Friday, June 3, 2011

“There Was a Crooked Man…” (1970)

          The prospect of venerable studio-era director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) collaborating with brash New Hollywood screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman (Bonnie and Clyde) raises curiosity about “There Was a Crooked Man…”, a Western comedy-drama centered around a brutal prison from which convicts conspire to break out so they can recover a cache of hidden loot. Unfortunately, the movie’s narrative is as fussy as its excessively punctuated title—the picture is a sloppy hodgepodge aspiring to run the stylistic gamut from adrenalized drama to insouciant comedy.
          One suspects that protagonist Paris Pitman Jr. (Kirk Douglas) was envisioned as a charming rogue, and Douglas certainly tries to sell the idea that his character is a heartless criminal whom we’ll find interesting because he does everything with a wink and a smile. But unlike the crooks in other Benton-Newman scripts, who evince believable complexity and vulnerability, Pitman comes across as a Hollywood contrivance, partially because Douglas brings so much movie-star baggage, and partially because Mankiewicz can’t decide from scene to scene whether the movie is dark, light, or some nebulous thing in between. The picture is shot in a blown-out, garish style that makes every image seem artificial; the cast is loaded with familiar character actors (Hume Cronyn, Burgess Meredith, Warren Oates, John Randolph), all of whom play silly caricatures; and the cringe-worthy music by Charles Strouse, complete with an awful title song performed by Trini Lopez, brings the movie close to camp.
          Worst of all, the story itself is convoluted and dull. It begins when Pitman robs a rich man for half a million dollars in cash, then buries the money in a desert rattlesnake pit. After Pitman is captured and imprisoned, assorted characters try to find out where the money is hidden, and Pitman builds a team of eccentric convicts so he can stage an elaborate breakout. Meanwhile, a relentless lawman (played by a bored-looking Henry Fonda) chases after Pitman for personal reasons.
          The narrative is such an anything-goes jumble that at one point, Cronyn literally does a slapstick routine by backing toward a hot stove before jumping up and down while shouting, “My heinie is on fire!” Veering completely to the other extreme, a studly inmate played by Michael Blodgett (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) gets strapped to a pole, shirtless, and whipped for rebuffing the homosexual advances of a guard. Given the presence of that sort of material, it’s possible there was some sort of satirical purpose to the original Benton-Newman script, but as cluelessly directed by Mankiewicz (who couldn’t be further outside his comfort zone of tense verbal jousting), “There Was a Crooked Man…” has no discernible purpose except befuddling viewers.

“There Was a Crooked Man…”: LAME

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