Kirk Douglas just turned 101 this past December. Douglas hasn’t worked in film in years, but pick a film of his and sit back and enjoy. He could play a noble, heroic character and then turn around and play a roguish villain, or often times somewhere in between. In a movie that bizarrely works in spite of some odd style choices, Douglas steals the show as a charming criminal in 1970’s There Was a Crooked Man.
After a successful robbery nets him more than $500,000, outlaw Paris Pitman Jr. (Douglas) is caught not too long after the robbery in a whorehouse. He’s only caught after hiding his massive haul though, but he refuses to give it up. Paris receives a 10-year sentence and is sent off to the territorial prison isolated in the middle of the desert. Figuring out the lay of the land (along with meeting his fellow inmates), Paris begins to plot his escape. The catch? Just about everyone knows he’s trying to bust out to get his money. A new warden, Lopeman (Henry Fonda), sees Paris in a different way. Looking to rehab prisoners rather than punish them, Lopeman thinks Paris can help the cause. Who blinks first?
What a weird western. As westerns tried to figure out what they were as a genre, ‘Crooked’ came along and chose just to go for it. First off, it is director Joseph Mankiewicz‘s only career western. Quite a departure from his usual films. Next, it tries to be equal parts folksy, comedic, dark and slapstick. There are sex jokes, plenty of nudity (male and female, including Douglas), odd slapstick scenes during a prison riot, poorly timed jokes, and a pretty awful theme song from Trini Lopez (listen HERE) that tries to play like a dark western fairy tale. Seems like a gimme, right? Aaaaaaaaand…..twist! It’s really odd and weird and very good!
The weirdness is held together by a cast that is clearly having a lot of fun, embracing all that weirdness! It starts at the top with Kirk Douglas, perfecting that roguish bad guy who can’t help but disarm everyone around him with that too perfect smile. Favoring some bright red hair and a pair of spectacles, Douglas’ Paris is able to manipulate anyone and everyone around him to get what he needs. As bad as he is, you can’t help but like him (at least a little bit). His scenes with Fonda are excellent, Fonda a new-age warden who wants the best for his prisoners. It sure takes him a while though to see through Paris’ scheming facade. Put 2 Hollywood legends together, and let them do their thing. They co-starred in 1965’s In Harm’s Way, but it’s cool to see them share some more screentime here.
‘Crooked’ boasts a pretty impressive supporting cast from top-to-bottom. Paris’ cellmates include Dudley (Hume Cronyn) and Cyrus (John Randolph), two older gay con men, Floyd Moon (Warren Oates), an antisocial outlaw, the Missouri Kid (Burgess Meredith), an aging bank robber who’s become used to prison life, Coy (Michael Blodgett), a naive youngster sentenced to hang for murder, and Ah-Ping (Olympic decathlete C.K. Yang), a Chinaman who murdered his boss on the rail gang. Cronyn and Randolph are a scream together, the duo stealing scenes right and left. Meredith does the same, a smaller part but a worthwhile one. And Oates is excellent, underplaying his part as gunfighter Floyd Moon who believes he’s found a friend in Paris. An eclectic, quirky group to back up Paris.
Also look for Alan Hale Jr., Victor French, Arthur O’Connell, Lee Grant, Bert Freed and Gene Evans in smaller supporting parts. Throw in a goofy, similarly quirky musical score for some extra oddness. The filming location of the isolated, high-walled rocky prison is a gem. Most of the movie takes place within the walls, the territorial prison becoming an additional character in this oddball western.
What sets ‘Crooked’ apart through the odd tonal shifts and general goofiness is where it ends up. The last half hour of the 123-minute movie has some major surprises in store. Then, when you think the twists are all finished, the final scenes hold a huge twist. It’s not often you watch a western with some worthwhile twists, so take advantage of this one. For all its faults, it’s worth it. ‘Crooked’ is a generally forgotten western, but it is definitely worth a watch, especially with Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda leading the way. No trailer below (for a change) because there’s some really stupid revelations about where the movie ends up, and you don’t need that in your life.
There Was a Crooked Man (1970): ***/****