It’s always the same. If you post a man, he has to come into town to prove he’s a man. Or you kill a man, he’s got a friend or kin – he just has to come against you… and for no reason… no reason that makes any sense. And it don’t mean a damn to the man already in the ground. Nobody wins.
Nobody wins – that quote taken from Lawman (1971) is a bit downbeat, but it does sum up the mood surrounding the film and maybe also feeds into the sentiments which would become increasingly common in the western in the 1970s. Last time out I was looking at a western, and at the same time musing about the genre itself, from the late 60s, a restless and hard to define era. The decade of the 70s followed on from that and gradually developed its own character – when we speak of the westerns of the 50s we often find ourselves referring to redemption, by the time we reach the 70s we’re more likely to encounter resignation.
The figure of the lawman is integral to the western, the constant expansion of the frontier and the subsequent attempts to bring and maintain civilization via the rule of law is a constant factor, if not the underlying theme in itself. A bunch of weary cowboys let loose and whooping it up is another common sight, and the result of such celebrations was frequently violence. Such was the case in the town of Bannock, where the hands employed by Vincent Bronson (Lee J Cobb) had a little too much to drink, let their good sense abandon them and left a dead man lying on the street. And so the marshal of Bannock, Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster), comes to Bronson’s patch with the goal of returning the guilty men to stand trial for the killing. Bronson is one of the old style pioneers, that tough breed who tamed a land and bent it to their will through the force of their personality, backed up by a loaded gun. Men like this are accustomed to getting their own way or, where that’s more difficult, to buying individuals who can smooth things out for them. Bronson has already bought and paid for his own marshal, Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan), and believes that Maddox or those he represents have their price. In a way, he’s right as Maddox admits that he’s really only going through the motions – acquittals can be purchased in all likelihood. Yet Maddox’s own price isn’t quite the same; he might draw his wages from a corrupt source but he owes personal loyalty to another more idealistic paymaster – justice. So the drama and conflict therefore grow out of two situations: the reluctance of Bronson, or at least that of his men, to comply with Maddox’s wishes, and also the lawman’s own battles with himself and the code he’s stuck by all his life.
The 60s was a decade when many questions were asked, the 70s kept at it and got some answers, but those answers weren’t always the ones people wanted to hear. Disillusionment was creeping in and many ideals seemed to be tarnished when dragged out into the cold light of day. Lawman dealt with that now familiar theme of changing times – clearly articulated by Lee J Cobb’s character – and the need to adapt, bend or be broken.The message seems to be that when all around you has been corrupted and debased by greed and self-interest, then the only sure or true thing one can hold onto is your personal code of honor. Maddox is the lawman, the one who has lived by that code refused to compromise. It raises him above the other characters, friends and enemies, colleagues and lovers, but isolates him too. Maddox questions the value of this, understands the fact it has sustained him through the years, but ultimately betrays it (and by extension himself) when confronted by the rank and venal behavior of the man who, in some respects, replaced him. It’s as though the knowledge of what he could become, if he were to submit to his desires, is too much for him and so must be banished.
Lawman was directed by Michael Winner, a man not noted for his subtlety either as a filmmaker or in any other area of life. It became fashionable to dismiss his work as crass and lacking in substance, but blanket judgements are rarely worthwhile and best avoided, in my opinion. Winner will never be regarded as a great filmmaker, which is fair enough, but it’s unjust to simply brush him aside as a hack. Some of his early work is very good – for example, West 11 is a neat little movie – and it wasn’t until mid-70s that a significant decline in quality could be discerned. Lawman does have too many needless zooms and close-ups yet it also has pace and a kind of raw, brutal honesty that’s quite attractive.
Once again, we have a film whose stars hark back to the golden era of the genre – Lancaster, Ryan and Cobb were all involved in some of the finest westerns made and worked with the most talented directors, writers and cameramen. To browse their filmographies is to contemplate the heights cinema was capable of attaining, and their class is readily apparent in even the smallest gestures. There’s real pleasure and delight to be had from seeing these seasoned pros playing off each other and enjoying the nuances they could bring to parts effortlessly. Although that trio of heavy hitters would be enough to hold our interest by themselves there’s a terrific supporting cast to savor too – Albert Salmi, Joseph Wiseman, John McGiver, Richard Jordan, Robert Duvall, Robert Emhardt, J D Cannon, John Beck, Ralph Waite and more. It should be noted that the film is light on female representation; Sheree North is the only woman to play a part of any importance, but it’s a good role and one that impacts on the ultimate resolution.
Lawman is one of those United Artists titles released on DVD by MGM ages ago now. It’s typical of many such releases in that it’s just about passable but should look an awful lot better. On the plus side, the film is presented in the correct widescreen ratio and enhanced for 16:9 screens. On the other hand, there’s a softness about it and the usual artifacts and instances of print damage that need to be tidied up. The UK version I have has no extra features and I think the same can be said for the US edition too. Generally, I find I get on better with many (though not all) 70s westerns than the late 60s variety – it seems the genre settled down somewhat and made up its mind where it wanted to go by that stage – and I feel Lawman is deserving of a bit of attention. While it has suffered a bit due to the lackluster reputation its director earned over the years, it’s a good film and one that’s worth checking out.