This largely overlooked Western is a tight, tough action drama with an all-star cast, several of whom give particularly effective performances that help elevate the film to an above-average oater well worth 99 minutes of your viewing time.
The plot is pretty basic. Six cowboys deliver some cattle to the railhead in the town of Bannock. That night they get drunk and rowdy and shoot up the town before riding out. Unknown to them, an old man is is killed by a stray bullet.
Some weeks later, the marshal of Bannock, Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster), shows in the town of Sabbath, home base for the cowboys. He was out of town chasing a fugitive when the cowboys hit his town and now he's bent on taking the six men back to stand trial --- minus one he already caught up with, who he brings belly down over a horse when he rides into town. “He called me out,” he tersely explains to Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan), the sheriff of Sabbath. When he solicits Ryan's help in bringing in the others, he learns that the men had been hired by Vince Bronson (Lee J. Cobb), the wealthy rancher who has the town and the whole surrounding area in his pocket --- including the sheriff. The latter won't go up against Bronson to help Maddox, but he is willing to take a message to the rancher to see if he'll cooperate in returning to Bannock with the others to face charges. Maddox agrees to give them 24 hours to turn themselves in before he starts going after them one by one.
Bronson, who genuinely did not know anybody had been hurt or killed in the Bannock shooting, feels remorse for the incident. He figures he could easily buy the judge in Bannock and get everybody off with little or no jail time, but doesn't really want to go to all that trouble. After putting it to a vote among the other men involved and finding none of them wanting to go back either, he's not willing to force them to do so. So he sends the sheriff back try and buy off Maddox.
But Maddox can't be bought. Like a grim, obsessive, borderline psychotic Ahab, he won't be swerved from his mission. With no hand raised to help him and even knowing full well that the judge in Bannock will be bribed by Bronson if it ever gets that far, he sets out to do his duty as he sees it. After the 24 hours are up, he sets out after each of the men. In a series of bloody confrontations, he takes two of them into custody and ends up killing most of the others until it comes to a final violent showdown in the streets of town.
The nuances and undertones of the story and characters are what sets LAWMAN apart. The performances by Ryan and Cobb as two men tormented by their violent pasts and no longer having the stomach for more of the same are especially effective. Same for Robert Duvall in a somewhat minor role that he makes memorable. Sheree North, appearing in a brief romantic angle that seems somewhat forced into the storyline, nevertheless comes across well. Then there's Lancaster, who at first seems almost wooden in his performance --- until you realize he is actually nailing the stoic, emotionless character he is portraying.
Good stuff. Recommended.