Burt Lancaster: An American Life author Kate Buford discusses the career crossroads at which the Academy Award®-winning actor-producer found himself as the 1960s drew to a close: “In holding to a quixotic integrity that would go its own way even if nobody noticed, he was showing the courage of the artist he had always wanted to be. He didn’t care, he said in 1970, if he played a hero or a villain. What mattered was a ‘satisfying statement.’ While the best of his movies in this decade are stories of men isolated by circumstance and choice, what continues to distinguish his versions of this all-too-familiar American type is their wanting to be connected to the group. As a superstar, he was aware that audiences had grown up with him, watched him change from role to role. He wanted to use that ‘special place in the public’s affections,’ as he put it, to get them to think a little harder, look a little deeper. He would continue to tell his version of the American story, their story, even if the theater was empty. To old to compete with Martin Sheen or Jack Nicholson in a New Wave drama, he could use the form of the Western and shape his role to a contemporary purpose. Valdez Is Coming, Lawman and Ulzana’s Raid, released from 1971 to 1972, were the third and last trio of horse operas he would make in his career. They form a trilogy united by his evolving presence and the themes uppermost in the minds of what he hoped remained of his audience: law and order and the Vietnam War.”
Published in 2000, Buford’s well-researched book offers astute coverage of Lawman (1971), which opened in the U.S. 46 years ago today, just four months prior to the arrival of the justice-enforcing badass Dirty Harry (1971), which Lancaster turned down (fourth in line after Frank Sinatra, John Wayne and Robert Mitchum before next candidate Clint Eastwood signed on). She observes: “Lancaster’s grimly obsessive U.S. marshal, Jered Maddox, spends the entire movie rounding up a gang of men who inadvertently killed an old man during a drunken shoot-’em-up brawl. By the last scene in a script written by Gerald Wilson, virtually everyone except Maddox is dead…. Prior to filming near Durango, Mexico, in mid-1970, Lancaster and the director Michael Winner went over the final scene in which the marshal picks off one last man as he runs away. ‘But why does Maddox shoot the man in the back?’ asked Lancaster. ‘Because he’s a bastard, Burt!’ replied the ebullient, 35-year-old Winner. A director of BBC-TV movies and brittle, clever features like The Joker, he was tackling his first Western with the star he liked and respected as a fellow Scorpio and ‘an American hero of the fifties, when adults could be heroes.’ Lancaster in fact relished his portrayal of yet another rigid, cold fanatic. When he played authoritarian bad guys his distaste manifested itself in an extreme containment, a la [Sweet Smell of Success’ J.J.] Hunsecker, of his body. Freedom was movement. In one scene where he had to come through the usual barroom swinging doors walking toward the camera, he ‘moved brilliantly,’ recalled Winner, and asked at the end of the take, ‘How was it?’ ‘Well, all I can say, sir,’ said Winner, ‘is that it scared the shit out of me.’ Justice devours itself with more death and violence in this antibacklash movie and what could have been caricatures – Robert Ryan’s faded, complaisant local marshal or Lee J. Cobb’s Big Daddy rancher – are given shadings and complications that intensify the isolation and irrationality of Lancaster’s lawman. On its [initial offshore] release, Films and Filming in April 1971 wondered if an audience accustomed to the mythical variations of Sergio Leone, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch would take to Lawman: ‘There is little consolation in this deadly intrusion into the heart of myth…everything is dirt, dust and death.’” Also starring Robert Duvall, Sheree North, Albert Salmi, Richard Jordan, John McGiver, Ralph Waite, John Beck, Robert Emhardt and J.D. Cannon, Lawman, shot by Robert Paynter and scored by The Wild Bunch’s Jerry Fielding, menacingly strides through the saloon door on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray September 19, with Fielding's score crisply presented on an Isolated Music Track. Preorders open September 6.