I really wanted to like There Was a Crooked Man… Joseph Mankiewicz’s second-to-last film (before he closed on a masterpiece: Sleuth) stars Kirk Douglas opposite Henry Fonda in a ’70s Western that doesn’t purport to Spaghetti influences.
Unfortunately, the film falls really flat. One of the major problems is Douglas’ Paris Pitman, Jr, a conman scheming a way out of prison. Paris is just so arrogant. Douglas flashes that old winning smile-
-but unlike in other films (like, say, Ace in the Hole) he’s intensely unlikeable. And he’s supposed to be likable for the majority of the film: he plays the underdog leader to a band of misfits. But there are a few problems with his character. First of all, he’s dumb-smart. For example, towards the end, he gets one over on Fonda’s self-righteous Woodward Lopeman, but then takes his sweet old time. It’s close to that frustrating “I’ll tell you my plan before I kill you” type of movie-moment.
More so, though, Pitman is an anti-hero with little complexity. He’s just arrogant, and arrogance is less cinematically forgivable than even violence: it’s too familiar with the everyday.
The other problem with Mankiewicz’s film is that it’s too breezy. On one hand it’s nice to see a Western of the times not take the out-and-out dystopic, dusty, grimy view. On the other hand, the film is too light, particularly for what turns out to be a nice bit of heavy irony at the end. The way it’s shot (pretty sourcy), the music (good god, is the theme song bad), and the quippy delivery throughout all contribute to a wayward mood.
The film, likely because of the year it’s made, is also obsessed with sex and taboo. Two of Pitman’s cellmates, Cyrus (John Randolph) and Dudley (Hume Cronyn in what turns out to be one of my favorite of his roles) are clearly gay. The warden of the prison really, really wants to molest Coy (Michael Blodgett). Dudley draws plenty of nude women to entertain his fellow prisoners. And then there are the gratuitous shots of a naked girl on a pool table, and disturbingly, a scene where a female visitor to the prison has her clothes torn off in a riot…and then is carried off by the violent, lustful crowd.
Ultimately, also, sex is Pitman’s downfall. Mankiewicz and co-writer Robert Benton (who also wrote Bonne & Clyde and would go on to direct Kramer vs. Kramer) are fully in the grip of the changing of the guard from the Production Code to the MPAA system, but it feels nearly exploitive (except in the latter case at the beginning of this paragraph).
Here’s a clip from the very beginning of the film. This scene is both darkly funny and unfortunately true. Mankiewicz plays here with racist stereotypes (in this case of the “mammy” figure). Played by Claudia McNeil – known for Raisin in the Sun, and an Emmy nominee – the unnamed woman in the kitchen tiredly goes about her solo routine before putting on a very fake smile and voice to go into the kitchen and serve the white family for which she works:
She doesn’t even say anything. Just “mmmm mmmm” and laughs. It’s meant to be ridiculous, and it is, though not to far off from many of the real cinematic things.
Mankiewicz then does include a few other minorities in his film, most notably Ah-Ping (C.K. Yang), but goes what seems to be the opposite route of this portrayal depicted in the clip. Ah-Ping is a full on racist stereotype: the stoic Chinese man bowing to the more learned Pitman.