The sheer breadth of work put forth by Joseph L. Mankiewicz during his forty-plus years in Hollywood is something to admire. From his early screenplays to his eventual turn to directing, for which he was awarded back-to-back Best Director awards for A Letter To Three Wives and All About Eve, Mankiewicz proved to be a force to be reckoned with in a variety of different genres. Although a popular genre at the height of his career, the lone time he tackled a Western was in his penultimate film There Was A Crooked Man from 1970. While this particular feature did not also give us one final script from the legend, it did gain some cache for being written by hot young screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton, who were fresh off the hit Bonnie and Clyde. While the film did not prove to be a cultural milestone in the careers of either party, it was a solidly respected, if not narratively flawed, tale that is worth a rediscovery.
One of the biggest assets of this production is star Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) who plays Paris Pitman Jr, a charming crook who has just pulled off a $500K robbery and eliminated his partners to ensure he is the only one in on the loot. Trouble comes to find him when he takes the time to celebrate his good fortune at a bordello, which happens to be the place where his recent victim is visiting to nurse his sorrows. While he is sentenced to an Arizona penitentiary, he is not going to be there alone which allows the movie to take its sweet time introducing a colorful collection of future inmates as they are getting caught for their crimes. While this can make for a bit of a repetitive beginning to our story, it is essential in getting the audience connected to these figures. Plus, getting to spend a bit more time with performers such as Burgess Meredith, Warren Oates, Hume Cronyn and John Randolph, the latter two who play a pair of aging confidence men who are endearingly close, is fine use of your time.
Pitman proves to be something of a revered figure in the prison amongst his fellow inmates, which may or may not have something to do with the fact that he was able to stash his loot before being picked up and he is the only person who knows where to locate it. Douglas pulls off this role with ease as he radiates his innate charm with an undercurrent of duplicity imperceptible to everyone except the audience and warden LeGoff (Martin Gabel). This may be due to the fact that they are two sides of the same coin and he is interested in getting his hands on the money as much as anyone. Let’s just say greed does not pay and the final puzzle piece comes in the form of a new warden Woodward W. Lopeman (Henry Fonda, The Grapes of Wrath), a genuinely good man who seeks to improve the conditions of the prison for the inmates – and he needs Pitman’s help to do so. The film hinges on if this tenuous trust can withstand the desire to break free from the prison by any means necessary.
While a mostly entertaining affair, There Was A Crooked Man struggles a bit with pacing and tone. At a bit over two hours, the film tends to drag out certain aspects of the plot longer than they need to be. The script focuses on extraneous elements that easily could have been removed while other areas that could have been fleshed out a bit more are truncated. The other noticeable issue is the way this narrative struggles between being a satire and being a melodrama. There are large stretches where this feels like a “slice of life” vignette film before abruptly turning into a bleak melodrama commenting on the all-consuming nature of greed. It is not that this does not work, it just could have been executed a bit more gracefully with a few more passes at the script. Thankfully, the performances from the ensemble are mostly strong enough to make you forgive any shortcomings. While this is not the first film you associate with Mankiewicz, it is an interesting late-career showcase for his wit and artistry.
There Was A Crooked Man makes its Blu-Ray debut thanks to Warner Archive with a brand new 1080p master from what I imagine is a 2K or 4K scan of the original camera negative, but the press release is lacking these details. The only word to describe this presentation is stunning. The lovely photography shot by Harry Stradling Jr. sparkles in high definition with natural grain intact. There is a fantastic amount of detail present with nice textures on the clothing, both in the fancy clothes of the high society people in the beginning of the film and in the shabby clothing of the prisoners. The new transfer shows off a great amount of depth and enhanced detail, but admittedly the close-up shots hold up better than the long shots. Black levels are very deep with no trace of black crush or compression artifacts. The contrast is well defined, and there is virtually no print damage to be found. Warner Archive has given this one an outstanding presentation.
The Blu-Ray comes with a stellar DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track that is as much of a triumph as the video portion. Dialogue and background noises are represented in perfect harmony with all competing elements so that nothing sounds muddy in the mix. This track shows no discernible age related wear and tear such as popping or hissing. The music complements the competing various sounds quite well, and the score from Charles Strouse has never sounded better. Most of the activity in the soundtrack comes from the activity in the prison including a climactic escape attempt that includes a massive brawl, which the track handles quite capably. There are also optional English (SDH) subtitles included for the feature film. This audio presentation is a perfect representation of the film.
- Theatrical Trailer: A three-minute trailer that shows way too much of the film is provided here.
- On Location with There Was A Crooked Man: A ten-minute vintage featurette in which a narrator guides you through behind-the-scenes material including shooting locations, rehearsals, background information on the performers and more. This is a fun addition to the package.
There Was A Crooked Man is a film with some distinct flaws that keep it from being a classic, but largely it proves to be entertaining thanks to strong performances from the ensemble and admirable direction from Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Warner Archive has released a Blu-Ray sporting a terrific A/V presentation and a couple of fun supplements. Those who have an affinity for any of the talent involved should check this one out. Recommended
There Was A Crooked Man can be purchased directly through the Warner Archive Amazon Store or various other online retailers.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Warner Archive has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.