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): ***/****

 

Welcome to Hard Times (1967)

welcomehardtimesSome westerns just defy genre conventions, whether intentionally or not. In America’s wild west in the late 1800’s, did everyone carry a gun? Was everyone a hard-boiled killer? It wasn’t all cowboys and Indians, gunfighters, sheriffs and bandits. It’s the rare western that tries to tell a story from the perspective of the normal people, like 1967’s Welcome to Hard Times.

In the isolated, one-street town of Hard Times, the population lives a quietly, lonely life, and then a murderous gunslinger (Aldo Ray) rides into town. Unchecked by anyone willing to stand up to him, he rapes and kills a saloon girl, kills a handful of people, burns several buildings and rides out. In the wreckage of the town, the mayor, Blue (Henry Fonda), decides to rebuild and put the incident in the past. Several survivors agree to stay on and help the rebuild, along with a variety of eclectic strangers who find their way to Hard Times. As they build the town back up though, Blue knows the potential the gunslinger comes back and ravages Hard Times again. Will someone be able to stand up to him this time?

Based on a novel by E.L. Doctorow (a good read), ‘Welcome’ asks an interesting question. Are guns the answer? Basically every western ever says….YES. Sure, characters question themselves, sometimes giving up their guns in the end as they settle down, but to stop bad, you need violence. From director Burt Kennedy, ‘Welcome’ doesn’t seek to give you an answer about the question, but it certainly throws it out there? Sticking relatively close to the Doctorow novel, it is a very literary film, stock characters — the peaceful mayor, the murdering gunslinger, the drifter, the broken woman, and so on — that tries to take a different look at a very familiar genre.

Unfortunately…it’s mishandled. It tackles too much and doesn’t know what it wants to say or how in a 103-minute movie. The first 20 minutes as Ray’s Man from Bodie attacks Hard Times is amazingly uncomfortable, playing out almost like a horror movie. The middle section is like a family western, eclectic, eccentric strangers moving into town, a far lighter tone with some foreboding undertones. The finale? Well, it ain’t pleasant with some surprising twists. But then after all that, the movie ends on an odd note. The story itself is too broad, the tone going up and down like a rollercoaster. It’s not a bad movie, just a potentially good movie that never quite rises to the occasion.

It’s hard to ignore the movie though because of the strong cast. Even in bad-to-okay flicks, Fonda was worth watching, and here’s no exception. His Blue is a former gambler and cowboy, now living peacefully who questions what picking up a gun would accomplish. It’s a fascinating character, far from your typical western hero. Janice Rule is one of the most shrill characters ever as Molly, the saloon girl attacked by the Man from Bodie and holds Blue responsible for the attack and his lack of action. It’s just an awful character with no shred of likability. Ray is an incredible presence as the Man from Bodie, a remorseless killer with no qualms about raping, ravaging and killing.

Also look for the always welcome Keenan Wynn as Zar, a traveling saloon owner who with partner/wife, Adah (Janis Paige), travels with their 3 prostitutes wherever the money takes them. Warren Oates is Leo Jenks, an amiable drifter who’s good with a gun, John Anderson plays dual roles as shopkeeping brothers. Some impressive character actors show up, including Denver Pyle, Paul Fix, Royal Dano, Edgar Buchanan, Elisha Cook, Lon Chaney Jr. and Alan Baxter.

As much of a mixed bag at this western is and the mediocre rating I’m giving it, I’m still recommending it for western fans. The cast is pretty cool, and even if it doesn’t deliver, there is potential galore on-hand. Go for the ride and brace for some of the twists and turns you’ll get as opposed to a more traditional western.

Welcome to Hard Times (1967): **/****

Up Periscope (1959)

up-periscopeWith the premier of Maverick on TV in 1957, star James Garner became a huge star across America. He wasn’t limited to television roles though, quickly transitioning to feature film roles as well. One of his earlier efforts as he rose to fame was a World War II submarine story, 1959’s Up Periscope.

It’s 1942 and the U.S. is beginning to push back against the Japanese in the Pacific. With an invasion of the Marshall and Gilbert Islands forthcoming, a U.S. Navy frogman, Lt. Kenneth Braden (Garner) has been assigned an incredibly dangerous mission. Allied intelligence hasn’t been able to break a key Japanese code so Braden will be a passenger on the USS Barracuda, a submarine led by Commander Paul Stevenson (Edmond O’Brien). The sub will sneak him onto a Japanese-held island where Braden will steal/photograph the code without being discovered. Meanwhile, the sub will wait off-shore until Braden can accomplish the mission. Can he though against nearly impossible odds?

Not remembered as one of the submarine genre classics that came out in waves following WWII, ‘Periscope’ is a solid if not flashy entry that’s worth a watch. Is the mission itself pretty goofy? You bet it is! But it’s exciting and features a strong cast, especially up at the top. Director Gordon Douglas had a string of these movies over the 1950s and 1960s, none of them considered classics but almost all of them damn entertaining.

Garner may always be remembered most for his starring TV roles, notably Maverick and The Rockford Files. To a newer film audience, probably for his key part in The Notebook! As a younger actor, Garner was as steady as they come. The Great Escape is my favorite Garner part, mostly because he makes it look so easy. That’s the case here. Garner’s Braden is cool, underplayed and ready for whatever the mission can throw at him. He’s not GI Joe though either (thankfully), just a capable officer who knows potentially what awaits him (he’s told not to get captured on the Japanese-held island). For lack of a better description, Garner is/was almost always likable on-screen. That’s certainly on display here.

