Judge Bill Gibron would definitely walk a crooked mile to revisit this arcane counterculture Western from Hollywood heavyweight Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Once upon a time…
After robbing a local tycoon for $500K, noted con man Paris Pittman (Kirk Douglas, Young Man with a Horn) is captured and sent to the Arizona Territorial Prison. There he meets up with a pair of prissy flim-flam artists, Cyrus (John Randolph, Prizzi's Honor) and Dudley (Hume Cronyn, Cocoon), a young murderer named Coy (Michael Blodget, Catalina Caper), a real red-blooded outlaw (Warren Oates, Stripes), and the long locked-up Missouri Kid (Burgess Meredith, Rocky). Together, they plot to break out of this desert hellhole and split Pittman's money. Unfortunately, a new warden named Woodward Lopeman (Henry Fonda, Once Upon a Time in the West) puts a damper on their plans. Believing in rehabilitation over punishment, he puts the prisoners to work, building a school, hospital, dining hall, and church for the institution. He even tries to befriend Pittman to gain his trust. Sadly, the roguish thief is only interested in escape—and he will even turn on his fellow convicts to guarantee his success. After all, once a Crooked Man, always a crooked man…or so the saying goes.
Helmed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, four-time Academy Award winning writer/director of such cinematic classics as All About Eve and Suddenly Last Summer, There Was a Crooked Man is a very well-done, slightly underwhelming motion-picture fusion. Attempting to combine social commentary (counterculture criminals vs. the penitentiary Establishment), old-fashioned Wild West stereotypes, and just a smattering of sophisticated comedy, it's an amazing mishmash of concepts and conceits, a film that trifles with our narrative expectations to simultaneously embrace and deconstruct the heroes-and-villains hierarchy. Managing the occasionally frantic script by the Bonnie and Clyde team of David Newman and Robert Benton, Mankiewicz gives his incredible cast room to breathe, to expand and elevate their characters beyond the basics written on the page. Quite daring for its time (there are numerous references to homosexuality and racial intolerance) and devoid of the self-winking irony that seems to scuttle most post-modern genre creations, this is expert filmmaking on a very high, very creative level. If some of it doesn't work or loses its focus along the way, it's not the performers at fault. Indeed, only time and certain outdated tendencies keep There Was a Crooked Man from becoming a classic.
Let's address these negative elements first. The music by Charles Strouse, another Bonnie and Clyde alumnus, is absolutely horrible. It sounds like outtakes from a Partridge Family album of songs from Disney's The Barefoot Executive. All the horns, jangling guitars, and pop-song signatures grow tiresome, failing to elevate the often operatic nature of the storyline. Indeed, one can easily imagine Ennio Morricone or Elmer Bernstein giving the film the strong aural foundation it requires. In addition, the movie is overloaded with star power, some of it so jarring that it takes us out of the drama. In this case, it's not fully the film's fault. Who could have predicted the cultural iconography that would surround Burgess Meredith, Alan Hale, Warren Oates, Hume Cronyn, Victor French, Michael Blodget, or John Randolph at the time? Today, these well-known performers stand out for their own unique importance to the art form, in many ways equal to the contributions of stars Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda. Seeing them in supporting roles, routinely shoved aside so that the marquee names have space to showboat, can be quite distracting. Indeed, part of the fun inherent in There Was a Crooked Man is imagining Cronyn as a gay artist, Hale as a tobacco-chewing prison guard, or Oates as a lightly lily-livered cold-blooded killer.
Indeed, the whole point of There Was a Crooked Man seems to suggest the reversing of type and the contradiction of character. Douglas is a cad, but he seems to have a far more compassionate, cosmopolitan outlook on life than most of his brothers in lawlessness. Similarly, Fonda's wounded sheriff, a "by the book" official who also harbors some odd thoughts about rehabilitation and recidivism, appears to be hiding a darker side behind his sensible, sensitive demeanor. It's the same with all the personalities presented—Meredith's meek murderer, Cronyn's and Randolph's miserable married couple routine. Each one gets tweaked and complicated, making the basic plot points (a jailbreak and how it's done) seem all the more substantive. True, each personality here walks a thin line between clever and cloying, ingratiating and aggravating, but Mankiewicz manages to keep it together. Thanks to his use of a broad desert vista, an atmosphere of sweat and stink, and the full gamut of male machismo (there are only a couple of women seen in the entire two-hour running time), the director divides There Was a Crooked Man into individual movements. Indeed, the story moves from crime, to time, to metaphysical punishment. With its numerous twists and turns, and its desire to mock everything such a movie stands for while embracing the conventions of the "who can you trust" thriller, this is the kind of film that keeps you on your toes, guessing what will happen to whom right up to the very last frame.
Thanks to an excellent technical treatment from Warner Brothers, There Was a Crooked Man looks great on this, its first time on DVD. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen looks bright and vibrant, the colors shimmering and the attention to detail dynamic. Sonically, the film is still featured in its own Dolby Digital Mono format. No new mix has been offered, but that really doesn't matter. Crouse's lousy score aside, the dialogue and other aural elements come across loud and clear. As for bonus features, the only added content is a quick 10-minute Behind-the-Scenes featurette, filmed during the making of the movie, called "On Location with There Was a Crooked Man." Highlights include shots of Mankiewicz making decisions, cast members practicing their Western skills, and workmen building the amazing sets used. It's an obvious studio publicity piece, but it also provides information that we might not otherwise be privy to. It helps flesh out what is an uncompromisingly odd motion picture.
Indeed, There Was a Crooked Man will be a love-it-or-hate-it entity for those brave enough to take on its cinematic challenges. Many may find it mannered and arcane, but if you look beneath its enigmatic elements, you'll discover a wonderfully weird riff on the traditional oater.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Vintage Featurette: "On Location with There Was a Crooked Man..."
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