The first of 20 American films by prolific British director (and later, restaurant critic) Michael Winner, Lawman (1971) is an outstanding Western with well-drawn characters, great performances, and a strong visual style that keeps its story alive and kicking from start to finish. The line between traditional heroes and villains is removed almost completely here: there are no white horses or twirling mustaches, just men and women with distinctly different moral compasses who don't always follow their own rules. Our title character is Marshal Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster), who's just arrived at the town of Sabbath looking for six men who unknowingly shot and killed someone from nearby Bannock during a rowdy, drunken night of gunplay. They all work for wealthy rancher Vincent Bronson, who practically owns Sabbath and its sheriff, Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan), and obviously won't be turning themselves in voluntarily.
Almost every character in Lawman is played thoughtfully and with several layers. Maddox, known as "The Widowmaker", is steely-eyed, quick on the trigger, and almost clinical in his devotion to the law; he's somewhere between Robocop and Dragnet's Sergeant Joe Friday, feared by outsiders and locals alike. Maddox also never draws first in a duel, or aims for a man's back...until he does, on both counts, and we remember our own tendency to break personal rules at a moment's notice. In contrast is Vincent Bronson, who could ambush Maddox on a dozen occasions...but instead, recognizes his men's stupidity and tries to make amends first, believing total surrender would get his men lynched. Stuck right in the middle---and to his credit, extremely likable every step of the way---is Cotton Ryan, who's obviously under the thumb and might otherwise come across as feeble if played with less of a charismatic presence. It's hard to hate just about anyone in Lawman, which makes it all the more unfortunate once bodies start to pile up.
Punctuated by scenes of bloody and often unexpected violence, Lawman is armed with an outstanding visual flow...at least as far as editing is concerned. Cut expertly by Freddie Wilson (The Mechanic, Mysterious Island), countless transitions are perfectly timed and help to keep the film's energy level high as the suspense builds. But if there's one visual drawback here, it's at least a dozen necessary zooms (usually during establishing shots) that do nothing more than distract from the story at hand or overemphasize portions of the drama. Either way, Lawman is an outstanding and largely forgotten film that's worth a second look in high definition, as Twilight Time's welcome new Blu-ray package offers a strong A/V upgrade that plays to Lawman's obvious strengths. It's the kind of film that grabs your attention, rarely lets go, and offers just enough below the surface to warrant more replay value than expected.
NOTE: Twilight Time's Blu-ray includes the American cut of Lawman and not the international version available on DVD in select countries. The main differences are alternate takes during the "pillow talk" scene that obscure a bit of nudity---remember, blowing holes in someone's chest is fine, but nipples are evil!---while the international version removes a brief shot of a horse being injured. More information (including a few screen shots) can be found here.
"A man gets caught in his own doing. You can't change what you are..."
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Lawman looks better than ever thanks to a sparkling new 1080p transfer that easily outshines MGM's 2001 DVD. The film's excellent framing leads to plenty of memorable shots (aside from all those unnecessary zooms, which really feel out of place), and Twilight Time's Blu-ray squeezes out a strong amount of image detail, depth, texture, and natural color saturation that absolutely pops during a handful of frequent outdoor sequences. Blood is almost fluorescent red, a la Peckinpah, and quite surprising once those squibs explode. Damage, dirt, and debris are basically absent, and no other glaring imperfections (noise reduction, compression artifacts) could be detected either. It's fantastic treatment of a deserving film, and die-hard fans will be extremely pleased with results.
DISCLAIMER: The still images and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the Blu-ray under review.
The audio is presented in its original DTS-HD Master Audio mono format and defaults to a two-channel spread, and what's here definitely reflects the era in which Lawman was made. Dialogue and music are clear within the boundaries of their source material, there's modest depth at times, and the higher end feels more than a bit harsh on occasion. Still, Lawman sounds exactly like a 46-year-old Western ought to, and I'd rather have split mono than a faux-surround "upgrade". Optional English subtitles have been included, which makes several moments of softer dialogue easier to decipher, and the usual Isolated Music Track showcases Jerry Fielding's fantastic score in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0.
Menu Design, Presentation, & Packaging
Twilight Time's standard interface is clean, simple, and easy to navigate; separate options are available for audio/subtitle setup and bonus features, which are limited to the film's stylish and bloody Theatrical Trailer
(2 minutes). This one-disc release is packaged in a clear keepcase with poster-themed artwork (purple and sepia, though?) and a nice little Booklet
containing production stills, technical specs, and an insightful essay by the reliable Julie Kirgo.
"...And if you try, something always calls you back.."
An outstanding Western that's unfortunately been ignored a lot during the last four decades, Michael Winner's brash and bold Lawman impresses with great performances, layered characters, and first-rate editing that punctuates countless scenes with authority. I hadn't seen this one in years but it holds up exceptionally well, and will likely win over first-time viewers who enjoy Sam Peckinpah's Westerns and those looking for something a little deeper than your average "good vs. evil" shoot-em-ups. Twilight Time's new Blu-ray is unfortunately lacking in bonus features, but the A/V presentation is excellent and increased my enjoyment of Lawman the second time around. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.