Lawman (1971)

lawman_281971_movie_poster29Cowboy 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): ***/****

Friendly Persuasion (1956)

poster_-_friendly_persuasion_01I grew up watching movies from the 1950’s and 1960’s so the back-to-back decades typically dominates my favorites list. Two I often associate with growing up are 1965’s Shenandoah and 1956’s Friendly Persuasion, two like-minded stories about families in the Civil War. I watched Shenandoah a few years ago, and it more than held up. ‘Persuasion’ is generally held in higher regard, but it’d been years since I’d seen it. What’s the verdict? Nothing to worry about!

It’s 1862 in southern Indiana, and the Civil War is in its second year of fighting. For the Birdwell family, including patriarch Jess (Gary Coooper) and Eliza (Dorothy McGuire), the War is a sore subject and one generally ignored with the fighting so far away. The Birdwells are a Quaker family, preaching peace and forgiveness, not death and violence. That peaceful mindset and ideal is being put to the test though as the war moves north, including rumors of a Confederate raid marching into Indiana. Jess and Eliza vow to stay free of the fighting, but their oldest son, Joshua (Anthony Perkins), feels conflicted. He believes in the Quaker ideal, but he also feels that he should do what he believes, do his duty, and protect his family, their land and well-being. If the raiding party is legit, that decision may come up quicker than anticipated.

It’s always a mixed bag revisiting movies you haven’t seen in years, movies you grew up loving. Watching ‘Persuasion’ had none of those worries. It’s a classic, standing the test of time. Director William Wyler‘s film earned six Oscar nominations, surprisingly winning exactly zero. I think one of the biggest compliments you can give a movie is that it is simply put…charming. ‘Persuasion’ is a wonderfully acted, well-told story with strong direction, cinematography and soundtrack. It is charming, likable, and enjoyable, all with a story that has a message that doesn’t go overboard or try too hard.

Gary Cooper doesn’t always come to mind as one of my favorites. He doesn’t have that one movie I just out of this world love. As I’ve watched more of his performances though, I’m continually impressed. His Jess Birdwell is a gem, a Quaker father with a wife and 3 kids who strongly believes in his religion…but not obsessively. He likes to play music, likes to race his horse to church, and isn’t above tweaking a rule here and there. McGuire as his wife, Eliza, is the polar opposite. She’s rigid in her beliefs as a Quaker minister and intends to live by those beliefs. Somewhere in between, they’re perfect together as a very believable couple. Two pros nailing their lead performances.

In just his second film role, Perkins is a strong supporting player as Joshua, the 17/18(?) year old Birdwell son. He’s trying to grow up, find himself, discover who he is, all amidst one of the most turbulent times in American history. Quiet, understated and a little twitchy at times, it’s an excellent part. Phyllis Love rises above a limiting part as Mattie, the Birdwells’ daughter and middle child, love struck by a young Union officer, Gard (Peter Mark Richman), from the area. One of the more prolific child actors working in the 1950’s, 11-year old Richard Eyer is a scene-stealer as Little Jess, the youngest Birdwell child, alway questioning, always a bit of trouble and a frequent target of the family’s goose’s attacks. Three strong parts to round out the Birdwells.

Also look for Robert Middleton as Sam Jordan, the Birdwells’ Methodist neighbor and Jess’ close friend and a bit of a friendly rivalry, especially when it comes to horse races. Joel Fluellen also has a memorable, if smallish, part as Enoch, an escaped slave who works on the Birdwells’ farm.

If ‘Persuasion’ has a weakness, I’d say it concerns the running time, a somewhat leisurely 139 minutes. An episodic storyline early on introduces the family, the setting and some other necessary background. A trip to the county fair sets the stage for much of what we’re to see, but some other coming ventures wander a little bit too much. The biggest culprit is Jess and Joshua on the road visiting a widower’s farm and her three man-starved daughters. A little much, a little overdone in the comedy department.