Talk about two underrated actors, Garner and Edmond O’Brien are excellent together. Far from friendly, just two officers trying to do their job. O’Brien’s Stevenson is coming off a patrol that saw one of his crew die, maybe in needlessly cautious fashion. Fresh off the patrol, the crew is less than trusting. The veteran commander has to prove himself, both to himself and to his crew, all while trying to go by the book in a nearly impossible mission. Rock and a hard place for sure. Their chemistry though is excellent, heated and uncomfortable at times but never forced.

Among the crew, Alan Hale Jr. – pre-Gilligan’s Island – is a scene-stealer as Lt. Malone, a fun-loving and long-time ensign who everyone likes. There are also parts for Carleton Carpenter, William Leslie, Richard Bakalyan, Edd Byrnes, Henry Kulky and uncredited parts for Bernie Hamilton and Warren Oates (his first movie role). Slow-going early as we meet Garner’s Braden romancing Andra Martin’s Sally Johnson. Thankfully, there’s a twist in store for this kinda forced love story. Not your typical love story forcibly jammed into a war story!

All the war conventions are there here in ‘Periscope,’ the claustrophobic setting, the tension-ridden encounters with the enemy, both above and below the water, and that all-too familiar ping of the radar echoing through the conning tower. It’s in the last 45 minutes as Braden sneaks onto the island where the movie especially hits its groove. Stevenson and the Barracuda wait at the bottom of the island’s lagoon, their fresh air running out with each passing minute. A bit of a secret agent mixed with a submarine war story. A nice, little mix!

Worth a watch, especially for fans of the WWII, submarine and adventure genre! Also worth mentioning, the score borrows from Max Steiner’s Warner Bros. score from 1945’s Objective, Burma! which would also be sampled 3 years later in Merrill’s Marauders. It’s a good score so it’s definitely not a bad thing.

Up Periscope (1959): ** ½ /****

The Shooting (1966)

shootinghellmanRecognize the name Monte Hellman? If you’re a fan of low-budget, cult classics with some loyal fan bases, Hellman is the director for you. In 1966, Hellman shot two low-budget westerns in back-to-back fashion, Ride in the Whirlwind (flawed but pretty decent) and The Shooting. What’s the verdict? Read on.

A miner at a played-out gold mine in the middle of the desert, Willet Gashade (Warren Oates) returns to find one of his partners dead, one cowering in fear, Coley (Will Hutchins), and quickly discovers his brother has ridden out.  Coley says something happened in town with someone dying, but the story has gaps so Willet isn’t sure what truly occurred. It’s only a day later a woman (Millie Perkins) arrives at their camp offering $1,500 to the two men to travel with her to the town of Kingsley. Suspicious of her unspoken motives, Willet agrees with Coley along for the ride. What are her plans exactly? What is she up to? Willet can’t quite figure it out, but it isn’t long before he realizes a mysterious gunman (Jack Nicholson) is following behind them not too far off.

What an odd little western. Reviews dubbed it hypnotic, apocalyptic, nightmarish and any number of other artsy descriptions. Filmed on a budget of $75,000 with a ridiculously small crew, ‘Shooting’ is definitely an interesting western, just not a good one. Low-budget is rarely a deal-breaker for me, but going for a minimalist, artsy finished product instead never quite comes together unfortunately. I didn’t love Whirlwind, but I definitely liked it more than its filming twin.

There are positives. The minimalist tone works at times. This is a vacant, isolated American west. Little towns sprinkle the landscape, but blink and you’ll miss them. Few people are even there, and those that are there…not the nicest folks. Originally supposed to shoot in Monument Valley, Hellman and producer Roger Corman instead opted for Kanab, Utah. The filming locations are a bright spot, if a bleak, desolate bright spot. I liked that nightmarish story and all its potential but…

That’s all it is. Potential. With a movie that clocks in at just 82 minutes, the pacing is glacial. It…..is…..slow. The mystery is the key because we’re never quite sure what Perkins’ “Woman” character is up to. Sadly, we never truly find out. A violent incident is mentioned, but we don’t find out exactly what happened. The tension and intensity and building sense of doom is palpable, but it does not deliver. I found myself shaking my head at the ending where a casting choice seemed to be made to help the budget. I’m not the quickest person around, but when I’ve gotta research an ending and what the hell happened, that ain’t good. So as usual, my theory rings true. Is the build-up to Christmas more fun or actually opening your presents? I go for the build-up.

‘Shooting’ is undone by any number of things, but for me the biggest culprit – along with the script – is the casting/acting. I’ll watch Oates in anything, and he’s by far the best thing going here. His Willet is a cowboy, a drifter, a miner. He’s a normal guy thrust into an unpleasant situation, an anti-hero for a new type of western. It’s a far-more subdued performance than he usually gave. Why you ask? Perkins delivers one of the most shrill performances I’ve ever seen. I was actively rooting against her from the word ‘go.’ As for Hutchins’ dim-witted Coley, my goodness, what a naïve, annoying, doof of a character. You understand why Oates’ Willett is so upset. He’s got to deal with this dynamic duo throughout.

A young Nicholson is also a bright spot as a duded-up gunfighter just brimming with rage and intimidation. His Billy Spears is horrifically underwritten so we learn little more than that he likes to shoot people and beat them down. That’s the entire movie though. I don’t need everything spelled out, but something spelled out at all would be lovely.

A stinker. Steer clear.

The Shooting (1966): * ½ /****