Thursday, February 12, 2009


Beware those colorful rogues

By Edward Copeland
As I mentioned yesterday in my tribute to Joseph L. Mankiewicz, There Was a Crooked Man proved to be such a pleasant surprise that I decided to give it a more thorough write-up. While Sleuth was competently directed, it was never one of my favorite films, but Mankiewicz's penultimate film shows that the director still had his skills in the twilight of his career.

Kirk Douglas stars as Paris Pitman Jr., a post-Civil War scoundrel, robbing wherever he can, but doing so with charm and aplomb. The film is a dark comic Western and the first screenplay by Robert Benton and David Newman following Bonnie and Clyde. In many respects, it shares a similar tone with that film, particularly in the opening sequences which create a sort of picaresque version of a Western to introduce all the characters before they are all ensconced in the same location.

The movie's tone is even set by its bouncy credit sequence, which includes a title song by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (the songwriters of Bye Bye Birdie) and sung by Trini Lopez.

We open as Paris and his band of masked marauders, in the most polite way possible, intrude upon a wealthy man (Arthur O'Connell) and his family during dinner and proceed to steal his fortune. Not wanting to be perceived as rude, Paris goes ahead and serves the fried chicken while it is hot as his cohorts scoop up the bounty. Unfortunately, as they make their escape, Paris' entire gang is gunned down, leaving Paris to ride off solo with all that loot.

After the storing the bulk of his ill-gotten gain, Paris proceeds to have a good time. Unfortunately, it leads him to the same brothel frequented by the now destitute O'Connell who recognizes him.

The next series of vignettes introduces other varying degrees of shady characters (Hume Cronyn, John Randolph, Warren Oates) a stalwart sheriff (Henry Fonda) and an unlucky young man who fate earns a path to the gallows (Michael Blodgett). All the various characters end up in the same frontier prison, incarcerated with an aging legendary outlaw (Burgess Meredith). At the prison, the cast even includes the Skipper, too as Alan Hale plays a prison guard. Mankiewicz moves the action at a brisk pace as Paris befriends his cellmates, woos his wardens and plots to make his break and get reunited with his stolen fortune. Paris is such a good-humored character, it's easy to see how he ingratiates himself with everyone he meets, which makes the ending sort of a surprise. There are plenty of clues along the way that should make it obvious where it's headed, but Paris seduces the audience as well, much in the way many an antihero in film and television history has, making you forget their essential nature. The title of There Was a Crooked Man itself should flash in your brain like a neon sign as to what Paris is really like, but he still fools you into the finale, though an appropriate comeuppance still finds its way to him. Sleuth may be Mankiewicz's official last film, but There Was a Crooked Man is so good and so much fun, that it really deserves to be remembered as his last contribution to features.

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I may have to revisit this one sometime soon because when I saw it, I was kind of disappointed by it--I didn't think it lived up to its hype. (Admittedly, it has been a while...I remember watching it on VHS.)

All in all, a very nice write-up on Mankiewicz, Ed--particularly the kind words you had for House of Strangers, another neglected gem I may have to unwrap and revisit. I don't, however, think Mank was the original director of Three Godfathers--that story had been kicking around and filmed in the silent days, and the 1936 version was preceded by William Wyler's Hell's Heroes (1929), which gets a showing on TCM every now and then.
Upon investigation, I find you are correct about the two even earlier versions of the 3 Godfathers stories. I should know better than to assume that it was ever to early for Hollywood to start ripping itself off.
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