Main      Site Guide    
At-A-Glance Film Reviews

There Was a Crooked Man... (1970)



Reviews and Comments

Crooked is right. This is a surprisingly brutal, hard-hitting prison flick about a man (Kirk Douglas) who stashed a fortune before getting caught and slapped with a ten-year sentence. In prison, Douglas begins an impressive grand scheme to manipulate everyone around him. Toward what end, it's not initially clear. Henry Fonda plays the new warden (the old one got killed) and has ideas about how a prison should be run that nobody -- on either side of the bars -- is quite prepared for. The dynamic between Douglas and Fonda is fascinating: they are natural enemies and yet find cause for a grudging respect.

It's not just the dynamic between those two that's compelling, either. There is a fairly large cast of characters here: cohorts on both sides of the law, plus romantic and familial relations in the periphery, who are mostly strong-willed characters with agendas of their own. The intricacy and tenuousness of the various alliances and grudges and oppositions make the movie unpredictable.

And indeed, anything can happen. Compassion does not stay its hand. This film is one of the edgiest and most cynical mainstream films of its day. It is especially shocking given its surface resemblance to the classic westerns, which were sometimes violent but seldom cynically or cruelly so. Audiences of the day weren't ready for it, Leone's successful spaghetti westerns notwithstanding, and the film was a financial failure. Indeed the roughness is overdone in spots. Nonetheless, this is a solidly entertaining film with smart characters, an explosive story, and fine action.