The American western film was in a transitional period when ?Cleopatra? director Joseph L. Mankiewicz helmed ?There Was A Crooked Man? with Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, and Warren Oates. ?Bonnie and Clyde? scenarists David Newman and Robert Benton penned this above-average oater concerns a cunning thief who steals a half-million dollars from a wealthy man. The bankrupt man spots the robber in a bordello when he is peering through a hole in the wall. He raises the alarm, and the authorities capture the protagonist and sentence him to a ten year stretch in the territorial prison in the middle of a sun-scorched desert. Kirk Douglas is appropriately charismatic as Paris Pittman, Jr., an auburn-haired outlaw, while Henry Fonda is suitably stolid and upright as the moral guardian of virtue. Warren Oates is cast as a two-timing desperado that sold anybody out that befriended him. Burgess Meredith plays a crusty old cuss of an outlaw named ?the Missouri Kid? who grows his old marihuana. The bespectacled Pittman engineers a foolproof plan to break out of the prison and the na´ve new warden plays along with our anti-hero who takes advantage of the warden?s liberal attitude toward the prison system. Pittman convinces all of his cellmates to conspire with him. He has two confidence men, Dudley Whinner (Hume Cronyn of ?Brute Force?) and Cyrus McNutt (John Randolph of ?Seconds?), along with a treacherous two-bite outlaw, Moon (Warren Oates of ?The Wild Bunch?), a young murderer set to hang, Coy Cavendish (Michael Blodgett of ?40 Guns to Apache Pass?) and a muscular Chinese immigrant, Ah-Ping (C.K. Yang of ?One More Train to Rob?), to help him blow up the prison walls and start a riot. Initially, when Paris escaped from the whorehouse before he was later caught, he stashed the loot?in a pair of saddle bags and a ladies bloomer drawers?in a rocky pit slithering with rattlesnakes.
Mankiewicz does a good job with the Newman and Benton screenplay, and this 126 minute, Technicolor horse opera never wears out its welcome. The manipulative way that Paris Pittman uses his cellmates for his own ends is what makes ?There Was Crooked Man? so entertaining. The ending contains a surprise or two. Lenser Harry Stradling Jr. gives this western a nice, crisp appearance, while Edward Carrere?s production designs are excellent. Most of the action transpires in the prison. Clearly, the moral of this amoral western is that nobody is entirely safe from temptation. Moreover, ?There Was A Crooked Man? reflected the increasingly cynical nature of American westerns in the shadow of the Spaghetti western. There are also two instances of homosexuality here between two prison inmates and a sadistic prison foreman and a young man. Homosexual subplots rarely appeared in westerns until the 1970s, while ?the Missouri Kid? use of marihuana came long after the villain in ?For A Few Dollars More? smoked pot.