• Lawman

    Released by: Twilight Time Releasing
    Released on: September 6th, 2017.
    Director: Michael Winner
    Cast: Burt Lancaster, Lee J. Cobb, Sheree North, Robert Ryan,
    Robert Duvall, Joseph Wiseman, John Beck
    Year: 1971
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    The Movie:

    Friends, Romans, film lovers - I come not to bury Michael Winner but to praise him. A common narrative has developed in the critical community about Winner since DEATH WISH II. He just wasn’t that good they say. Huge outsized ego they charge. A master bullshitter made out of mouth.

    Nonsense. As we see with LAWMAN, his first American feature, the man had genuine skill.

    The late British director and DEATH WISH auteur was what we used to quaintly call “a character” in polite company. A strange mix of posh and crude with a reputation for being difficult on the set, and possessing a marked conservative political bent, Winner was a natural at making enemies. His surprising success with the vigilante thriller DEATH WISH also drove Winner’s career down a very strange road. He became for a while the top purveyor of an extremely nasty form of exploitation film that heavily featured violence against women. Legend has it that DEATH WISH II’s infamous rape sequence was so upsetting to many on the crew that they walked off the set. Winner can also claim partial responsibility for star Charles Bronson’s reputation for ill temper. Bronson on a Winner set was grumpy Charlie. Bronson on a J. Lee Thompson/ producer Pancho Kohner set was feeding orphans and being relaxed Charlie.

    But let’s tackle the rather marvelous LAWMAN. This is a brilliant film. It is one of a small group of Winner projects I consider top shelf entertainment alongside CHATO’S LAND and THE MECHANIC. Gorgeously shot, immaculately acted and graced with a fantastic multilayered script that delves deep into the mysteries of the human condition, I may just consider this Winner’s finest film. Three cheers for the morally ambiguous Western genre. It appears to have brought out the best in Winner.

    Burt Lancaster stars as Jared Maddox, the marshal of small town Bannock. One night, a rowdy band of cowhands passing through on their way home to nearby Sabbath get a little too exuberant. Their drunken carousing ends up accidentally killing an elderly storekeeper. The men are unaware and head home. Maddox saddles up and rides into Sabbath to bring them to justice. The problem? The men are employees of land Baron Vincent Bronson (the legendary Lee J. Cobb) who pretty much owns the town. With a town so reliant on him for their livelihood, Maddox has little chance for cooperation. Bronson even has the once formidable now mentally broken ex-war hero Sabbath Marshal Cotton Ryan Cotten (Robert Ryan) in his pocket. Further complicating matters is the presence of old Maddox flame Laura Shelby (Sheree North) in town. Now shacked up with one of Bronson’s men, the two still have feelings for each other.

    One of Winner’s strengths was his love for great actors. His casting was usually top of the line with a canny mix of established stars and up and coming talent. LAWMAN may be his peak on this front. In addition to Lancaster, Ryan, Cobb and North, the film features Robert Duvall (THE GODFATHER), Richard Jordan in his film debut, Albert Salmi and the brilliant Joseph Wiseman (DR. NO). John Beck (ROLLERBALL and future soap stardom on “Dallas”) is one of Bronson's sons. And that’s not even mentioning all the solid character actors like John McGiver, J.D. Cannon and Charles Tyner that pop up throughout the film in small roles.

    But what elevates LAWMAN to greatness is its fascinating and deeply flawed characters drawn so memorably by the cast. Lancaster, in his late 50’s and navigating the treacherous waters that come with aging in a cruel business isn’t a particularly likable character but a fearsome one that commands respect. The actors immense physical gifts (Lancaster was once a circus performer) have yet to desert him. He’s utterly believable gunning down men half his age. Maddox is utterly pitiless. He’s determined to bring these men in no matter the cost. There is no bending possible. He can’t be bought off or reasoned with. In contrast, Cobb’s land Baron is far from the one dimensional ogre we are used to seeing in these films. He’s a weary man. He’s bought everybody that needed buying and his guns and men have amassed the empire he always wanted. He’d like to relax and enjoy his success. His partner - the hotheaded Harvey Stenbaugh played by Albert Salmi - is precisely the opposite. This is a man who’s lived by the gun and taken enormous pleasure in putting quite a few bodies in the ground. He’s as pitiless as Maddox. When those two butt heads tragedy is inevitable. Wiseman, a truly eccentric actor who never failed to make an impression whether on stage, in a James Bond film or in episodic television like “The Untouchables” and “The Twilight Zone," has a great small part as a saloon keeper with a gunman past.

    Then we have Ryan. One of the great Hollywood stars, he was just a couple of years away from his far too early death here. His broken lawman is infused with genuine pathos. It is a remarkable performance. Even with his then deeply lined features Ryan remained a handsome man. His deeply nuanced reading of this character is unforgettable and sort of steals the film from Lancaster. His character may have sold out years ago to be the water boy of the rich land Baron, but he was once a very dangerous man. And those that discount that killer past make a potentially fatal error.

    The film also deals with adult sexuality in an unusually frank manner for its era. We skip the usual “pretty young things” in a brothel these films were so find of. Instead we have the lovely North, looking eminently human in a very complex relationship with Lancaster’s Maddox. Even old coot Ryan is seen in bed at one point with a woman looking suspiciously close to his own age! Lancaster and North have a rather tender love scene together. Unfortunately, only the European cut (not used here) actually shows real skin. America - where blood squibs are no big deal but some tasteful side-boob needs killing on the cutting room floor.

    Winner handles the action scenes exceptionally well. Aside from a couple of unnecessary zooms, the framing is expert and the cutting sharp. Maddox is a real death dealer and the shootouts - whether HIGH NOON style one on one or the melee variety involving back shooters - are thrilling and engaging. The fact that the violence here is tied intrinsically a deeper meaning about its tragic human cost is where the film derives its power. This is one that stays with you for a bit after the credits roll. Shakespearean? Perhaps.


    Fresh from the files of here we go again, Twilight Time’s 1.85:1 framed 1080p AVC encoded transfer looks great. This is an unusually violent Western with plenty of the red stuff and the colors really pop. Black levels are suitably inky and fine image detail strong. The ample outdoor photography showcases the natural environment wonderfully. No digital sharpening tools or other tinkering is evident. Film grain looks natural. This is the kind of nice organic presentation we are accustomed to from Twilight Time.

    Audio is handled by a DTS-HD Master Audio English track that sounds properly balanced and free of distortion. Bottom end is acceptable for the more action oriented scenes. These period tracks suffer from a certain amount of limited range due to when they were created but this is a fine track. Twilight Time, in their usual fashion, have also provided an isolated music track of Jerry Fielding’s outstanding score as a separate audio option. Aficionados of soundtracks will surely appreciate this.

    The usual excellent Julie Kirgo liner notes (but DO NOT read them before seein the film for the first time!) are included as well as the movie's theatrical trailer.

    Quick note. This is the American cut of the film that omits some brief nudity present in the European variant but keeps in a horse fall that the BBFC cut in the U.K. version due to that nation’s strict anti-animal cruelty laws.

    The Final Word:

    I cannot recommend this film enough. Haunting, intelligent and thoroughly engrossing, Winner’s LAWMAN deserves to be far more widely seen and respected. Twilight Time’s presentation is excellent on a technical level as well. My only regret is the lack of an audio commentary. Buy.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!

    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Scott's Avatar
      Scott -
      This was really great, I checked it out after reading this review. Feels very much like an '50s western except for a few scenes of violence and cattle branding. Lancaster plays the quiet old western type perfectly.