Hard-bitten Marshall Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster) is hot on the trail of six ranch hands who killed an old man during a drunken spree. Like these wanted men, local sheriff Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan), once a fearsome gunfighter now gutless and corrupt, is in the pocket of rancher Vincent Bronson (Lee J. Cobb), whose own son stands among the guilty. One by one, Maddox guns down those responsible, even though Ryan warns him his dogged pursuit of justice has unleashed unnecessary bloodshed and an old flame, Laura Shelby (Sheree North) begs him to spare one of the men who is now her lover. Meanwhile, sick of the lawman interfering in their affairs, a local lynch mob decide to take things into their own hands.
Everyone’s favourite raconteur, bon viveur and insurance spokesperson Michael Winner was the man behind this solid, if unspectacular western. For his first dabble in the saddle - swiftly followed by Chato’s Land (1972) where Winner swapped a villainous namesake for the real Charles Bronson - the brash British director secured Durango, Mexico for his shooting location ahead of Howard Hawks who had wanted to shoot Rio Lobo (1970) there. The Hollywood legend was supposedly less than pleased. Lawman might have made a better swansong for Hawks given how Winner entirely lacks his precision. Having said that, although his chaotic, zoom-happy direction makes a mess of an intriguing story, this still ranks among Winner’s better films.
Some have picked up on a spaghetti western influence, what with its dusty, sun-scorched town, ultra-gory violence (characters don’t bleed, they explode gleaming red pustules) and abundant close-ups on purposeful eyes, but Lawman is actually a remake of Man With The Gun (1955) a western starring Robert Mitchum. The film touches upon that familiar Seventies western theme “those days have passed” as both Maddox and Bronson lament the passing of old friends and values, but is more interesting when it touches on Winner’s favourite subject of vigilante justice. More contemplative about the ethical dilemmas behind vigilantism and law enforcement than his infamous Death Wish (1974), the film implies the implacable marshal is as much at fault as with the outlaws.
Winner surprisingly shows more empathy for the downtrodden outlaws than the no-nonsense lawman, although the bloodbath finale curtails all these moral quandaries with a nihilistic shrug. Though the film benefits from a great cast of craggy character actors, including lively turns from Winner favourites like Ralph Waite and Richard Jordan plus good support from Sheree North and an early role for Robert Duvall, the director inexplicably undermines some meaty drama by staging silly sight gags in the background. The monolithic Burt Lancaster is well cast as the stoic, inflexible Maddox, making this something like how Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) might play had the citizens of Dodge City got fed up and turned on Wyatt Earp.