On paper, There Was A Crooked Man… has all the ingredients necessary for a shot at movie greatness: a first rate cast, a pair of screenwriters coming off a breakthrough hit, and a director with many genuinely excellent films to his credit. And yet, despite all of the talent involved, the film never quite comes together the way it should.
The Production: 3/5
There Was A Crooked Man… is a film that is never quite as good as it should be, the type of project that has everything going for it but somehow comes up short. It’s the kind of film where you might read the names on the poster and see Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda at the top, note that David Newman and Robert Benton share screenplay credit, and that it was produced and directed by the legendary Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and you might wonder how it was that you had never heard of it. Or, you might think that surely you must’ve seen it at some point, but can’t figure out why you can’t remember it. The last thing you’d imagine winds up being the thing that’s most true: while nothing in it is particularly offensive to the senses, while nothing in it is particularly wrong, there’s nothing in it that works particularly well either. Its pedigree sets up expectations of something on par with similar films from the same period like Support Your Local Sheriff or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but the reality is closer to more forgettable works like The Train Robbers or Fools’ Parade. With that said, those films have always had their fans, and if you’ve always liked There Was A Crooked Man…, there’s no reason you’d stop liking it now, but this is not a film ripe for rediscovery.
A bespectacled Kirk Douglas plays Paris Pitman, Jr., a man who pulls off a half million dollar robbery by interrupting what looks to be a phenomenal fried chicken dinner. The law catches up to Pitman, but not before he has a chance to bury the money. When he lands in an Arizona prison, it doesn’t take long for him to work out a deal with the corrupt warden to trade some of that buried treasure for his freedom, but before Pitman can get out, the warden is killed by the other inmates. His replacement comes in the form of Sheriff Woodward W. Lopeman (a subdued and bearded Henry Fonda), whose greatest ambition is to run the prison honorably, about the worst possible scenario for Pitman. Biding his time with his fellow prisoners (including welcome turns from Hume Cronyn, Warren Oates and Burgess Meredith), Pitman bides his time, scheming, waiting for his moment to come.
The premise is solid and all of the ingredients for a great film are there, but unfortunately, the execution is muddled. To begin with, the two leads are never properly utilized. Kirk Douglas had many skills as an actor; he could play equally well a man you’d love to call your friend as he could someone you wouldn’t stand to know but can’t take your eyes off of on the screen, but here, he spends most of his time winking and nodding rather than actually building a character. Henry Fonda was capable of playing anything, but his blue eyes and sympathetic face made him one of the all time greats when it came to radiating decency onscreen. It’s a shame that the script doesn’t allow him the opportunity to do much more than to stand around, radiating to himself off in a corner. Any chance to see Douglas and Fonda together should be a gift from the cinema gods, but in their (surprisingly few) scenes together, there’s almost nothing happening. Some of that blame must reside with the screenwriters Newman and Benton, who seem to have come up with a good outline for a film and stopped there.
The filmmaking style seems at odds with the story being told. The cinematography (by the reliable Harry Stradling Jr.), the score (by Charles Strouse) and editing (by Gene Milford) seem almost too modern, evoking a look and feel far closer to the year the film was shot (1970) than the year it was set (1883). Strouse’s score is particularly egregious in that regard, always bringing the viewer back to present day rather than helping create immersion within the film’s setting. Milford’s editing works against the film, keeping the proceedings moving at a crawl which more often than not deadens the humor.
But much of the blame must be placed at the feet of producer/director Mankiewicz, who seems uncomfortable within the two genres the film is purported to be: comedy and western. The techniques which served him so well in melodramas like All About Eve fail him here. His instinct to let scenes go long result in a bloated film that at times seems to be running in slow motion. Cut down to 90 minutes or so, this could have been a fun and snappy comedy that, even if it weren’t a film for the ages, could offer an evening of delight. (Look no further than another film from Fonda’s western filmography, The Rounders, for an example of how to take a thin premise and make it sing with delight.) But with a runtime of 123 minutes, everything in There Was A Crooked Man… comes across as labored, with punchlines telegraphed well in advance of their eventual arrival. Mankiewicz also seems strangely uninterested in exploiting the western scenery that makes other films in the genre so successful at transporting an audience out of their seats and into another time.
There Was A Crooked Man… isn’t a disaster, by any means; it might have been more interesting if it had been. Instead, it’s just an indifferent film, one that doesn’t seem to have a particularly strong reason for existing. In a sense, that’s the greater sin, to have talents like Douglas, Fonda and Mankiewicz putting their efforts into something so forgettable. A straight up bad movie from these guys might’ve been more fun.
3D Rating: NA
Whatever one thinks of the film itself, there is absolutely no fault to be found in Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray edition of There Was A Crooked Man…. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the new transfer here looks spectacular. Colors appear accurate and natural, while fine detail is in abundance with film grain light and unobtrusive. There does not appear to be any untoward digital manipulation to the image, which is perfectly clean and rock steady. You’d be forgiven if you thought you were watching the very first screening of a brand new print at the premiere.
Every bit the equal of the film’s visual presentation, the monaural soundtrack (presented via a lossless DTD-HD MA 2.0 encoding) is perfect for what it is. The track is well mixed, with dialogue easily discernible at all times. Though Charles Strouse’s score often seems out of another film entirely, it is reproduced here with exceptional clarity. There are no issues with hiss or any other age related defects.
Special Features: 2/5
Theatrical Trailer (3:02) – Presented in high definition, the trailer succeeds at making the film look more fun than it actually is.
On Location with There Was A Crooked Man… (10:25) – This vintage featurette, presented in standard definition, is a typical bit of studio promotion from the era, offering a day in the life on the set through the eyes of co-star Michael Blodgett.
There Was A Crooked Man… has its flaws as a film, but Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray is faultless. Supplements are light, but offer a window into how the film was originally marketed to audiences. With an immaculate audio and video presentation, fans of the film will be overjoyed to see it looking and sounding as good as it does, though newcomers might wonder what the fuss is about.
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