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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In making "There Was a Crooked Man" Joseph L. Mankiewicz set out with
the intention of creating a cynical Western, based on the view that
there is a little bit of badness even in the best of men
in this long and expert exercise is a film so thorough1y cynical, so
negative in its view of the human species that the viewer is allowed no
point of view of his own
For Kirk Douglas, the very crooked man of the title, the film gave scope for bravura playing but the characterization is black and utterly ruthless Mankiewicz would have done well to consider the view that there is a little bit of goodness even in the worst of men but the film remains admirable in its staging and in the performances of an exemplary cast
Douglas, wearing steel-rimmed spectacles and with his hair dyed red, appears at the beginning of the picture as a somewhat cultured bandit; he raids the home of a wealthy rancher and escapes with half a million dollars in cash...
In making his escape, several of his men are shot to death and Douglas himself kills his surviving companion Thus the swag is entirely his He hides it in a rattlesnake pit in the desert but he is later spotted in a brothel by the rancher and we next see Douglas on his way to jail
In the prison wagon are five fellow felons: Hume Cronyn and John Randolph, a pair of con-men, religious fakers and implicitly homosexual; a huge homicidal Chinaman, played by Olympic athlete C. K. Yang in a screen debut; Michael Blodgett, a young man who accidentally killed his girl friend's father when suddenly interrupted in an act of love-making; and Warren Oates, a stupid gunman who shoots sheriff Henry Fonda in the leg when the peaceful, unarmed lawman tries to persuade him to surrender
These endearing rascals are then incarcerated in a cell with a dirty old fellow called 'The Missouri Kid,' played like a ferret by Burgess Meredith
The theme, like that of all prison pictures, is escape, and with Douglas openly proud of his hidden half-million, escape becomes inevitable and the wily bandit, a born leader of men, can take his pick not only of his accomplices but of the prison warden (Martin Gabel), a degenerate gentleman, as eager to leave, his post as any prisoner
However, a noisy fight breaks out among the prisoners and in trying to stop it the warden is killed
One irony leads to another and the new warden turns out to be Henry Fonda, a solidly honest, humane man who dedicates himself to penal reform He quickly spots the officer-like qualities of Douglas and assigns him to supervising the building of a new dining hall It is during the inauguration of the building, attended by the state governor and his guests, that Douglas elects to spark a revolthis cover for escape
The motion picture is graphic in depicting the sweat and stench of life in a desert prison, and the frustration and despair of its inmates The spirit of decency, exemplified by Fonda's warden, is almost a stimulating note in an atmosphere swirling with resentment and spite
Mankiewicz' film has some memorable moments: Douglas, in his opening robbery, commenting on the excellence of the fried chicken being served at the rancher's table; Hume Cronyn, passing himself off as a deaf mute at a church gathering, backing into a hot stove and yelling a profane curse; a pretty schoolteacher reciting Henley's 'Invictus' at the dining room ceremony, watched by hundreds of hungry eyes; and in the long chaos of the revolt, a furious montage of incidents, particularly the old Missouri Kid sitting, weeping because he has been in prison too long and hasn't the courage to leave "home," and Cronyn, like a firm-minded old wife, leading his companion back into their cell and telling him they will serve out their sentence
My commentary refers to minor elements of the plot of the film in
question, revealing, to an inconsequential extent, some of the events
of the movie. Some may interpret this as a SPOILER, but I am very
careful not to expose anything specific crucial.
Similar to "Paint Your Wagon" (1969) in it's use of a comedic western as a vehicle for social commentary, "There Was a Crooked Man" has a comic tone at times, but has difficulty being consistently one kind of movie: Is it a satire? Is it a comedy? Is it a bawdy western with a serious disguise? Is it a social commentary about the penal system? Is it an arc for Fonda's upright and uptight sheriff to find disillusionment?
Kirk Douglas portrays a robber who will sacrifice anyone and anything to get the loot and come out on top, while Henry Fonda is a town sheriff who seems the exact opposite of Douglas, and who specializes in moral correctness. While attempting to practice what he preaches, kindness before cruelty, Fonda is shot apprehending a drunken Warren Oates. The town quickly and easily gives up hope in Fonda's ability to do his job, leading Fonda to volunteer as warden for the prison where both Douglas and Oates are incarcerated.
Fonda begins a crusade to uplift the inmates of this desolate Arizona penal colony by abolishing obligatory hard labor and restricting cruel punishments upon the men. It seems the only way to earn Fonda's enmity as warden is to draw lascivious pictures of scantily clad women, as all other crimes are forgivable and reformable in Fonda' eyes.
