Cowboy or a sheriff? Sheriff or a cowboy? Which is the more iconic figure of the western genre? It’s gotta be a split down the middle because both are so immediately recognized as the key character. Today’s entry tackles the changing portrayals of a wild west peace officer. It’s not the heroic sheriff versus the dastardly killer. It’s somewhere in between in 1971’s Lawman.
It’s 1887 in the dusty western town Sabbath when Marshal Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster) rides into town. He has a warrant for the arrest of seven men responsible for the death of a man in Maddox’s town, Bannock. The death was accidental, a stray bullet killing an old man as rancher Vincent Bronson (Lee J. Cobb) and his men celebrate after delivering a herd. Now, the two sides are a standstill. Even with the odds stacked against him, Maddox intends to bring the men to justice. Bronson offers to pay damages, but Maddox refuses to listen. Is there an alternative other than a gunfight? Two stubborn men will go toe-to-toe to find out.
One of the better revisionist westerns to hit theaters in the 1970’s, Lawman comes from director Michael Winner (who would direct Death Wish 2 years later). It isn’t always mentioned as a classic, or even a very good western, but I’ve come away incredibly impressed both times I’ve seen it. Filming locations in Durango are familiar but add an element to the story, a feeling of being there in 1887. Composer Jerry Fielding turns in a solid score but nothing crazy.
What sets it apart – without being too heavy-handed – is its portrayal of the usual heroes and villains. Lancaster’s Maddox is the expected hero, but he’s so steadfastly stubborn, so icy cold in his job, that it becomes hard to see him as anything other than a robotic lawman without emotions. Cobb’s Bronson plays a rancher that could easily have been an out-and-out villain. He’s layered, logical and sympathetic as the situation degenerates in front of him. Maddox all but admits nothing will come of the arrests and eventual trial. Bronson knows it too but can’t bring himself around. Still, the ball is in play and pride, stubbornness and a sense of right and wrong – however skewed – will have its say.
Lancaster had quite the 2-year stretch among westerns with Lawman, Ulzana’s Raid and Valdez is Coming. It isn’t a flashy part, leading some critics to say Lancaster looks bored. I thought that reflects the character as we know him. Emotions just aren’t part of his decision-making. He knows what he believes and goes with it. Cobb is a great counter, an aging rancher who has carved a life out for himself with hard work, sweat, bullets and a whole lot of death. Surprisingly, Cobb’s Bronson ends up being the far more sympathetic character. Rounding out the lead trio is the always dependable Robert Ryan as Cotton Ryan, a sheriff bought by Bronson to “take care” of the town. Lancaster and Ryan’s scenes together are a highlight, but overall, that is three incredibly worthwhile performances.
Quite a supporting cast here too full of familiar faces. Robert Duvall, Albert Salmi, Richard Jordan, Ralph Waite, John Beck, William Watson, and J.D. Cannon round out Bronson’s men, a strong variety of individuals and not just a collective gang of sorts. Sheree North is excellent as Laura, a woman from Maddox’s past, who now lives with one of the men the lawman is chasing. Some of the townspeople include John McGiver, Walter Brooke and Richard Bull. Joseph Wiseman gives an interesting turn as Lucas, the saloon and gambling house owner who knows Maddox’s tendencies well. Of the supporting parts, North, Jordan, Duvall and Cannon especially stand out.
For a movie with a 99-minute running time, ‘Lawman’ is a bit of a slow burn. You know it’s building to something…but not quite what exactly. There are some quick hard-hitting (and some shocking) moments along the way, lots of good dialogue sprinkled throughout, and it all leads to a genuinely startling finale. Heavy doses of squibs and blood mark the final shootout that is more uncomfortable than exciting. A doozy of a finale.
Highly recommended. Well worth checking out for its strong, deep cast, layered story and a whole bunch more.
Lawman (1971): ***/****