The series of five Westerns which James Stewart acted in for director Anthony Mann in the 1950s are celebrated for how they allowed Stewart to play some more ambiguous, less obviously likeable characters. In contrast, Stewart’s life-long friend Henry Fonda only once acted in an Anthony Mann Western, The Tin Star. Generally regarded as weaker than Mann’s other films of the period, The Tin Star is still interesting for its similarity to the superior Warlock, also starring Fonda, directed shortly afterwards by Edward Dmytryk.
In both films Fonda’s character is a figure who occupies a murky “no man’s land” between legality and crime. In both he visits a town where a group of leading citizens have strong ambitions about how the town should develop commercially.
His character in The Tin Star is Morgan Hickman, a bounty hunter who brings the bad men in dead, in contrast to the legitimate lawmen, who keep them alive, to face trial. He says that he makes a living by “(working) inside the legal system for money” and in that way, he suggests wryly, he is no different from any other businessman or tradesman. However, he is presented as a generally sympathetic character, willing to advise and support the idealistic young sheriff Ben Owens and becoming attached to the young widow Nona Mayfield and her son.
In Warlock, he plays Clay Blaisdell, who has been employed on short-term lucrative contracts as a marshal by several towns, because of his reputation as a skilful gunman who can intimidate and kill troublemakers and criminals.
It is in Warlock that Fonda’s character shows an intensity similar to Stewart’s characters in the latter’s Mann films: a hard, tough face below his blackened coiffed hair and above his expensive clothes, slow and careful in his movements. Whereas Hickman explains that he is a former lawman who turned to bounty hunting to improve his income for his family, Blaisedell seems to have discovered a particular talent which he could best use in only one way. “I’m a simple man, good only with Colts,” he says to his younger girlfriend Jessie. This has led inexorably to his career as an admired and feared gunman who accepts work within the legal system as long as it pays well, and understands that it can come to an end suddenly and bloodily. On more than one occasion he comments bluntly about how he will shoot and kill one of the troublemakers – as long as he is not shot first.
In one scene we see Blaisedell practising shooting, saying to the admiring Jessie, “Just like you practise on the piano, I practise on the Colts; the stakes are a little different but the reason is the same”. In another scene, he is greasing the inside of his gun holster. These are the practical disciplines which help him to feel always prepared and confident. Another is following “the rules”. “I remember when I first killed a man,” he reminisces to the official town sheriff Johnny Gannon. “It was clear and had to be done – but I went home afterwards and puked my insides up… Afterwards nothing was ever clear again.” All that he can do to retain some personal integrity, he adds, is to keep strictly to “the rules” in any gunfight. While striving to stay alive yourself, you give the other (probably inferior) gunman as many chances as possible.
Blaisedell’s fine clothes are part of the evidence that he does not know for sure how long his life will last and it is one way in which he enjoys the material benefits of his violent risk-taking. In contrast, his partner Tom Morgan, club-footed and possibly homosexually attracted to Blaisedell, also appreciates furnishings and art. Despite the danger, Blaisedell does enjoy the status which comes with being a town’s lawman, and disparages alternative peaceful employment such as a shopkeeper, a farmer or a miner. He accepts that his chosen lifestyle is anachronistic and that “times are changing” but feels “there’ll be enough towns to last my lifetime”.
Hollywood Western narratives reach their happy endings either by community effort or individual heroics, depending on producer, director, star actor or period. In Warlock, made in 1959, these different factors combine to deliver a complex conclusion. Official sheriff Gannon, injured and isolated, hopes that the townspeople will help him quell the rancher McQuown and his lawbreaking employees. Blaisedall says scornfully, “I wouldn’t bet on it” – but that is actually what happens. This shows that it is the community which will enforce legal progress in Warlock and that the era of the star gunman has passed. Arguments between Blaisedell and Morgan lead to the latter’s death at the hand of the former, which effects on Warlock are shown metaphorically by the saloon first being set on fire then extinguished by a thunderstorm. Gannon has been shown to be an inferior gunman to Blaisedell, but the latter has decided that his time in Warlock is over and leaves the town without a fight, tossing his bespoke gold-handled Colt revolvers into the sand.