While Fonda is trying to teach the prisoners self-respect, Douglas is luring them into his aid with promises of sharing the money he stole in the crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to the prison. Those he can't persuade he tricks into helping him by various plots and devices, all the while Fonda thinks Douglas should become the prisoners' leader and help give them hope by improving their living conditions. Burgess Meredith frequently steals the spotlight as a former flashy train robber that has been transformed by years in prison into a tired, gritty, petty old man who does nothing for free.
The problem with this movie is not the excellent acting, but the tone and the Mickey Mouse musical score. It deals with murder and betrayal carelessly, it refers to revenge and cruelty with humor, and it moves back and forth from serious to light-hearted scenes so quickly and easily that it becomes difficult to maintain any clear perspective. In the middle of a murderous rampage an (apparently) hilarious food fight ensues while a buxom visitor to the prison is gradually, but incompletely, disrobed.
Unlike other satires released that year such as "Catch-22" (1970) or "M.A.S.H." (1970), "There Was a Crooked Man" doesn't succeed in delivering a message, but only appears to chronicle an improbable series of events that have no meaning outside of itself, all the while the most irritating and thematically contrary music imaginable scores nearly every scene.
Despite good acting and some laughs, it's a tough film to recommend. If there was a DVD version that allowed you to keep the dialog and eradicate the music, this would be a totally different, and much improved, movie.
This is an interesting black comedy, from Joseph Mankiewicz, about the
gullibility of man, and how greed can corrupt anyone. Henry Fonda is a
lawman, in typical Fonda-style (before WARLOCK and the spaghetti
westerns changed his image). He is a firm support for law and order.
However, he has been shot and left lame by Warren Oates, a drunken
outlaw. He may have to retire as a result sooner than he expected.
At the start of the film we watch how Kirk Douglas (Paris Pitman) has robbed the home of Arthur O'Connor with his gang. They are killed off in one way or another. Pitman escapes with the money, and hides it in a hole full of rattlesnakes. But later he is captured. Pitman is sent to territorial prison, where he meets Oates, Burgess Meredith (as the legendary Missouri Kid), Hume Cronym and John Randolph (a pair of swindlers who are also a gay couple), and others. The warden is Martin Gabel, who soon makes it clear that if Douglas wants to be out sooner he needs the warden as a partner. But in a riot Gabel is killed, and Fonda is appointed the new warden.
Fonda tries to reform the prison, improving facilities and setting up an honor system. Douglas, the total cynic, sneers at all this, and makes his own plans. He is not going to rot for two decades or so in prison while a fortune awaits for him. So he starts plotting to get out, and Fonda keeps watching to counter his plotting.
I won't add anything else, but in the end one wonders if Paris Pitman's view of mankind is the truth of us all or not. The film has wonderful sharp comedy, including the comic put-downs of Cronyn when undercutting the pompous Randolph, and when one sees scenes like Burgess Meredith taking his first bath. I strongly recommend this film to fans of unusual westerns.
For his next to last film Joseph Mankiewicz did his only western and it
ain't the west of John Ford or Howard Hawks. There Was A Crooked Man
starts with the proposition that every man if given sufficient reason
will turn dishonest.
Kirk Douglas has never been afraid to appear as evil, but next to his performance in The List of Adrian Messenger, the screen's never seen him as diabolically evil as Paris Pittman, Jr. in There Was A Crooked Man. And it's clear from the start just how bad he is when he shoots the only other gang member after robbing miserly Arthur O'Connell of his half a million dollar fortune that he keeps in the house because of distrust of banks.
So nothing that he does after this should surprise us. But Kirk Douglas is a player of incredible charm, never more so when used for evil intentions. Eventually he's caught and sent to Territorial prison from where he collects a gang of sorts and plots an escape.
A year after the Stonewall Riots homosexuality finally comes to the west and its depicted in two ways. First John Randolph and Hume Cronyn are a pair of aging gay con men who've pulled one con too many and are in the prison with Douglas in the same cell. Randolph's the flighty one, but Cronyn as it turns out has more talent and more common sense than just about everyone else in the film. That fact saves their lives.
And that's quite a look of lust that repressed prison guard Bert Freed has for young Michael Blodgett who admittedly is quite something to lust after. Blodgett is scheduled to hang at an undetermined date, but Freed's willing to give him some special consideration for special favors. Which Blodgett is unwilling to give him.
Blodgett's story is the most tragic one of the lot. He's a 17 year old kid who's caught by a most flirtatious girl's father who cries rape. As the father aims his shotgun, Blodgett throws a billiard ball and the blow is a fatal one. I've always thought if the kid had a good lawyer he could have gotten off, it was self defense. He's really the only innocent in this film.
