I continue to study the Western genre. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Western films. Listen here
This is a classic example of a director being miscast for a project. Joseph Mankiewicz was clearly a talented filmmaker. I just watched his adaptation of The Quiet American and it, among many others, shows his refined craft. That being said, he couldn’t be more wrong for a Western.
I actually stopped watching this film after the first phony ten minutes and then encouraged by my friend Gus, who said it gets better, gave it another try. The staging of the action alone in the film’s introduction made me cringe but on my second attempt, I found that Gus was right. The film certainly gets better and transforms into a watchable Hollywood romp but that’s about it. Given a fantastic concept, a great desert prison location, two movie stars (Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda) along with an incredible cast of character actors, Mankiewicz still manages to craft a movie that is uneven at best.
Sure it has some memorable and amusing scenes but overall, the tone is totally off. For a majority of the film’s overlong runtime, it feels like Ocean’s Eleven transported to the old west. That works well enough until the picture gets into what should be some poignant tragic moments in its final act. Without revealing too much, some characters perish and when they do, there’s zero feeling about it, neither sentiment nor a biting sense of irony! It’s just a shrug and onto the next scene. Much of that results from two things: 1. Mankiewicz and the writers’ failure to create depth in their characters. 2. His terrible instincts in establishing the film’s tone. Exemplified best by the catchy but misguided soundtrack, There was a Crooked Man never strikes the right balance of comedy and drama, feeling altogether too lightweight.
Again, Mankiewicz just has the wrong feel for this material. From what I can see, this is the only Western in his filmography and he was much better suited for conflicts which take place in parlors than prairies. Imagine the film in the hands of a cynical director like Andre de Toth or even with Sam Peckinpah’s touch. I’d love to give this material another look but this is the kind of movie that should be remade.
Watched on Criterion Channel (it expired at the end of March)