There Was a Crooked Man (1970)

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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): ***/****

 

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The Hangman

the_hangman_posterGrowing up, I wasn’t always a fan of Robert Taylor movies. As I look
back now, I figure it’s because I just didn’t see many of his movies.
I was too busy with John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood
flicks. I’ve caught up though in the years since and have definitely
come to appreciate Taylor, especially in his western and war movies.
He gives an interesting turn in a flawed 1959 western, The Hangman.

After several years and hundreds of miles on the trail, Marshal
Mackenzie Bovard (Taylor) has put all but one member of a gang behind
bars from a notorious stagecoach robbery. His last man? Johnny
Butterfield, a former cavalry trooper who Bovard can’t identify. How
do you arrest a man you’re not sure what he looks like? His leads have
led him to an isolated town when he finds out a woman, Selah Jennison
(Tina Louise), who worked at the outpost Butterfield served at, may
know what Butterfield looks like. Offering her a large reward and
telling her where to meet, Bovard heads off looking to close the book
on the case and retire as a successful peace officer and move to
California.

This western from director Michael Curtiz aired recently on Encore
Westerns. I’d never heard of it – much less seen it – so I gave it a
shot. Filmed in black and white, ‘Hangman’ doesn’t have much in the
way of action (there’s basically NO action), and the majority of the
story is set in a town. In several ways, it reminded me of an extended
TV western, a la Bonanza, Gunsmoke or The Rifleman meets The Twilight
Zone. It surely is not a traditional western which isn’t a
deal-breaker in itself. The deal-breaker? Slow pacing, kinda dull and
an odd tone at times.

What drew me in here was the casting. Taylor, Louise, Fess Parker and
Jack Lord headline the cast. How’s that for an eclectic quartet?
Taylor gets the archetypal western peace officer, looking to retire
and close out his career by getting the stagecoach rivalry off the
books. Louise proves what a great actress she was, even though she’s
remembered almost solely for playing Ginger on Gilligan’s Island.
Parker is solid too as amiable Sheriff Buck Weston, potentially
hurting and helping Bovard’s case. Lord plays Johnny Bishop, a mule driver who Bovard believes is the man he’s looking for.

It’s four main characters that never quite click because of that too
slow-moving story. The potential is there, and I especially liked the
build-up over the first 30 minutes. The last hour though drags once
Bovard arrives in town. Then we get a kinda cat-and-mouse game that
feels repetitive at best and downright dull at its worst. Then there’s
the shifts in tone to comedy – an older woman in town constantly
pursues Taylor’s Bovard – and an ending that (to me at least) feels
like a romantic comedy that could have starred Rock Hudson and Doris
Day. By the time ‘The End” popped up on-screen I was both extremely
pleased and extremely confused. So be it.

Also look for Gene Evans, Mickey Shaughnessy, Jose Gonzales-Gonzales,
and Lorne Green. Fans of The Andy Griffith Show should watch out for
Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn) as a waitress who serves Bovard and Weston.

Not an awful western, but one I didn’t enjoy that much. The biggest
thing going for the proceedings is Tina Louise, a strong female
character, something all too rare in the western genre. A budding sex
symbol, ‘Hangman’ has its fair share of Louise in low-cut, no-cut,
swimming shots to play up the sex kitten status – never a bad thing,
have you seen her?!? – but the character itself is a welcome addition
to the story, even if things fall apart in the end.

The Hangman (1959): **/****

Apache Uprising

220px-apache_uprising_posterIs the name A.C. Lyles familiar, western fans? It might ring a bell if you watch enough of the genre. A producer who dealt with typically low budget B-westerns, Lyle isn’t exactly a household name. Some of those efforts — there’s 12 by my count — are pretty decent, like 1965’s Black Spurs, and then…well there’s the not so good efforts, like 1965’s Apache Uprising.

Riding to the town of Lordsburg, drifter Jim Walker (Rory Calhoun) and frontiersman Bill Gibson (Arthur Hunnicutt) barely make it out of a gun battle with Apache warriors. They join up with a cavalry patrol in the area and make it to Lordsburg with the news of the Apache uprising. No one quite believes them, leaving the duo high and dry. They find themselves on an outgoing stagecoach headed for Apache Wells. If Apache warriors are on the warpath, they will no doubt run into some trouble along the way. Jim, Bill and Co. can’t know what’s coming though as a gentlemanly gambler, Vance Buckner (John Russell), intends to rob the stage of its hidden, important treasure.

Seems innocent enough, right? These A.C. Lyles-produced westerns used the same sets, familiar storylines (some would say copied) and the same cast members popping up in multiple movies. Nothing wrong with low budget B-movies, but this was simply not very good. At 90ish minutes, it creaks along without any real regard for the script that was supposedly out there. The high point unfortunately was actually the musical score from composer Jimmie Haskell which seems really familiar, but I can’t place from where.

Well, the cast has some fun with it. Calhoun does a part he could do with his eyes closed, a roguish anti-hero who actually isn’t such a bad guy. His partnership/friendship with Hunnicutt’s Bill, a hard-drinking frontiersman who’s lived with Indians for years, is also pretty solid in typical buddy dynamics. Russell (TV’s Lawman) is also having some fun as Vance, the duded-up gentleman gambler with a mean streak who has a plan to rob the coach. His henchmen are Star Trek’s DeForest Kelly as the unhinged gunhand, Toby Joe (a bad guy because his name is Toby Joe), and dimwitted horndog, Jesse (Gene Evans).

Also look for horror fixture Lon Chaney Jr. as another hard-drinking stagecoach driver, Corinne Calvet for a scandalous woman with a past –an overdone, monologue-driven past — who just might have feelings for Walker, Richard Arlen and Roy Jenson as cavalry troopers, and Robert H. Harris as the director of the stagecoach line who’s got a bug up his butt.

Just too disjointed to be good. Touches of countless westerns — most noticeably Stagecoach — are on display, but never in an interesting or even unique way. The story bounces from scene to scene with little to no unifying link. As for the action, what’s there is okay, but there isn’t enough. The ending limps to the finish, wrapping up a disappointing western.

Apache Uprising (1965): */****