There Was a Crooked Man… (1970)
“Once upon a time, there was a crooked man. When he was good, he was very, very good. And when he was bad, it was murder…”
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Hume Cronyn
Synopsis: A charming but totally ruthless criminal is sent to a remote Arizona prison. He enlists the help of his cellmates in an escape attempt with the promise of sharing his hidden loot.
The dawn of the 1970s marked the beginning of the end for the Western genre. Hollywood still produced a few big budget entries every now and then, but with the double feature disappearing from cinemas there was no longer any need for those unremarkable but consistently solid B-movie Westerns of the 1950s and 60s. Randy Scott had retired and, while John Wayne was still churning them out at the rate of one or two a year he somehow seemed to just be going through the motions. He didn’t even bother changing his outfit for most of them. Joe Mankiewicz’s There Was a Crooked Man perhaps provides some indication of where the Western went wrong: by trying to relocate the moral wasteland depicted in modern era urban crime thrillers to the historical landscape of the West, Hollywood alienated fans of the Western while failing to entice the fans of pictures set in the modern era into cinemas.
There Was a Crooked Man at least boasts a quality cast, with living legends Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda in the lead roles, supported by Hume Cronyn, Warren Oates, Burgess Meredith, John Randolph, Lee Grant, Arthur O’Connell and Alan Hale Jr. Most of the action takes place in a prison in which Paris Pitman Jr. (Douglas) finds himself incarcerated after stealing $500,000 from a local businessman (Arthur O’Connell). Pitman managed to secrete his ill-gotten booty in a snake-hole before he was arrested, and is keen to be reunited with it. He hatches an escape plan, recruiting his cellmates to aid him in his attempt. However, Woodward W. Lopeman, the prison’s new warden (Fonda), a former sheriff with strong views on penal reform, stands in his way…
The title There Was a Crooked Man is something of a misnomer, as almost everyone in the movie is crooked in one way or another. In the movie’s opening scene we see a black housemaid dejectedly affix her headscarf before serving dinner to the family of the businessman whom Pitman and his gang is about to rob. She pauses at the door to the dining room for a moment and visibly adopts the ’happy mammy’ persona typical in Hollywood movies. Her demeanour is fake, a front, as are the demeanours of most everybody else. Chief deceiver, of course, is Pitman himself, and not only does he succeed in fooling most of the cast, he also manages to con the audience. In a way, this is probably one of the strengths of writers David Newman and Robert Benton’s script – that despite informing us unequivocally in these early scenes that Pitman’s easy-going charm hides a calculating ruthlessness that is quite deadly.
So even the screenplay is crooked, tricking us into believing we’re watching a fairly knockabout comedy-drama while, in fact, we’re watching an entirely different kind of movie altogether. And that’s clever; tt explains to us not only how Pitman’s cellmates could be conned by him, but how easy it is for someone like him to do so. But it also left this reviewer feeling as if the writers were laughing at us when the final reel unfolded, rather than letting us in on the joke. The movie never had a moral anchor, but all of a sudden we’re robbed of any kind of hero – anti- or otherwise. The irony of Pitman’s fate might offer some measure of satisfaction, but Lopeman’s decision to reject his own past is as bleak as it is nihilistic.
(Reviewed 3rd August 2012)