The great moral figure in this is Henry Fonda, who's a lawman shot in the performance of his duty and now given the job of prison warden. He's another repressed individual, doesn't smoke or drink, and looks with particular disdain on sexual promiscuity.
Without giving away exactly what Fonda does in the end, it seems he has no other choice. Douglas in pulling off the jail break has made a total fool of him. They'll be all kinds of inquiries so for Fonda the self righteous his duty is clear unless he wants to kill himself. Which in some cultures would have been the answer.
But There Was A Crooked Man should be seen for what happens to Kirk Douglas. It is one of the most priceless comeuppances ever delivered on screen.
Besides Douglas, Fonda, and others I've mentioned look also for good performances from Warren Oates and Burgess Meredith as another two convicts that Douglas takes into his confidence.
Just as man can rise to noble heights on some occasions, with a little temptation he can fall. That's the unvarnished message of There Was A Crooked Man.
Terrific mix of comedy/western/prison film about clever thief Kirk
Douglas who lands himself in jail after robbing a rich man of $500,000
which he's hidden in a mountain. Honest, forthright sheriff Henry Fonda
becomes warden of the jail with the intent on reforming the prisoners
not punishing them. Kirk Douglas must plan his escape with the help of
some colorful prisoners by bribing them. Very underrated and overlooked
gem of the 70's wonderfully directed by Academy Award winning director
Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Full of humor, excitement, and entertainment.
Cynical and funny script has some great twists and the cast is perfect.
***1/2 out of ****
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
How could someone not like a western full of genial and persuasive
cynicism, full of improbable piety and stuffed with vivid characters,
from the two leads, Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda, down to just about
everyone else. And look at the pedigree: Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz,
who gave us All About Eve, Letter to Three Wives and that most elegant
of cynical films, Five Fingers, and with a screenplay by David Newman
and Robert Benton, just after their first effort, Bonnie and Clyde,
made their bones for them in Hollywood. Well, the answer is, an awful
lot of people didn't like it and even more ignored it...including the
studio executives. There Was a Crooked Man was buried after it finally
was released, with almost no marketing dollars devoted to it.
I think the studio had no idea what to do with the film. Not only is it a witty and cynical western, it has a climax which is mordantly violent and unexpectedly ruthless (especially if you weren't paying attention to a brief scene at the start of the film). Not just that, we wind up with one of the leads dead (snake bite to the throat, guaranteed to make you flinch) and the other...well, you may find yourself pondering just who is the crooked man all the fuss was about.
Me, I like the movie a lot. It's not perfect; it's too long; there are a couple of sub-themes that could have been established faster. Still, for an amusing, sardonic look at human nature, There Was a Crooked Man is hard to beat.
Paris Pitman, and don't forget the Jr., please (Kirk Douglas), is a charming, eye-glass wearing rogue. He could talk a coyote out of a chicken, one character says. He's a natural leader, smart and calculating. He's also a robber and a killer. He stole a whole lot of money and, we begin to notice, his gang one by one doesn't make it far. Paris does, but eventually is caught because of his fondness for easy women. Woodward Lopeman (Henry Fonda) is an upright lawman who doesn't drink, take bribes or, as far as we can tell, consort with easy women. The two meet at a desolate territorial prison set in the middle of nothing but desert scrub and blistering heat. Pitman is doing time for the robbery. However, he hid his loot before he was captured and he plans to find a way to escape. Lopeman is the new warden, determined to rehabilitate the prisoners when he can, and at least be fair to them when he can't. Before long Pitman has recruited his cellmates on a carefully organized breakout. They're an odd bunch, but Pitman has a role for each one. The Missouri Kid (Burgess Meredith) is an aged coot who a long time ago was a skilled bank robber. Dudley Whinner (Hume Cronyn) and Cyrus McNutt (John Randolph) are failed con artists, just a bickering old married couple with Whinner the shrewd one. Floyd Moon (Warren Oates) is a backstabber from way back who has never had a friend. He begins to think Paris is one. Coy Cavendish (Michael Blodgett) is a dumb but eager teen-ager who is scheduled to hang for inadvertently killing the father of the girl he was about to know too well. Ah-Ping (C. K. Yang) is a big, tough, silent Chinese who decides to follow Pitman.
