Lawman (1971)


Dir: Michael Winner - Cast: Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Sheree North, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Duvall, Albert Salmi, Richard Jordan, Ralph Waite, John Beck,  William C. Watson, J. D. Cannon

Lawman was helmed by British director Michael Winner. It was his first movie in Hollywood. It’s a cynical, brutally violent western and therefore many critics will tell you that the film was influenced by the spaghetti westerns. Others will tell you that it’s a remake of Man with the Gun (1955), a western directed by Richard Wilson and starring Robert Mitchum. Both statements are not without any foundation, but only tell half the truth.

Burt Lancastar is Marshall Jered Maddox, an unyielding man of the law who rides into the town of Sabbath, looking for seven cowpokes who were involved in an incident in which an old man was killed. The seven had gone on a drunken spree after they had paid a visit to the local saloon (after a hard day’s job) and there’s no doubt that the killing was accidental. The cattle baron who was responsible for their behavior is willing to settle things with the victim’s next of kin, but the victim had no family, and Maddox is unwilling to compromise: he’s determined to bring the seven to trial, cost what cost.

Lancaster’s Maddox is a lawman, but his inflexible ideas about law and order turn him into a man who attracts violence; at one point he’s called a widow maker and he also shoots a man in the back. Cattle baron Vincent Bronson virtually owns the town and has 'bought' some people (notably the weak-willed sheriff, played by Robert Ryan), all things you expect from a cattle baron in a western, but he’s also a man of reason with a sense of humanity. In the end nobody is entirely good or bad: when Maddox finally decides that his mission is aimless and wants to ride out of town, he is stopped by those who tried to chase him away. The ensuing carnage was not wanted by anyone, but at the same time all are responsible for it.

The shootout towards the end is unusually graphic; it’s not balletic (like Peckinpah’s slomo violence in The Wild Bunch), it’s savage, gruesome and quick. This brings me to this claim that the film was influenced by the bleakness and excessive violence of the Italian western. The spaghetti westerns were cynical, but the violence was hardly ever visceral. In Lawman blood is spurting from bullet wounds and the bleakness is more in line with the Hollywood revisionist westerns from the period. There are similarities to Man with the Gun, but I wouldn’t call it a remake. Winner and his screenwriter Gerry Wilson used the model of the movie, but changed the character: Unlike Mitchum in the 1955 movie, Lancaster is not a town tamer, asked by the townspeople to restore order: the people from Sabbath didn’t need a peace maker, they were perfectly happy with the situation, and the reason why they turn against Maddox, is therefore radically different. In Lawman the town tamer theme is combined with the stranger in town theme of the Italian western: Maddox is an outsider, a stranger, but not one like Eastwood's No Name or any of the other spaghetti western anti-heroes, he's a sheriff (from another town).

Lawman was shot on location in Durango, Mexico. Winner secured the location just before Howard Hawks, who had wanted to shoot his western Rio Lobo on the same spot. The movie is successful in building up an ambiguous, compelling storyline but somehow fails to come up with a satisfying conclusion. Experiments with an alternate ending suggest that the film makers also felt something was missing. Lancaster looks strained, as if he’s unsure about his role, but Sheree North and Lee J. Cobb are excellent as, respectively, the mistress and the town boss. The cowpokes are played by a fine selection of familiar western actors; if you don't know them by name, you'll certainly recognize their faces. Robert Ryan turns in a truly marvelous performance as the sheriff from Sabbath, paid by Cobb to do as little as possible. He’s a weak-willed person, dreaming of the better days he once knew, and yet he’s also the most pragmatic character of the entire movie: if only the others had followed his advice on several occasions, many of them would have survived the events.


(Spoiler alert) The film ends with Maddox riding out of town. He’s the proverbial last man standing (in this case riding) after all others have bitten the dust. But, as said, all were responsible for what happened, so it seems logical that Maddox should pay a prize for his rigid behavior as well. Some claim to have seen a version with an alternate ending, in which Maddox is shot in the back by his former mistress. This ending seems more appropriate, but of course Maddox riding out of town can be interpreted as a punishment as well: he has not achieved any of his goals, instead he has lost everything and must live the rest of his life with the consequences and shame. Anyway, the alternate ending seems lost ...

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