When it was released in 1971, director Michael Winner's "Lawman" was regarded as just another western. It did well enough, if unremarkably, at the boxoffice thanks to the drawing power of star Burt Lancaster, but in the end, "Lawman" came and went rather quickly in an era in which the genre was starting to wane a bit. The film represented a new direction for Winner, who had gained attention in the mid-1960s with several quirky comedies that captured the mood of London's emerging "mod" scene. In 1969 Winner landed his first production for a major Hollywood studio with the offbeat WWII comedy/adventure "Hannibal Brooks". He was now mainstream and wanted to try his hands at a diverse subject matters. He proved surprisingly adept at directing at a western, as evidenced by his achievement with "Lawman", which has been released as a Twilight Time Blu-ray limited edition (3,000 units). Winner would seem an unlikely choice for the task. He was of the "To the manor born" crowd, an elitist who inherited enormous wealth and who hobnobbed with London's "A" list crowd. Yet, Winner had a reverence for the American west and captured as well as any other director the look, feel and sensibility of the types of characters who inhabited it.
"Lawman" begins with a group of rowdy cowboys in the employ of uber-rich cattle baron Vincent Bronson (Lee J. Cobb), returning from a grueling cattle drive and letting off some steam by raising hell in a small town they are passing through. Drunk and out-of-control, they supplement their horseplay by randomly firing their pistols, causing some damage to local buildings before returning to Bronson's massive cattle ranch empire. Bronson assumes his men did little more than disturb the peace and shoot out some windows. Neither he or his men are aware that in the confusion, a stray bullet mortally wounded an elderly bystander. They learn this with the arrival in town of Marshal Jarod Maddox (Burt Lancaster), a soft-spoken but fearless lawman empowered by the state to find and arrest the culprits and bring them back to stand trial. Bronson is genuinely disturbed to learn his men had inadvertently caused a death and his first inclination is to take responsibility for it. He is a local kingmaker and is used to writing his own code of justice since he virtually owns all the local townspeople and public officials, who he has appointed to office. He instructs his short-tempered business partner Harvey Stenbaugh (Albert Salmi) to meet with Maddox and offer to pay for all physical damages done as well as offer generous compensation to the victim's family. Harvey is also instructed to blatantly bribe Maddox, who refuses the offer and makes clear he intends to arrest four men he has warrants for. Harvey is one of them and he draws on Maddox but dies in the ensuing gunplay. This sets in motion a war of wills between Maddox and Bronson who makes it clear no one will be standing trial for what he considers to be an innocent mistake. Maddox is determined, however, and begins to track down each of the four men, one of whom is Bronson's brother. Along the way, he reunites with Laura Shelby (Sheree North), a former lover who is now living with one of the wanted men, a coward named Hurd Price (J.D. Cannon), who takes flight upon Maddox's arrival. Laura tries unsuccessfully to persuade Maddox to spare Price and even beds him in an attempt to dissuade him, but Maddox fearlessly and relentlessly pursues his prey.
The most striking aspect of "Lawman", which bore a bland title and uninspired advertising campaign, is the intelligent script by Gerald Wilson. He presents fully-fleshed characters who could easily have been made into caricatures of western movie villains. The unique aspect of the script is that there aren't any traditional villains. The men who committed the crimes are honest, hard-working cow hands who are ashamed and appalled that they have killed a man. Even though Maddox assures them they will probably get a light sentence, they can't spare the time to be away from their ranches because it would cause them financial ruin. As for Cobb's Vincent Bronson, he is not the typical mustache-twirling western bad guy. He's a dictator who buys people's allegiance, but he is a benevolent dictator who has provided good wages and ample respect to the locals and people in his employ. Maddox meets the local sheriff, Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan), a once-esteemed lawman who has fallen into disgrace and now shamefully acts as a flunky for Bronson. He attempts to persuade Maddox that pursuing his goal of arresting men at the risk of his life will be a fool's errand. Even if he succeeds in bringing them to court, Bronson will bribe the judge and jury. Maddox is about to be won over by this cynical view of life when an unexpected development leads to a violent showdown.
"Lawman" boasts an outstanding cast that includes Robert Duvall, John McGiver, Richard Jordan and Ralph Waite, to name but a few. The performances are all outstanding, as is Winner's direction. The three leads- Lancaster, Cobb and Ryan (reunited with Lancaster after "The Professionals") - are superb. Cinematographer Robert Paynter, a longtime collaborator of Winner's, captures the dust and dry prairies with such skill that you'll feel like having a tall, cold drink mid-way through the movie. (One gripe, though: Paynter has an amateurish fixation on playing with the zoom lens.) The movie also has a typically fine score by Jerry Fielding. The Twilight Time Blu-ray is sans any special features except the trailer, an isolated music score track and the usual excellent collector's booklet with informative notes by Julie Kirgo. The transfer is on par with the usual high quality standards associated with Twilight Time.
"Lawman" may not rank with the great westerns of Ford, Hawks and Sturges but it resonates today as an excellent film in all respects. Highly recommended.