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)┬áthat 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 Last Sunset (1961)

the_last_sunset_-_film_posterA Hollywood legend, Kirk Douglas wasn’t one to follow the beaten path during his career. He marched to his own drums, sticking to his beliefs and doing what he wanted, not what Hollywood necessarily wanted. Even though writer Dalton Trumbo had been blacklisted, Douglas chose Trumbo to write the screenplay for Spartacus in 1960. It started a streak of three movies where the duo worked together, continuing next a year later with 1961’s The Last Sunset.

Riding deep into the Mexican countryside, Bren O’Malley (Douglas), a gambler and gunfighter, is on the run, but he knows where he’s going. He rides to an isolated ranch where he finds a beautiful woman, Belle (Dorothy Malone), from his past. He fully intends to get back together with her…but she’s married. O’Malley isn’t alone though. A sheriff, Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson), is on his trail for a murder he’s suspected of. Stribling finally catches up with O’Malley, but the duo make an unlikely deal. Belle’s husband (Joseph Cotten) is driving a herd of cattle north to Texas. For vastly different reasons — Bren wants Belle, Dana wants justice — both men agree to help drive the herd north, their confrontation awaiting at the end of the trail. Bandits, killers, Indians and betrayals may have something to say about that.

What an odd, interesting, flawed western from director Robert Aldrich. I saw ‘Sunset’ for the last time six or seven years ago, revisiting it recently. It’s fascinating. It is a true adult western, avoiding the soap opera tendencies of so many 1950’s westerns while also avoiding going full-on dark, revisionist westerns that became prevalent late in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. It manages to tread the fine line in between, a bit of a loner in the western genre.

Let’s talk nuts and bolts first. ‘Sunset’ is a visual stunner, filmed on-location in Mexico in the vein of Vera Cruz and The Wonderful Country. You feel like you’re there riding north with the herd through the jagged rock-covered mountains and dusty, sand-swept trails. The musical score is understated and has some cool, memorable notes here and there. Aldrich mixes it all together, using some incredibly interesting camera angles. A final shootout is clearly an inspiration for future spaghetti westerns. The visual look pulls you in from the start. As the story proves, this isn’t your typical western. The camerawork and film techniques are just the start.

When I say a ‘true adult western,’ I’m not saying pornographic. I mean adult issues, no-holds barred, no joking around. There is no comic relief, just major personal issues, history and hidden agendas anywhere and everywhere. Its main proponent? The unlikeliest of plot devices; the love triangle! Bren wants Belle back, Belle doesn’t want anything to do with him, Dana wants justice and he wouldn’t mind getting Belle too in the process. It isn’t light and fluffy though obviously. These lives depend on the resolution. Not everyone will make it through that resolution.

The strongest aspect of ‘Sunset’ is the pairing of Douglas and Hudson as the rivals turned unlikely trail partners. Their relationship is cautious to say the least. They’ve agreed to put off their confrontation/showdown until they reach Texas…but what’s keeping your word in a life and death matter? Their scenes together crackle with a simmering intensity. You’re waiting for one or the other to pull a gun, throw a punch, make a decisive move. The key though is how the relationship develops over the course of the drive. It might seem odd where it goes, but the whole dynamic works. Throw in Malone too who more than carries her weight. Three very solid performances, even if Hudson’s Dana seems to fall in love at the drop of a hat.

Also look for Cotten in a scene-stealing (if small) part, Carol Lynley as Belle’s teenage daughter, Regis Toomey as the ranch foreman of sorts, Neville Brand, Jack Elam and James Westmoreland as three treacherous trail hands, and Adam Williams as a sneering gunfighter who knew Cotten.

How about something not often associated with the western genre? Yeah, ‘Sunset’ features a doozy of a plot twist revealed in the last 25 minutes. On second viewing, that twist seems telegraphed from a mile out, but it still doesn’t take away from the impact. Ahead of its time in the actual twist, it makes for incredibly interesting viewing as all these seemingly separate storylines and characters converge. There are some slow moments on the trail getting to that point, but this is an above-average western that deserves more notoriety, more of a reputation. Definitely worth checking out.

