Lawman is not a particularly important film but it's a surprisingly intelligent and engrossing one. Full of the complexities which later Michael Winner films push briskly aside, it is an interesting examination of the morality of violence and the difficulties which faced lawmen in the West of the late 19th Century. I was about to say that it's among Winner's best films - not a long list but one which contains a couple of genuine winners (sorry) in the shape of The Mechanic and I'll Never Forget Whatsisname - but the sad fact is that it's the crudity of his direction that stops the film being better than it is.
A group of cowboys, employed by a powerful landowner called Bronson (Cobb), shoot up a small town called Bannock and accidentally kill an old man. The marshal of Bannock, Maddox (Lancaster) decides to go to their home town of Sabbath to collect them so he can put them on trial. But the marshal of Sabbath, Cotton Ryan (Ryan), is reluctant to co-operate, knowing that the influence of Bronson on the town will make arresting the men very difficult. Maddox is determined to get the guilty men however, a determination which results in a series of violent incidents that hover between both sides of the law.
In thematic terms, Lawman is about a very basic moral code which was one of the only ways of keeping order at a time when civilised society was, to a large extent, at the mercy of guns and money. Landowners and cattle barons were the ultimate authority in many small towns during the post-Civil War period, setting up puppet marshals who would keep strangers in check while allowing endemic violence and corruption to go unpunished. Some lawmen defied the powerful elite; many died because of it but some, most famously Wyatt Earp, became legends in their own right. As Lawman demonstrates, the aim of such lawmen was to get their quarry behind bars, tried and sentenced by a legally sanctioned court before the guilty party was either sprung by his friends or lynched by vigilantes. Vigilante justice was considered unacceptable but unavoidable and generally went unpunished because the perpetrators closed ranks. William Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident examines this in considerable detail, as does John Sturges' splendid Bad Day At Black Rock. Gunfights were also inevitable and sometimes engaged in by the lawmen themselves but this was considered acceptable if it was the result of provocation. The ultimate sin was cheating by shooting an opponent in the back - such felons were called backshooters and frequently shunned by their peers. Taking life was considered reasonable but only if it was legally justified - legal justification itself being a complex issue. Indeed, there was much debate amongst lawmen as to whether being a backshooter could be justified if it meant the difference between apprehension and escape.
One of the strengths of Lawman is that it examines this culture with surprising seriousness. The legal wrath of Maddox is contrasted with the cynical pragmatism of Bronson and the film refuses to reduce this to a simple scheme. Bronson recognises his own anger and guilt but also that the basis of his - and the town's - prosperity is based on the very violence and intimidation for which he is now being brought to account - "It took guns to get this land, guns to keep it, guns to make things grow, guns to make things grow, the guns that pride called out. And each time, we buried the cost". It helps a lot that Lee J. Cobb?s performance is so rich and thoughtful. This marvellous actor - appearing here, unusually, without a toupee - makes Bronson a rather sad, reflective figure whose impulsive anger always comes back to haunt him. He's realistic about how he maintains his power - "You don't kill a man like that, you buy him. And if he doesn't sell, you buy the man above him" - but is aware that his days are drawing to a close - "Those killing days are for younger men." It's rare to see a Western in which the central characters are over 50 - Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and Ride The High Country are obvious reference points here - and the maturity of the cast adds layers to a relatively simple story.
Bronson is contrasted with the two lawmen who give the film its title. Firstly, we have Lancaster's Maddox, the upright, principled and self-important marshal who has come to uphold the law. Lancaster isn't quite at his peak here - he has a wooden quality which serves the character but doesn't make him particularly interesting - but his sheer presence is undeniable and you believe him when he says things like "Nobody gets a mob rope in my town." However, more interestingly, we also have Cotton Ryan, beautifully played by Robert Ryan, one of the greatest of all American film actors. Ryan had recently played the treacherous Deke Thornton in The Wild Bunch, last seen sitting against a wall in the midst of a town where everyone he has ever called a friend is lying dead. The quality of sadness and the weight of history is brilliantly used here as he makes Cotton a far more complex character than he probably seemed in the script. Cotton is weak because he can't remember how to be anything else but he's not a fool and he's not unaware of his choice in the matter - he says to Bronson, "You pay me.. and I eat your dirt. But that don't make what you say right." His glory days as a soldier at Fort Bliss are still fresh in the memories of everyone who knows his history but they are long past and, as he says, "It's a long ride down from high country with stops all the way down." Ryan's face - wounded, despairing, undeniably noble - is a marvel in itself and it adds so much to the film that it's hard to imagine it working without him. When he and Maddox finally get together - along with Lucas, the whorehouse owner - it's a sublimely satisfying moment.
However, Michael Winner's direction violates the excellent performances of Ryan and Cobb and the good work of the supporting players - including a pre-fame Robert Duvall, the self-amused Joseph Wiseman, a noble prostitute played by the excellent Sheree North and a very young Richard Jordan. He keeps pushing them in our faces in close-up in such a crude manner that it quickly becomes tiresome. His zooms are, typically, unnecessary and vulgar and although the use of gore is relatively restrained, his emphasis on blood-spurting realism looks more exploitative than historically justified. To be fair, he keeps the action going and does some good work with the actors, allowing them some long takes in which to develop character. But the signs of the things which totally destroyed the good points in his later films are already here and it's very obvious that he doesn?t have the grasp of the genre needed to create a genuine Western atmosphere. Robert Paynter's even lighting is far too unimaginative for one thing and the low budget settings have a pre-fabricated look which negates the attempts at realism. Jerry Fielding's music score is distinctly mediocre as well. But the theme of Lawman is powerful and it's interesting to see a film about justice which doesn't boil down the issues to black and white. There are gradations within both sides of the law and entirely acceptable but totally contradictory methods of doing the right things and this is something which the film considers. The climax is emotionally complex, much more so than you'd expect. You can't help wondering what a Hawks or a Peckinpah might have made of this material but the script and the excellent performances make it well worth watching, especially for fans of the genre.
All the comments I made about the recent disc of Chato's Land also apply here. Although the quality of the films may be in some doubt - less so here -it's a crying shame that MGM can't treat the back catalogue of United Artists with a bit more respect.
The film is given an anamorphic transfer in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. I wasn't impressed by this image. There is a considerable amount of print damage evident in the shape of scratches, artefacting occurs on and off throughout the film and the colours are washed out and give the film a very flat appearance.
The soundtrack is slightly better. Presented in the original English mono, it?s a clean and crisp track. Dialogue is well represented and the music score is pretty strong.
There are no extras at all and even the menus have been reduced to meaningless icons. The film is divided into 16 chapters and is fully subtitled in a range of languages including English.
Lawman is a much better film than its reputation suggests and I commend it to anyone who thinks Michael Winner only ever made bad movies. Fans of American cinema owe it to themselves to see Robert Ryan and Lee J. Cobb doing the sterling work that they accomplish here. Sadly, the DVD is poor stuff and hard to recommend to anyone.