Monday, January 6, 2014

Movie Monday: Lawman

A top-notch cast and crew brings you...Lawman!
I recently discovered the blog Every 70's Movie, which has taken on the insane mission of covering every single American movie released in the decade, film by film, day by day. There are a number of reasons I like it, but one of the main ones is that it highlights movies that I have never even heard of, let alone seen! I like to think I know a lot about movies, and I worked for a few years at a very good video store which helped me expand my knowledge beyond just those genres that interested me the most.

One of the films the blog introduced me to was 1971's Lawman, featuring this killer poster and starring a truly amazing cast: Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Duvall, and Sheree North! Directed by Michael Winner (Death Wish), I was thought I was surely in for an unheralded classic:
The film opens in the town of Bannock, where a bunch of cowboys from a neighboring town called Sabbath(!) have gotten sh*t-faced drunk and are shooting up the place. An innocent civilian gets caught in the crossfire, which leads to Bannock's marshal, Jered Maddox (Lancaster) heading into Sabbath to extract some good ol' fashioned justice.

We learn pretty quickly that Lawman was a "modern" western, one of the films following in the wake of the groundbreaking The Wild Bunch. Simple morality tales of good and evil are not what Lawman has in mind. No, it becomes clear that Maddox--even though he is The Law--is in many ways just as violent and savage as those he's out to arrest.
Maddox's mission comes into direct conflict with Sabbath's sheriff (Ryan), and the local rancher (Cobb), who employs the cowboys. There's a whole lot of talk, and I have to admit I got a little frustrated waiting for the action to start, as Ryan and Cobb sat around dusty sets talking about Good and Evil.
Everyone tries to talk Maddox out of his desire to get the four men (the fifth is killed by Maddox early on)--they try reasoning with him, as well as bribing him, to no avail. A former flame of Maddox's named Laura Shelby (North) tries a different tack, intervening on behalf of one of the cowboys who is her common-law husband. Maddox is willing to bed her down (of course, it is Sheree North), but he's still not willing to bend: he wants these men dead.

Of all the cowboys, the one who gets the most screen time is Vernon Adams, played by Robert Duvall:
Adams claims he didn't participate in the melee, and he has a farm to run, so he doesn't have the time to go along with Maddox and let everything get sorted out. Maddox ties Adams up at Laura's ranch, where Adams tries to talk her into double-crossing Maddox.

There's more, a lot more, with a very downbeat, bloody ending that seemed of a piece with so many of the other westerns made at the time (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is another one that comes to mind). Lawman's world view is bleak, and questions the morality of society that allows killing, for any reason.

I will admit, going into the film I was kinda hoping there'd be a bit more fun to be had (the poster, shockingly, tries to sell the film as something less heavy than it actually was), and I thought there was maybe one or two too many scenes of people discussing the themes of the movie, but the cast is so good that it still makes Lawman worth watching. These were masters of film acting in the twilight of their careers, and it's hard not to see the parallels in a film about the romantic Old West being swept away featuring stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood as they began leaving the stage.

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