Lawman (1971)

Director: Michael Winner

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Duvall, Sheree North, Richard Jordan

Written by: Gerald Wilson

Running Time: 99 mins

Original Cert: AA

Original UK Release: 11th March 1971

Lawman is a very strange western for many reasons. Directed by British filmmaker Michael Winner, it has a cast of stalwart western stars but has the feel of a spaghetti western and, more importantly, doesn’t seem to have a single redeeming character. It is, however, slow moving yet quite brutal.

Marshal Jared Maddox arrives in the small town of Sabbath from an adjacent town looking for a group of cowboys who had caused drunken trouble, leading to the death of an old man. He wants to take them back to put them on trial but he faces a town that won’t help, even the town’s marshal, a former hero, won’t work with Maddox. The town is owned by wealthy land owner Bronson and has everyone, including the local law, on his payroll and the men Maddox wants all work for him. Maddox is a man who refuses to be pushed out and only wants to do the right thing as far as the law is concerned.

Michael Winner, as a director, has been accused of being heavy-handed and unsubtle in his films and there are moments here that his sledgehammer approach to filmmaking comes into action, for example the use of the musical score by Jerry Fielding is far too prominent in places. The film is violent, as you would expect from Winner, the man who gave us Death Wish but it isn’t all blood, splatter, gore. It takes its time to get to each shoot-out which does drag the pace a little.

The film has the look and feel of a spaghetti western, which at the time of release, was at the height of its popularity. It also has the same extreme close-up that you find in the Italian produced cowboy films. What gives the film away is the cast, which is filled with recognisable American western stars.

A young Robert Duvall, a year before The Godfather; Richard Jordan, Albert Salmi, Ralph Waite are all fine. Lee J. Cobb, who was always an interesting actor, gives another good performance here as the land owner refusing to budge while Robert ryan adds his usual class as the Sheriff of Sabbath. These are the two more interesting characters of the piece but they aren’t given really enough time to develop.

Burt Lancaster, as the lawman of the title, is far from the hero you’d expect. Usually Lancaster’s screen persona is that of a kind, likeable man but here, he is cold, calculating and a juxtaposition of what he really should be. This is a man who comes into the film all pious and following the letter of the law, just wanting to do his job of returning these men to the scene of the crime and allowing the judge to decide. Yet everything he does is the complete opposite to that. He allows the men to try and kill him just so he can shoot them, he treats Duvall’s character cruelly and the final just ends up in a bloodbath, meaning that everything he said previously meant nothing. He even ends up in bed with a past flame, who is married to one of the men he’s after, even when he said he wouldn’t.

It is Lancaster playing completely out of character and it’s hard to swallow after seeing him in so many other great film where he is the hero. It’s a brave turn around for a man who years before had spent so long building a reputation of being the archetypal hero and nice guy.

This is a very uneven western that does suffer from pacing problems but it also interests with its character flaws and sudden outbursts of violence. Having said that, it’s one of Winner’s better film and if you are a fan of the genre, it will certainly satisfy.


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