Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 24, 2021)
Probably best-known for 1950’s Oscar-winning classic All About Eve, filmmaker Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s career ended with 1972’s Sleuth. That makes 1970’s There Was A Crooked Man… his penultimate effort.
Set in 1883, Paris Pitman Jr. (Kirk Douglas) winds up in Arizona Territorial Prison. There he uses his charm to become one of the most popular inmates.
It also helps that Paris claims to own $500,000 in loot hidden outside the prison. Paris butts heads with warden Woodward Lopeman (Henry Fonda) as he also works to convince his fellow prisoners to escape and retrieve the illicit money.
I don’t know if Sleuth allowed Mankiewicz to go out on top, but it delivered a pretty solid little mystery thriller. Certainly many other filmmakers finished their careers on much worse notes, as Sleuth remains a brisk, fun tale.
I wish I could claim that Crooked offered another late career winner from Mankiewicz. However, it provides a wholly spotty tale that lacks the consistency to become genuinely good.
Much of the problem comes from the movie’s derivative nature. It feels like Crooked combines The Great Escape and Butch Cassidy, without a lot of originality on display.
Crooked definitely embraces the anti-hero vibe of the era, with Paris as the charming rogue we want to see win despite his criminal nature. The movie adds nothing fresh to this notion and feels dated in its depiction.
We do find a fine cast from Crooked. In addition to Fonda and Douglas, we get talents like Hume Cronyn, John Randolph, Warren Oates, Burgess Meredith, and others.
They add class to the project, and I do enjoy the interaction between Douglas and Fonda in their one true co-starring film. Both also appeared in 1965’s In Harm’s Way, but Fonda played a cameo there.
That meant Crooked represented the sole chance for these two legends to face off, and they make the most of it. Their scenes together sparkle.
Otherwise, we find a spotty film without a whole lot of narrative thrust. Crooked mostly offers a romp that focuses on the antics of the inmates, so even though the prison break theme shadows the movie, it doesn’t become the main emphasis.
It doesn’t help that Crooked takes a dark turn in its last act that doesn’t fit the rest of the film. It feels cynical just for its own sake, and the finale threatens to spoil whatever fun we found in the prior 100 minutes or so.
Crooked’s cast gives the flick enough juice to keep the viewer engaged. Nonetheless, given all the talent involved, it becomes a moderate disappointment.