The Last Sunset (1961): ***/****

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

gunfight_at_the_o-k-_corral_film_posterAmerican history in the wild west has a handful of instantly recognizable, oft-told stories that the film industry has visited time and time again. Just some include Custer’s Last Stand, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, the Alamo, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and maybe most famous, Wyatt Earp‘s involvement in one of history’s most famous gunfights. Here’s 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

It’s the late 1870s and Marshal Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) is on the trail of several outlaws who he can’t quite catch up with. In Texas, Earp meets Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), a dentist turned gambler who’s dying of tuberculosis. The two become unlikely friends of sorts, each saving the other’s life in a do-or-die situation. Both men seem to be drawn to danger — for different reasons — but always seem to get through unscathed. That luck may be running out as circumstances drive both Earp and Holliday west to the mining town of Tombstone in the Arizona territory where a gang of rustlers, cowboys and gunfighters are a constant threat. All roads lead to a little two-bit corral where everything will be settled.

There aren’t too many directors better suited for a guy’s guy movie like this than John Sturges who would go on to direct The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape in the coming years (among many other action-oriented, male-heavy casts). Sturges (and screenwriter Leon Uris) does a fair job bringing to life one of the American west’s most well-known stories. It is a big film that looks gorgeous, especially the sweeping plains and desert shots. Composer Dmitri Tiomkin turns in a familiar-sounding score that suits the historical story well. Some cool location shooting in Old Tucson especially stands out, especially the actual shootout in the finale.

What surfaces again and again in O.K. Corral westerns is the friendship and the bond between noted peace officer Wyatt Earp and dying gambler Doc Holliday. By far, the performances from Lancaster and Douglas are the best parts of ‘Gunfight.’ Lancaster as Earp — sans mustache — is steadfast, stubborn, loyal and an incredibly capable man who lives by his word. Dying of tuberculosis, Douglas’s Holliday is living one day at a time in hard-drinking fashion. Through their many differences, the two men find they also have many similarities. Their chemistry is smooth sailing throughout. Douglas is an intense scene-stealer as Holliday, even if the character isn’t too much like the real-life dentist-turned-gambler.

The lead performances are solid, but still not enough to rescue a western that has glacial pacing early. At 122 minutes, ‘Gunfight’ is slow to say the least. It takes 73 minutes for Wyatt and Doc to even reach Tombstone. Getting there is an episodic story that has some potential but typically gets bogged down too much. Go figure, there’s unnecessary love interests, Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet), Doc’s girlfriend with who he has a less than stable relationship, and Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), a beautiful gambler who catches Wyatt’s eye. Taking the movie as a whole, there’s little historical truth to anything. Yes, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were in Tombstone, there was a gunfight at the O.K. Corral…and yeah, that’s about it.

One of Sturges’ specialties as a director was leading the way for male-dominated casts, like Great Escape and Mag7 among others. The star power isn’t huge here, but western fans will appreciate the depth of familiar faces you’ll see. John Ireland plays quick-on-the-draw gunfighter Johnny Ringo while baddie Lyle Bettger plays the slimy Ike Clanton. Also look for Dennis Hopper, Frank Faylen, and Jack Elam as other members of the Clanton gang. The underused Earp brothers include DeForest Kelly, Martin Milner and John Hudson. There’s also supporting parts for Earl Holliman, Ted de Corsia, Whit Bissell, Kenneth Tobey, Lee Van Cleef and Olive Carey.

Now how about that titular gunfight? In a movie that’s generally light on action and gunplay in general, the showdown at the O.K. Corral runs about 5 minutes — about 4 minutes and 30 seconds longer than the real gunfight — and packs quite a punch. Again, the history is garbage relative to the real event, but as a cinematic gunfight, it is pretty exciting. A mixed bag in the end with a fair share of positives and negatives mixed in one bag. Western fans will definitely get some enjoyment out of it, if for nothing else than the casting of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

Also worth checking out? The very catchy, whistle-worthy theme song sung by Frankie Laine which you can listen to HERE. Listen to the soundtrack itself HERE.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957): ** 1/2 /****