(director: Edward Dmytryk; screenwriters: from the novel by Oakley Hall/Robert Alan Aurthur; cinematographer: Joe MacDonald; editor: Jack W. Holmes; music: Leigh Harline; cast: Richard Widmark (Johnny Gannon), Henry Fonda (Clay Blaisedell), Anthony Quinn (Tom Morgan), Dorothy Malone (Lily Dollar), Dolores Michaels (Jessie Marlow), Wallace Ford (Judge Holloway), Tom Drake (Abe McQuown), DeForest Kelley(Curley), Regis Toomey (Skinner), Frank Gorshin (Billy Gannon), Vaughn Taylor (Richardson), Walter Coy (Deputy Sheriff Tompson), Don ‘Red’ Barry (Edward Calhoun), Wally Campo (Barber), Hugh Sanders (Sheriff Keller), Sol Gorss (Bob Nicholson); Runtime: 121; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Edward Dmytryk; Twentieth Century-Fox; 1959)

“Arguably the best film made by Edward Dmytryk.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Arguably the best film made by Edward Dmytryk (“Murder, My Sweet”/”Cornered”/”Crossfire”). It comes after his return to the good graces of Hollywood from being blacklisted and fully forgiven by the studio heads when he gave up names before HUAC. This “thinking man’s western” is one of the few films he made during this period that had any bite, and is well-accomplished even though it’s overlong and overwrought in its melodramatics and use of Freudian symbols. It’s taken from the intelligent novel by Oakley Hall and excellently scripted by teleplay writer Robert Alan Aurthur, who keeps it looking like High Noon but without a squeaky clean lawman as its hero.

It’s set in the fictional western mining town of Warlock, where there’s no law and order. Since the town is not a regular town, its lawmen and its jabbering judge (Wallace Ford) are unofficial. When their last sheriff (Walter Coy) gets run out of town rather than risk being shot in the back by the San Pablo boys (a band of “regulators” hired by the greedy and ruthless mine owner McQuown (Tom Drake) to run things in town), the cowardly citizens hire for $400 a month (four times the regular wage of a lawman) a notorious gunslinger mercenary marshal, known for his gold-handled Colts, named Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda). Clay is accompanied by his loyal longtime friend Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), who has a club-foot, dons blond hair (the only role in which Quinn was a blond), sleeps in satin sheets and, as the deal with the town goes, runs the gambling casino/dance hall called The French Palace where the marshal moonlights by working the wheel. It also seems evident that Tom is in love with Clay, even saying “he’s the only man who looked at me and didn’t just see a cripple.” Dmytryk in his autobiography denies it was a gay relationship, a no-no at that time, as he points out it was a complex one and much more than that (you can decide for yourself, but to me it looked like something romantic was going on between them).

Clay quickly brings law and order to town, after the San Pablo gang ran every deputy sheriff out of town, killed an unarmed barber in cold-blood, and rustled cattle and massacred 37 Mexicans who wanted their cattle back. This causes sensitive gang member Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark) to drink, be filled with guilt feelings and finally quit.

Nice girl Jessie Marlowe (Dolores Michaels), a member of the “citizen’s committee” that hired the marshal, has changed her initial negative reaction to him and now welcomes him as a love interest. The sexy Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone) comes on stage with Bob Nicholson, the brother of the man Clay killed in another town, and hopes to get revenge for the death of her fiancĂ©. But Tom was warned about their arrival and the robbery of the stage, and agrees to let the robbery progress but guns down Bob.

Things get spicy when Clay plans to marry Jessie, Clay guns down Johnny’s hotheaded brother Billy (Frank Gorshin) when he comes into town with other members of the San Pablo gang when warned not to, and Johnny becomes the legal lawman by accepting the job as the deputy sheriff for $40 a month. This defection to the side of authority by the Widmark character might be viewed as Dmytryk trying to rationalize why he testified before Congress. In any case, there’s a masterfully accomplished change of personal alliances, as Clay has second thoughts about his role as a gunslinger and the love-hate relationship manifests between Clay and Tom causing them to get into a gun duel. It leads to an almost Viking-style funeral for Tom–the marshal burns down the saloon with his friend’s body left on the gambling table. Lily, now the girlfriend of Johnny, eggs him on to go after Clay. The inevitable showdown between the two has Clay outdrawing Tom twice without firing and then throwing away his guns and leaving town alone and in disgust (just like Coop in High Noon, but without the girl, the town’s respect and the moral high ground).

The film is bleak and sour on mankind’s morality, nevertheless it had a wonderful operatic tone and a certain magical quality that did the most with its superb performances (even Quinn is good here), terrific action sequences and dynamic character and psychological presentation. It inspired many other Westerns, including those Spaghetti Westerns by Sergio Leone.