BR: Lawman (1971)

November 7, 2017 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: September 19, 2017

Genre:  Western

Synopsis: A no-nonsense Marshal gives 4 suspects wanted for murder 24 hours to surrender before he commences a brutal manhunt.

Special Features: Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




As more of Michael Winner’s films emerge on Blu-ray, it’s not hard to pick up on the director’s attraction to tales of disrupted lives and outright nihilistic finales, but what makes Lawman more unique than Winner’s career hit Death Wish (1974) is how whole lives are ruined by the visitation of one man who’s supposed to represent the law.

Lawman is sold as a tough marshal tasked with rounding up four men wanted for the death of an old man during a heady night of drinking, smashing windows, and looting shops not set afire, but right from Marshal Maddox’s arrival in Sabbath, things go badly.

Arriving with a dead man draped over his horse, he’s a quiet, cold imperialist expecting action at the softest demand, but he doesn’t realize the town’s culture is one of watching where one steps, respecting the existing pecking order, and just minding one’s business. When Sabbath’s Marshal Cotton (Robert Ryan) informs cow baron Vincent Bronson (Lee J. Cobb) that the four men are under his employ, his first reaction is to reason – with words, money, whatever – but Maddox, dubbed “the widow maker,” will have none of it, expecting the four – irrespective of whoever claims zero involvement – to appear by noon the next day, or else.

What’s unusual about Gerald Wilson’s scenario is that none of the characters are inherently or classically evil: Vernon Adams (Robert Duvall) is an average worker with a wife and kids, concerned about his family’s welfare while he’d be away during a trial’s indefinite period; tough-talking Hurd Price (J.D. Cannon) is just a schmo who’s ‘kind and decent’ to the town’s former prostitute Laura Shelby (Sheree North); the other men – Harvey Sternbaugh (Albert Salmi) and Jack Dekker (Ralph Waite) are the quartet’s nastiest members, but they’re loyal to the Bronson family, with Sternbaugh going back decades with patriarch Vincent.

There’s minor rivalry between Cotton’s son & heir Jason (John Beck) and up-and-coming lieutenant Crowe Wheelright (Richard Jordan, in his film debut), but it never develops into a dominant conflict because the main figure is Wheelright, a cocky wannabe gunslinger who learns from unlikely confrontations with Maddox that there’s a time and place to draw a gun; the pair’s scene eating fish by a river is a pivotal learning curve in which Wheelright soon realizes his enemy can become a teacher, an indirect ally, and a nemesis if and when circumstances change.

Maddox’s background is kept vague, but he shares a history with Laura, and although they share a night, whatever dreams the tired marshal has, settling down is an impossibility. Winner orchestrates so much emotional and physical carnage that the idea of a quiet retirement is ludicrous, and he accentuates that hollow dream in the finale where practically everyone dies when a moment’s hesitation may have prevented the worst of it.

As grim as Winner’s films tend to be, certainly during the early 1970s, his Hollywood productions are packed with an astonishing cast of stars and superb character actors; even the smallest roles, such as Joseph Wiseman (Dr. No) as a whorehouse owner who plays cards as time ticks on a working skull clock.

Lawman features multiple generations of aging stars – Lancaster playing an anti-hero, Ryan (Inferno, House of Bamboo) the weathered but patient peacekeeper, Cobb (Captain from Castile, The Exorcist) the aging patriarch who wants to keep his modest empire intact for his son – and new stars, especially Duvall (The Chase, The Godfather), Jordan (The Yakuza, Logan’s Run), Waite (The Stone Killer, The Waltons), and to some extent, Beck (Rollerball, Audrey Rose). The town elders and merchants are a bit clichéd, but they represent the impulsive mob; amateur heroes who meddle and acquire courage when in group form with loaned rifles.

A pleasing plus in Winner’s film is Laura not smacked around and raped – his depiction of women is pretty shoddy (and would get worse during his Cannon years) – but the European version reportedly contains an alternate scene in which North appears nude (not included in the transfer supplied to Twilight Time). He also seems to relish a gritty veneer and shooting on location; Robert Paynter’s cinematography is gorgeous, but there’s no gloss or rich colours to the film’s palette.

TT’s disc features a trailer and stereo isolated score track of Jerry Fielding’s outstanding music – one of his best, if not a worthy follow-up to his masterpiece for Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). It’s is a bit coincidental that Winner would make his own violent western with Wild’s composer and co-star Ryan, but the filmmakers and their visions are very distinct. Where Peckinpah allows characters to have ‘down-times’ and eat, drink, and have merry evenings with women, Winner has everyone in a constant state of fear; Maddox isn’t afraid of anyone, but Lancaster plays the character as a man whose time is running out, and although he isn’t killed in Lawman’s finale, he’s headed for an ignominious death, perhaps at the hands of a Wheelright variant.

Fielding’s knack for grasping character conflicts and psychologies and layering them with unusual theme variations and orchestrations gives the film extra depth, and it’s perhaps a key reason the composer – a Peckinpah regular – also maintained a fruitful association with Winner. Fielding was adept at accentuating the flaws within characters that may have appeared as hints, quiet gestures, or were wholly unexplored until the final score was recorded and layered into the film mix.

Gerald Wilson’s filmography is surprisingly compact, but he’s seemed in sync with Winner’s grim worldview, and perhaps influenced it to some extent, as the two collaborated on Lawman, the brutal Chato’s Land (1972), Scorpio (1973) with Lancaster, The Stone Killer (1973), Death Wish (1974), and later Firepower (1979), arguably Winner’s worst film of the decade.

Julie Kirgo’s liner notes touch upon Ryan’s fine performance of an aging hero losing chunks of his soul yearly, and Cobb, a longtime Fox contract star who’s very touching as a man fully aware the fights and bloodshed that aided in building his empire was perhaps too great.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the film’s story is the original victim – the murdered old man. He’s neither a statistic nor a minor local footnote for the town record but a ‘mere mention,’ and disallowed by Wilson any backstory (but allotted a single odd-angle shot by Winner that’s below perfunctory), his function is merely the spark that brings Maddox to life, giving the flute playing wanderer a purpose in an otherwise miserable life.



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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