As far as forgotten Westerns are concerned, There Was A Crooked Man (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1970) is one of my favorites. Upon its initial release critics plastered the film as “cynical” and it quickly sank during the Christmas box office season. The film practically vanished from the public consciousness and only saw the light of day during those wasteland hours on late night/early morning cable television. Warner Brothers finally put the DVD out in 2006 to little or no fan response. My job here is to get all you cineAWESEOME! fanatics to fire up your Netflix queues and pop this gem straight to the top.
The film is bristling with winks and whimsy, but it’s probably too free with its sexuality and splashing red squibs to be considered a Comedy Western. Phew. I know what you’re thinking, “Comedy Westerns!?!?! The Most Annoying Sub Genre Ever!”(Blazing Saddles & Three Amigos aside). However, There Was A Crooked Man is more goofy or odd than comical, and it succeeds due to the script’s reliance on Kirk Douglas’ self-proclaimed son of a bitch. (Now, prepare yourself for a typically hyperbolic but honest declaration). Douglas and his amazing mane of perfectly slick red hair is more charming here as the outlaw Paris Pittman than anywhere else in his cannon, but that’s probably because there is a real bastard demon hiding behind his pearly smile. The man is a huggable monster.
After stealing half a million dollars over a plate of crackling fried chicken, Douglas winds up under the thumb of the law thanks to a man with a distraught parrot and a brothel with one too many peepholes. He’s confined to a territorial prison under the psycho-babel guidance of warden Henry Fonda, who avoids the bottle in the same fashion as he avoids a gunfight. There is a sense of piety to his struggles with the convicts, but only enough to uncover an inevitable moral hypocrisy. The role might be a step back from the villainy exposed in Once Upon A Time In The West (Sergio Leone, 1968), but the do-gooder moral high ground of Cowboys past is gone. Fonda might not slither is these shades of grey, but he most definitely quakes.
As with most prison films, Douglas is jailed with all the right (or wrong) cellmates. The Missouri Kid, a once famous train robber, has been rotting away behind bars for decades and Burges Meredith plays him fantastically grumbly with hate and disdain for the naïve breakout schemes. The hanged-man-in-waiting, Michael Blodgett might look a little too disco for the Arizona desert, but he’s neatly balanced with Warren Oates’s drippy gross drunk who seems essential for all cowboy pictures of this era. The real standouts however are the couple of “daisies” perfectly inhabited by John Randolph & Hume Cronyn. They do the typical bickering married couple comedy, but the hangdog Cronyn supplies the heart of the film and he’s the most sensible fool in the climactic fog of gunsmoke. These guys are most definitely not The Wild Bunch, but they’re the right diversion for Kirk Douglas rootable rogue. After all what are the chances he will allow a five way split for his loot? Good luck guys.
The flashes of male backsides and composer Charles Strouse’s fairy tale flute might appear to offer a humorous platform for shenanigans, but as Douglas and Fonda come to their mess hall clash and the walls of Helm’s Deep begin to explode it’s hard to see this violence as a lark. But There Was A Crooked Man prospers in its seesawing of tones and there is a joy in discovering the true nature of Kirk Douglas. With his cracking smile and iconic dimple chin the audience will always stand on his side of the law, but they’ll be standing in a rising pool of blood.