We spend a lot of time in that sweltering prison observing how Lopeman tries to improve things and how Pitman step by step organizes the breakout. There will be explosions, misdirection, food fights with fried chicken and mashed potatoes, stolen dynamite...and deliberate killings, cold-blooded and murderous set-ups, and sacrifices those doing the sacrificing hadn't planned on. You can't help grinning at the cynicism or being a little revolted at some of the cold-blooded murders.
Pitman, of course, escapes and heads for the place he hid his loot, a natural cave with an opening just small enough to reach down and snag the bags stuffed with cash. Did I mentioned, Pitman chose the place because it was a nesting ground for rattlers. After we have experienced the cold-blooded cynicism of one of the two leads, it's nice to report that the movie ends with a satisfyingly bit of good-natured cynicism on the part of the other.
A unique combination of a western and an existentialist black comedy.
The two foils are Kirk Douglas as a cunning and charming prisoner, and Henry Fonda as his steady and observant warden. They match wits within a teeming ecology of interesting characters. Burgess Meredith is the heart of the ensemble and provides several poignant moments: the bath scene and his reaction to a shooting are unforgettable.
You'll either hate or love the way "A Crooked Man" subverts the conventions of the genre. The tone of the movie is purposefully inconsistent. One moment, it's sympathetic and moving. The next it's cold and nihilistic. The humor is particularly unique for how it brings slapstick and abstraction together. Consider the way Ah-ping meets his end, or the film's obvious disingenuous portrayal of the schoolteacher's fate. Behind these profoundly idiotic scenes is something profound. One caveat: a pointless and homophobic subplot mars this otherwise perfect film.
"A Crooked Man" will be a real treat for those who like films that leave the well-beaten path.
I found this to be a fine western comedy. Kirk Douglas plays an incorrigible, but likable bank robber in the 1800's. Henry Fonda is a straight-laced Sheriff turn prison Warden trying to reform the cunning thief in the territorial pokey. Douglas of course intends to escape and go back to the hidden money, but he must enlist help from the likes of Warren Oates, Burgess Meredith and Hume Cronyn. This is a very enjoyable and funny film that reveals Douglas' bare butt. In supporting roles are Arthur O'Connell and Martin Gabel. Unload your six shooter and prop up your spurs; this one is worth your time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a very cynical and bitter revisionist western (in fact, not a
western at all, but a prison movie ,as they call it
); like other
somewhat similar products of the revisionist '70s, it's rather formless
and styleless. Not a great cinematographic achievement. Despite this,
many things are in its favorthe cast, the interesting performances
from actors as good as Fonda and Douglas. The ironic score works at
deflating the adventurous element. Doubtless, it's interesting and
intelligent, though not really worked out, not really achieved: badly
writtenthe narration is prolix, the characters are also badly written,
much below the actors' energies. Sometimes, it is (deliberately) funny.
Yet it lacks drive, energy, instinct. This disabused look at the
western world intends more than it's able to really deliver. One needs
seeing at least one western a week. Douglas, sometimes a surprisingly
respectable actor, made better westernslike The Last Sunset (1961) ,
Lonely Are the Brave (1962) , Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) not to
mention the allimportant Hawks masterpiece from the early '50s (but
that was truly an author movie) .Here, he does whatever is possible in
an underwritten role of a demonic, nasty character. At 53, he was in a
somewhat remarkable physical shape. I know only of one Douglasthe
Fonda was magical. He was always that way; one of the ten best American actors ever. Each of his roles is bright with subtlety, with finesse and intelligence. It was finesse over vigor. Some other actors were maybe as artistically intelligent as himbut never subtler.
The actors, maybe even the idea needed another, tighter, tauter script. As such, the movie is shapeless and uninspired.
The direction for this film owes it's life to Joseph L. Mankiewicz who guides this clever Western movie to it's eventual and Classic end. It's a great story dealing with the weakness in every man. " There was a Crooked Man " also deals with Life's opportunity for good and evil. The story centers it's sights on Paris Pitman (Kirk Douglas), Jr. a thieving conniving, unscrupulous con and sneaky gunman who is fortunately sent to a territorial prison where he collects a motley group of Convicts whom he persuade to join him in a grand escape. While at the prison, he is watched by Woodward W. Lopeman (Henry Fonda) the new prison warden who suspects that Pitman is much too clever to remain behind bars without attempting to escape. The movie is well directed and the prison convicts are notable actors which are a who's-who of talented Thespians who are easily recognizable. They include Hume Cronyn, Warren Oates, Burgess Meredith, John Randolph, Arthur O'Connell, Martin Gabel, Alan Hale Jr. and Victor French. Together they create a story which is interesting and well worth the title of Classic. Easily enjoyed and hardily recommended. ****
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