The western is, perhaps, the most malleable and everlasting American film genre. Though it has certainly been in decline for the last few decades, every few years a new western comes out proving that it is at least not dead. Whether it be Clint Eastwood laying his history in the genre to waste in The Unforgiven, the Coen Brothers remaking the classic John Wayne film True Grit, or Ang Lee making a gay cowboy movie with Brokeback Mountain, the western still (at least periodically) has something to say.
It might not say as much these days but for decades (around 1930 through the 1960s) it was one of the prominent genres in film and television. As the genre began to die down in the ’60s, it began to morph and change into what we now call revisionist westerns. These are films like the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, films that took the conventions of the genre and subverted them, turning them into something modern. Their heroes weren’t always dressed in white and they didn’t always have upstanding morals. The themes were murkier and less straightforward. By this point, the production code was breaking down as well and westerns became more violent, sexier, and gritty.
In 1970, Joseph L. Mankiewicz put his directorial hands on the western (his first and last time to do so) with There Was a Crooked Man… from a script by David Newman and Robert Benton (who had just written Bonnie and Clyde, another revisionist take on a genre). But unlike Arthur Penn who seems to have completely understood what Newman and Benton were going for with Bonnie and Clyde, Mankiewicz seems completely befuddled. The tone of this film is so off-kilter, so all over the place, one wonders if it wasn’t made by two or three directors.
Kirk Douglas stars as Paris Pitman, Jr. a self-proclaimed son of a bitch who we first see robbing a rich family in their home with his gang of thieves. When a shoot-out soon follows, he sits back letting the action take place without him. Instead, he watches as his comrades fall then shoots the last man in the back and takes the loot for himself. Hiding the cash in a rattlesnake pit, he makes his way to a whorehouse where he’s spotted by the man he just robbed.
Convicted to serve many years of hard labor, Paris finds himself at an isolated prison miles away from the nearest town. This is now the point where I admit that after writing several paragraphs about westerns this film is more of a prison drama than an out-and-out western, though there is still plenty of that genre trappings to be found. It is in prison where he meets the rest of our cast of characters (though we have met most of them in quick introductions prior to this moment).
When the previous, (brutal, corrupt) warden is killed during a prisoner uprising, Sheriff Woodward W. Lopeman (Henry Fonda) takes his place. He’s a gentle, kind man (his introduction involves him laying his own weapon on a table in order to convince a criminal to put his own gun down and getting shot for his trouble) who has progressive ideas on how a prison should be run.
Though ostensibly at odds, the two form something of a partnership with Lopeman needing Paris to lead the men towards his new ideas of reform and Paris hoping to convince Lopeman to let him out early for a cut of the stolen loot. Lopeman stops the process of having the men to do hard labor in the rock quarry and instead gets them to refurbish the solitary confinement cells, build a new dining hall, and even paint some pictures to make the place more homely. Paris convinces the men to go along with whatever project Lopeman has for them. When Lopeman refuses to even consider helping Paris get out early, the convict continues to put on a smiling face but slowly convinces his cellmates to help with an elaborate escape plan.
It is as much as a hang-out picture as it is a western or a prison film. Mankiewicz gives the film plenty of time with its characters, watching them work, play, and talk. The style is laid back with a lot of broad comedy mixed with not particularly intense melodrama. The results are mixed.
The characters (and the actors who portray them) are interesting across the board. It is always fun to see Alan Hale, Jr. outside of Gilligan’s Island. Here, he plays a jovial prison guard. Burgess Meredith is The Missouri Kid, a worn-down, old man who has been in prison so long he doesn’t want to get out. Hume Cronyn and John Randolph are a couple of con artists whose gay relationship is surprisingly intimate for a film made in 1970. Douglas is too likable an actor and his performance is too light for a character that is supposed to be as dark and cut-throat as Paris is on the page. To see an actor full of warmth and charm realistically portraying a character with a black heart look no further than Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in The West. For his part, Fonda is convincing as the Sheriff who truly believes in reform, though we really aren’t given enough of who he is to make his role a weighty as it really ought to be.
This really gets to the heart of how this film falls apart. The script is working on too many levels to be convincing on any of them. And Mankiewicz doesn’t seem to understand any part of what it’s trying to do. His direction is stuck in classic Hollywood mode while the script is full of New Hollywood style. It is at times broadly comedic with jokes about how Burgess Meredith’s character hasn’t taken a bath since he got there, or how the rich guy who got robbed has a peeping fetish. There is a scene during a prison riot in which a woman screams in a panic at the mayhem and loses an article of clothing every time the camera cuts to her. She is likely raped and possibly murdered but beyond the gag of her undressing, she’s not heard from again.
At other times, it is satirical, using the conventions of the genre to run some social commentary. Early in the film, we see a black maid putting on her bandana headdress. She is clearly exhausted and unhappy, but then she grabs a plate of chicken, puts on a smile, and makes “mmm-mmm” noises as she walks into the kitchen to serve her white masters. The film has quite a lot to say about prison reform and how a man never drifts too far from who he really is, but most of it is lost in the mish-mash of tone and style.
It is all but saved by its cast who are easy to enjoy interacting with each other and charming in their star power. That’s enough to keep you watching, but not nearly enough to make you glad that you did when it’s all over.
Warner Archive presents There Was a Crooked Man… in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with a nice looking HD transfer. Extras include the film’s trailer and an archival featurette about the film.