Provocative and savage, Lawman offers an unflinching take on the iconography of the Western vigilante, positing that a killer with a badge can be as destructive to society as the criminals he’s charged with bringing to justice. Arriving around the same time as a slew of movies about modern-day vigilantism, Lawman didn’t capture the public imagination like Dirty Harry or Straw Dogs, both of which were released the same year—or even Death Wish (1974), which was made by Lawman’s director, Michael Winner—but Lawman is an interesting companion to those enduring pictures.
An ethical rumination set in such a minor key that many viewers will find the storyline unpalatably depressing, Lawman bravely defines its hero as the worst monster in his bloody environment. If violence begets violence, the movie seems to argue, then rampant violence can easily conjure that most grisly of oxymorons, “justifiable homicide.” And yet the most interesting aspect of Lawman is that the murders committed by the story’s antihero are only nominally sanctioned by society; supporting characters spend the entire narrative trying, in vain, to persuade the titular peacekeeper from using lethal force.
Burt Lancaster, who was always game for playing brutal sons of bitches, puts his florid acting style to good use essaying Jered Maddox, a U.S. Marshal without an iota of mercy. When the story begins, several cowboys from a ranch situated outside of a tiny town called Sabbath—make what you will of the symbolism—accidentally kill a bystander during a drunken binge. Maddox hears of the crime and kills one of the cowboys, then rides into Sabbath and proclaims his intention to eradicate all of the men responsible. This puts him in conflict not only with overbearing rancher Vincent Bronson (Lee J. Cobb), who employs the cowboys, but also with Sabbath’s comparatively weak-willed sheriff, Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan). As the movie progresses, Maddox resists entreaties to his conscience and to his bank account, even endangering his renewed love affair with an old flame (Sheree J. North), all because of his single-minded devotion to eye-for-an-eye absolutism.
The story stirs up thorny questions about whether a society that kills killers is worth preserving; about how deeply the meting out of deadly justice corrupts the executioner; and about what role compassion plays in the whole mix. Gerry Wilson’s script is probably a bit too literary for its own good, and the pervasive darkness of the story will be a turnoff for those who like their morality plays leavened with escapism. But especially thanks to the presence of a great supporting cast—including Robert Duvall, Richard Jordan, and Ralph Waite—this one goes down smoothly for those with a taste for bitter parables. Best of all, the final scene, in which Cobb’s thunderous performance reaches an ironically pathetic crescendo, resonates on myriad levels.