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USA 1971
Directed by
Michael Winner
99 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


Michael Winner’s take on Richard Wilson’s 1955 “town-tamer” Western, Man With The Gun, with Burt Lancaster in the Robert Mitchum role is very much in the revisionist mythopoetic style established by A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Winner, who is best known for Death Wish (1974) turns Mitchum’s relatively human hired gun seeking redemption into Lancaster’s Jered Maddox who toys with the idea of a normal life but ultimately destroys any chance of that in an orgy of misanthropy

Maddox is Sheriff of Bannock when it is shot up and an old man accidentally killed by some cowpokes in the employ of cattle baron Vincent Bronson (Lee J. Cobb) near the dustbowl town of Sabbath. One day Maddox rides into Sabbath and tells the Marshall Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan) that he has come to arrest the men. Once a tough guy but now Bronson's hired help, Ryan tells Maddox to forget it and tries to broker a deal with Bronson but Maddox will have nothing of it. He’s come to take in the men, dead or alive, and that’s what he’s going to do.

Lancaster would play a similar character a couple of years later in Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana's Raid (1974) which is generally regarded as some kind of allegorical allusion to the Vietnam war. I am not sure that Winner has any profound aspirations here but rather is indulging his pessimistic/fatalistic view of human nature as portrayed by Leone and Peckinpah (while borrowing a few of their characteristic flourishes like the dramatic zoom-ins and zoom-oust). The final bloodbath is quite remarkable in this respect and, for my money at least, a good deal better than a lot of rather lamely-handled similar resolutions which leave the hero as just that after knocking off the bad guys (which was the case in the Wilson original). In what seems to be a perversely counter-intuitive choice Maddox rejects the possibility of redemption signified by the arrival of his former lover Laura (Sheree North) in town, who is prepared to leave it with him, and completes his mission in what in actuality is an act of self-immolation.

The cast is strong, with, aside from Lancaster superbly cool as the righteous killer, veterans Lee J. Cobb and Robert Ryan (who had played a similar role in The Wild Bunch) both effective, Robert Duvall who was just about to hit the big time with The Godfather (1972) convincing as a dumb cowpoke and Sheree North impresses as Maddox’s one-time squeeze - not the usual overly-manicured token female but a shop-worn whore at the end of her line .Another big plus to the film is the unusually articulate, well thought-through script by Gerald Wilson (who would work uncredited on Death Wish) who gives the original film an existentially bleak revision. On the other hand the very traditional score by Jerry Fielding does the film no service especially in an irrelevant but once again, conventional, cattle branding scene  

For fans of darker fare Lawman is a Western that deserves to be better known. .




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