How could someone not like a western full of genial and persuasive cynicism, full of improbable piety and stuffed with vivid characters, from the two leads, Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda, down to just about everyone else. And look at the pedigree: Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, who gave us All About Eve, Letter to Three Wives and that most elegant of cynical films, Five Fingers, and with a screenplay by David Newman and Robert Benton, just after their first effort, Bonnie and Clyde, made their bones for them in Hollywood.
The answer is, a lot of people didn't like it and even more ignored it...including the studio executives. There Was a Crooked Man was buried after it finally was released, with almost no marketing dollars devoted to it.
I think the studio had no idea what to do with the film. Not only is it a witty and cynical western, it has a climax which is mordantly violent and unexpectedly ruthless (especially if you weren't paying attention to a brief scene at the start of the film). Not just that, we wind up with one of the leads dead (snake bite to the throat, guaranteed to make you flinch) and the other...well, you may find yourself pondering just who is the crooked man all the fuss was about.
The movie’s not perfect; it's too long; there are a couple of sub-themes that could have been established faster. Still, for an amusing, sardonic look at human nature, There Was a Crooked Man is hard to beat.
Paris Pitman, and don't forget the Jr., please (Kirk Douglas), is a charming, eye-glass wearing rogue. He could talk a coyote out of a chicken, one character says. He's a natural leader, smart and calculating. He's also a robber and a killer. He stole a whole lot of money and, we begin to notice, his gang one by one doesn't make it far. Paris does, but eventually is caught because of his fondness for easy women.
Woodward Lopeman (Henry Fonda) is an upright lawman who doesn't drink, take bribes or, as far as we can tell, consort with easy women.
The two meet at a desolate territorial prison set in the middle of nothing but desert scrub and blistering heat. Pitman is doing time for the robbery. He hid his loot before he was captured and now plans to find a way to escape. Lopeman is the new warden, determined to rehabilitate the prisoners when he can, and at least be fair to them when he can't. Before long Pitman has recruited his cellmates on a carefully organized breakout. They're an odd bunch, but Pitman has a role for each one. The Missouri Kid (Burgess Meredith) is an aged coot who a long time ago was a skilled bank robber. Dudley Whinner (Hume Cronyn) and Cyrus McNutt (John Randolph) are failed con artists, just a bickering old married couple with Whinner the shrewd one. Floyd Moon (Warren Oates) is a backstabber from way back who has never had a friend. He begins to think Paris is one. Coy Cavendish (Michael Blodgett) is a dumb but eager teen-ager who is scheduled to hang for inadvertently killing the father of the girl he was just about to know too well. Ah-Ping (C. K. Yang) is a big, tough, silent Chinese who decides to follow Pitman.
We spend a lot of time in that sweltering prison observing how Lopeman tries to improve things and how Pitman step by step organizes the breakout. There will be explosions, misdirection, food fights with fried chicken and mashed potatoes, stolen dynamite...and deliberate killings, cold-blooded and murderous set-ups, and sacrifices those doing the sacrificing hadn't planned on. You can't help grinning at the cynicism or being a little revolted at some of the cold-blooded murders.
Pitman, of course, escapes and heads for the place he hid his loot, a natural cave with an opening just small enough to reach down and snag the bags stuffed with cash. Did I mentioned, Pitman chose the place because it was a nesting ground for rattlers. After we have experienced the cold-blooded cynicism of one of the two leads, it's nice to report that the movie ends with a satisfyingly bit of good-natured cynicism on the part of the other.
If you're a jaundiced observer of human nature, I think you'll enjoy this movie.