with a single shot.


Though most of it is filmed in brightest light, "Warlock" is the darkest of all Westerns, along with "Lawman" and "Unforgiven." The bright light accentuates the darkness, the unhealthy nature of the characters and the town, giving them nowhere to hide; everything made naked and known. Caught in the light. All obsessions, desires, and falsehoods are exposed for everybody (including the audience) to see.

That it's a disturbing film is probably why it's never been acclaimed. It remains politically incorrect to this day-- there's nothing normal or healthy in Anthony Quinn's character; nothing Disneyfied or unreal. None of the characters are "normal," not the judge, not Fonda, not the two gals, not the bad guys. The exception is the reformed cowboy played by Richard Widmark, because he's at least striving to find a better nature. The irony with him is that he connects with the most cynical character in the movie, the prostitute Lily ably played by Dorothy Malone as counterpoint to Dolores Michaels melancholy "angel." Lily has contempt for all men. It's only because Widmark's cowboy has no ego, no giantlike Fonda/Quinn, Blaisdell/Morgan, Earp/Holliday persona to maintain, that he and Lily are able to tolerate each other-- to give each other a way out of their previous lives. A way out which Fonda's Blaisdell in his situation is unable to take.


Artists push fellow artists to greater achievements. "Warlock" was a huge influence on Sergio Leone. I would also bet that its complexities heavily influenced John Ford, pushing him to go deeper than he ever had in examining the nature of myth, in 1962's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." Both Westerns are deep, are large statements on American myth, in different ways.


Classic in style, look, and form; thought-provoking, tragic, mythic and anti-mythic, when you think about "Warlock" afterward it becomes close to a great movie, though it resolutely refuses to please.