There Was a Crooked Man (1970): Mankiewicz Only Western, Starring Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda

Joseph L. Mankiewicz, best known for his sharply observed dramas and witty satires (A Letter to Three Women, All About Eve) tried his hand at making a Western (his only one) with There Was a Crooked Man.

The scenario was written by David Newman and Robert Benton, their first script after the 1967 Oscar-winning Bonnie and Clyde.

Though starring Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda, the film was not popular with critics or viewers.

Grade: B- (** out of *****)

Douglas, a vet of many good Westerns, plays Paris Pitman, Jr. a man who has pulled off a $500,000 robbery.  Having murdered his partners, he’s the only one who knows the site of the money.  Captured in a bordello, Pitman is tried, convicted and sentenced to Arizona penitentiary.

The corrupt warden LeGoff (Martin Gabel) cuts the prisoner a deal, he’ll let Pitman break out of jail for an even split of money. Pitman agrees, but the plan goes awry when LeGoff is murdered during an inmate uprising.

Former sheriff Woodward Lopeman (Henry Fonda) becomes the new warden. Although they are enemies, he and Pitman had work together to improve the prison’s conditions.  When the lieutenant governor visits, Pitman sparks a riot and escapes, but three inmates are killed, and Pitman himself does away with two more partners.

The money has been hidden in . Pitman heads for the money (in a nest of rattlesnakes), pursued by Lopeman.  The money his, when Pitman is suddenly bitten by a rattlesnake and dies. Lopeman collects the money and Pitman’s body, then rides back to the prison.

In the cynical ending, which reflected the zeitgeist during the Vietnam War era, Lopeman drops the body and absconds to Mexico with the money.

The good supporting cast includes Warren Oates, Burgess Meredith, and Lee Grant.

A middling Western, There Was a Crooked Man, seldom finds its right tone or unified vision, meandering between long verbal scenes (a signature of Mankiewicz) and compelling prison melodrama. The director shows no special affinity with the genre, and he is not much helped by the scenario of Newman and Robert Benton, which like their text for Bonnie and Clyde is anachronistic in language and incongruous in humor.

A sluggish, low-key feature, There Was a Crooked Man takes its time in relating a melodrama in which the characters are far more interesting than the plot.

Mankiewicz would go on to make only one more picture, Sleuth, in 1972, a well acted thriller adapted from a successful play.