There Was a Crooked Man (1970)

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Time once again for Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, in which fellow blogger Mike’s Take on the Movies and I assign each other films to watch.

Kirk Douglas plays a smooth criminal in the all-star western caper There Was a Crooked Man (1970). He steals half a million dollars and hides it in a rattlesnake den far out in the desert, and then is spotted by his victim while in a bordello–he’s done in by a pair of women’s pantaloons! He’s arrested and with a group of colourful crooks sent to a remote prison. While there, Douglas is beaten and conned by men who want to find out where he hid the money, but he never breaks. He’s resilient and just keeps applying his cool confidence and charm until he wins over the other inmates, gets their help planning an escape, and plants seeds for a revolt that gets the warden killed.  

The new warden (Henry Fonda) is a former sheriff grown weary of crime fighting. He makes prison reform his mission, gets the inmates better treatment and clean conditions, and puts them to work building a new mess hall and prettying up the place with fresh paint and artwork. His effort is so successful that the Governor comes with a large group to see his new and improved prisoners and living conditions, and the day they arrive is the day Douglas plans to break out with his band of merry con-men. crooked2

I loved the cast of this film. Douglas is perfect as the charismatic and ruthless outlaw. Fonda’s character is not developed much and depends mostly on the nobility and idealism Fonda brings with him as an actor. Warren Oates plays a smarter-than-he-looks brute, Olympic athlete C.K. Yang plays a silent but deadly giant. Hume Cronyn and John Randolph play a gay couple who fraud their way through churches collecting donations (Cronyn posed as a disabled artist and in prison specializes in ribald peep show paintings). Michael Blodgett plays a gigolo who becomes the object of guard Bert Freed’s creepy attention, and Burgess Meredith is a longtime inmate and infamous outlaw “The Missouri Kid” who’s resigned himself to life in prison thanks to the comfort of working on his imaginary farm (and real marijuana planter box). Other cast members include Ann Doran, Lee Grant, Arthur O’Connell, Alan Hale Jr., Victor French, Claudia McNeil and Gene Evans.

Crooked Man takes a long time to introduce and involve so many characters but they were all interesting and each got their showcase scene. The mix of dark humour, satire, slapstick, raunch (including topless Jeanne Cooper), un-PC racial jokes, pokes at government corruption and the sweet bro bonding moments, didn’t always work and a lot of it felt forced. The orchestration of the prison breakout and the action was well done, and most of all I loved this cast and the acting. Which leads to the problem I have, and it’s big enough to ruin the movie for me: we get all these likable characters, played by such great talents that they become delightful and lovable, so it hurts to see them betrayed and led to their deaths because they trusted Douglas.

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Douglas fools Fonda into believing he might just be redeemable, and that’s an acceptable part of the story and the character’s hate for the law. But Douglas also tricks his fellow crooks and the viewers into believing he might have a tiny streak of good in him, or at least enough respect for their cooperation to keep up his end of the bargain (not share his money, I never expected that). The way he screws them is downright unforgivable. Yes, you realize Douglas only knows how to deceive, manipulate and look out for himself, and yes his actions might be realistic, but they’re certainly no longer funny, and that’s too massive and tragic a shift away from the comical tone of all the cynicism, con games, gross-out humour and violence up to that point. It helps a bit that Douglas gets some nice comeuppance for his evil, and Fonda a nice reward for his patience.

Now, I picked an oddball one for Mike, it’s not even a movie I like that much, but one to help him complete his Robert Mitchum filmography. I’m curious to see if he likes it so let’s click here to find out.

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12 thoughts on “There Was a Crooked Man (1970)”

  1. I must admit to being saddened somewhat that it didn’t sit well overall with you. I’ve always kind of like this flick and Douglas fooled you. He’s a dirty lowdown rattlesnake. Breaks my heart when Oates realizes it. Fonda wasn’t impressive as I felt his role kind of dull. As you say though, great cast.

    1. Yes it broke my heart too! He’s a world class SOB and was perfectly great at it, don’t get me wrong, I loved the acting in this, but I just wished the other guys that were so likable, could at least live on or go free. I think the tonal shift just didn’t work for me after all the comedy. Still glad I saw it, you can’t beat this amazing cast!

  2. Wrltten by Newman and Benton, who wrote Bonnle and Clyde, speaklng of tonal shlfts. Almost everyone gets the tltle character wrong. The ul tlmate cynlclsm.

      1. lt’s only dlsturblng lf you don’t realze Douglas is the same character thruout. Wantlng thlngs to be nlcer mlsses the polnt. Btw, who’s the tltle refer to?

    1. He is fabulous, I must be clear on that 🙂 if you are a fan of his then it’s a must because he’s great, and my opinion on the ending are just that, everyone else’s mileage may vary.

      1. Neither he nor the movie could’ve ended differently. Not like it’s the first time he played an unreformed heel. This flopped big time, but westerns with stars like Fonda and Douglas were doing that. Amusingly, the original poster is a Peter Max-like psychedelic job.

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