Vera Cruz (1954)

vera_cruz423The 1960’s have often been identified as the decade that did in the western genre. Too many TV shows, shifting styles and tones, and a general cynicism in the viewing audience turned old-fashioned westerns into violent, nasty and bloody stories. The process continued well into the 1970s with the concept of revisionist westerns. Let’s be honest though, the trend started before the 60s, notably with 1954’s Vera Cruz.

After his Louisiana plantation was destroyed during the Civil War, former Confederate officer Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) rides south into Mexico. He’s looking for work as a gunhand, willing to take just about any job he can as a mercenary. On the trail, he meets Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), an American gunman with quite a track record. Joe is at the head of a gang of American gunfighters, bandits and outlaws, all looking for work. They find it in French emperor Maximilian who’s looking for help. Along with a company of French lancers, Ben and Joe must help transport a beautiful countess (Denise Darcel) to the coastal town of Vera Cruz. There’s more to the convoy though which Trane and Erin quickly find out. Betrayals, back-stabbing and double-crosses await in abundance on the trail.

I can’t imagine what audiences thought when they saw this 1954 western from director Robert Aldrich. It’s unlike any western released to that point and for several more years to boot! Violent, cynical and other than Cooper’s Ben Trane, not even a remotely sympathetic character in sight! Everyone is out for themselves, and $ is the end-all, be-all no matter who gets in the way. Case in point? Lancaster’s Joe Erin uses children as a hostage in an early scene, and it doesn’t seem like it’d take too much for him to call a bluff. Characters willing to go to those depths wouldn’t be common in westerns until spaghetti westerns exploded in popularity about a decade later. 10 years! We’re still 3 years from Leave it to Beaver even premiering on TV!

‘Cruz’ is influential in any number of ways, but my favorite influence is the casting of its two leads, Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. Trane is a true Southern gentleman, but a desperate one in search of cash and a new beginning. Erin is a killer, a gunslinger, and not above doing anything to get that money. Their chemistry is flawless, Cooper’s understated charm and Lancaster’s showier style, especially when he flashes that toothy smile when you know he’s up to no good. The relationship — unlikely and untrusting — is the inspiration for countless future westerns, especially The Wild Bunch and For a Few Dollars More. Not often thought of as their best performances, but clearly two parts the duo had some fun bringing to life.

Aldrich specialized in guy’s guys movies — The Dirty Dozen, Flight of the Phoenix — and he brings a cool supporting cast together here, including several budding stars. Erin’s gang includes Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and several other familiar faces. Also look for Archie Savage as Ballad, a black soldier who served with the Union. Along with Darcel, Sara Montiel is a potential love interest as Nina, a Mexican girl working with the revolutionaries. Rounding out the powers that be on both the Mexican and French side are Cesar Romero (a French Marquis), Henry Brandon (a French lancer), Morris Ankrum (revolutionary leader), and George Macready (Maximilian).

Filmed on location in Mexico, ‘Cruz’ is the better for it. You feel like you’re part of the revolution itself with the worn-down ruins, the dusty streets, and the mountains in the background. Filming even took place at Teotihuacan, at its time one of the largest cities in the world and a beautiful backdrop, even if it is only for a scene. The final battle is the same location as the finale in The Wrath of God (one of my favorites too). The locations go a long way toward the realism, adding a feeling of authenticity to the proceedings. It’s also a cool triple- or quadruple-feature with The Treasure of Pancho Villa, Bandido, The Wonderful Country and others.

A western that is ahead of time and incredibly entertaining. There is plenty of action, and even having seen it before, the story keeps you guessing until the end with betrayals and double-crosses galore. Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster are excellent together, a pairing of two of Hollywood’s all-time greats living up to expectations.

The historical setting is also familiar among westerns, with the French involvement in Mexico also in Major Dundee, The Undefeated, Two Mules for Sister Sara, El Condor and Adios, Sabata. An interesting time in history that isn’t necessarily well-known.

Vera Cruz (1954): *** 1/2 /****