Monday, January 19, 2009

Theme Song by Trini Lopez

What I wanted to do today is write a post about the casual, snarky, thoughtless immorality of the film There Was a Crooked Man, and how it relates to similar deficits -- which most people claim aren't there -- in Bonnie and Clyde, both films, not incidentally, having been written by David Newman and Robert Benton. But I don't think I can quite make that thesis hang, for a couple of reasons. One is that I haven't seen Bonnie and Clyde in a really long time, so I would have a hard time being specific, and two, I can't quite convince myself that what I found so off-putting in There Was a Crooked Man wasn't so much immorality as it was a kind of low-brow, juvenile nihilism.

But make no mistake: There Was a Crooked Man is a lousy movie. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz -- a long way from All About Eve at this point -- this Western stars Kirk Douglas as Paris Pittman, a no-good thief and killer who somehow manages to routinely steal from people designed by the filmmakers to be seen as more obectionable than he. Not the least of his victims' crimes is, of course, that they're rich, but they're also smug, and they live in big houses like jerks. Pittman, on the other hand, is insouciant, and "funny", disdains authority, and he likes to bone chicks. This film was made in 1970, so with those last two facts Benton and Newman were already halfway towards winning sympathy for their anti-hero from the target audience, that target audience being college kids who hated cops and were tired of being hassled all the time.

Pittman gets arrested for the robbery that begins the film, and finds himself in prison with a motley group of misfit ne'er-do-wells portrayed by, among others, Burgess Meredith, Warren Oates, John Randolph and Hume Cronyn (by the way, I didn't realize Cronyn played the character Dudley until the end credits. Cronyn is essentially doing an impersonation of Paul Lynde here, and the whole time I was watching this I was thinking, "That's not Paul Lynde, that's the other guy." I don't know who I thought the "other guy" was, but apparently it was Hume Cronyn). A sheriff who pops up early in the movie, and later goes on to become warden of the prison where most of the film takes place, is played by Henry Fonda, and Fonda embodies a kind of "progressive" law enforcement philosophy, in that he wishes that all the other policemen and prison officials would quit acting like cartoon villains all the time. I'm with him on that, but Kirk Douglas likes to point out to Fonda that he may think he's a good man, but he's not, because he's going to allow a young prisoner (played by Michael Blodgett) to be hanged even though the death he caused was accidental. That kind of deck-stacking plotting and self-righteous dialogue being delivered by a murderer was a specialty of aggressively edgy, pseudo-satirical genre films of the time period, and while those films grubbed for applause from those in its audience who sympathized with the filmmakers worldviews, I promise you that if any member of that audience tried to act out that worldview at the expense of, say, Robert Benton, David Newman or Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the pigs would be summoned, but quick.

So, anyway, as you probably guessed, a prison break is planned and carried out, and here's where I get into some trouble. Douglas's behavior during the prison break is villainous in such a way that I have a hard time believing that the filmmakers condone it, or even believe it's fun. Now, I'm also not saying that, up until this point, the filmmakers had been condoning murder in any way, but certain killings are portrayed as being, at best, the cost of doing business for someone like Pittman and his cronies, and plus, the victims aren't such great people either! But towards the end of the prison break, I feel like Benton and Newman want the audience to at least believe that Pittman has crossed a line, and I'm even willing to consider the argument that this line-crossing is intended to make the audience reflect on the fact that they've been rooting for this murderer for two hours, and that maybe they shouldn't have been. Add to that the fact that Pittman's fate is delivered with an air of comeuppance, and I have to concede that while it's all clumsily handled, and the movie isn't any good anyway, and I don't really buy the best-case scenario I just laid out, it is, at least, something.

And then, of course, we get a little epilogue that informs us that while murder may be wrong, stealing is encouraged. Two steps forward, one step back. At best.

11 comments:

Jonathan Lapper said...

Hello Bill. Before I tumble into the "inauguration owns every second of my life for the next two days" abyss I just wanted to stop by and say...

... I haven't seen this. And it doesn't sound like something I want to see. But, Larry Aydlette wrote up a piece on Bonnie and Clyde that can be found here as long as Larry hasn't deleted it yet (he doesn't archive most of his posts). It doesn't really get into morality of the movie deeply but it does touch on it and gives an interesting view through the eyes of a more mature viewer years later.

bill r. said...

Larry's right, that Bonnie and Clyde "basically got what they deserved". Have you read Bryan Burrough's Pubilc Enemies? It's a great non-fiction book about the creation of the FBI, and all the criminals like Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, etc., they were hunting down at the time. They were pretty much all the scum of the earth, and Bonnie and Clyde were possibly the worst of the bunch (Nelson gave them a run for their money in that department, however). And until Michael Mann's adaptation of the Burrough's book comes out this year, how are they presented in the one, big popular adaptation of their lives? As a couple o' crazy kids in love. Spare me, please.

This may be apocryphal, but I've heard that when Penn's film premiered in Chicago, Mike Royko brought some of the family of the victims to underline what these two people really did, and what it was all really about.

The argument -- which is the same one I've heard in relation to JFK -- that the true story doesn't matter, and that what matters is the artistry, doesn't hold much water with me. If the truth didn't matter, why call it Bonnie and Clyde?

Fox said...

That kind of deck-stacking plotting and self-righteous dialogue being delivered by a murderer was a specialty of aggressively edgy, pseudo-satirical genre films of the time period, and while those films grubbed for applause from those in its audience who sympathized with the filmmakers worldviews, I promise you that if any member of that audience tried to act out that worldview at the expense of, say, Robert Benton, David Newman or Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the pigs would be summoned, but quick.

That's awesome...

I also liked:

Pittman, on the other hand, is insouciant, and "funny", disdains authority, and he likes to bone chicks.

You threw me off when you used a word like "insouciant" but when you said "bone chicks", you brought me back!

Even though I bet I'd have the same negative feelings about it as you do, you make ...There Was a Crooked Man sound like an interesting watch. It seems like such an oddity that I am kinda attracted to it.

bill r. said...

Fox, I was honestly thinking of you when I typed the words "bone chicks". Which is not the same, I hope you understand, as thinking of you while actually boning chicks.

As for thinking There Was a Crooked Man sounds interesting anyway...I honestly don't think it's interesting at all. Moral problems aside, the whole thing is just lazy and flat and obnoxious (that Trini Lopez song I mysteriously alluded to is awful). They hired a great cast, but to no good cause. No one gives a particularly memorable performance here, except maybe Meredith. It felt like the movie was made to cash in on what Bonnie and Clyde made popular, and that's all.

Fox said...

Which is not the same, I hope you understand, as thinking of you while actually boning chicks.

HAHA!!

As far as cashing in, it only makes sense since Mankiwiecz was directing this. Seems out of place and out of time, yes?

p.s. I think you & I are the only ones online right now b/c some dude is on TV talking about stuff and everyone here at work is watching.

bill r. said...

Seems out of place and out of time, yes?

Yes, I'd agree with that. Benton and Newman may have felt more invested in their material, but, along with everything else I've said about it, the movie also feels like it was intended as a lark. So it was never intended to be a big deal, and it's offensive, and it's crap.

I did hear something about some guy talking on TV, but in my region everyone is currently too busy panicking about snow that will never come.

Arboghost! said...

Did you guys mean to write "bone fish" because otherwise I don't follow you.

I saw this as a kid and it was one of those movies that really twisted my idea of the protagonist in a film. You expect Douglas will be a hero and even though keeps doing crooked things, lousy things, and getting people killed you half expect there to be some redemption or turn-around. And there isn't. And it's as if the movie is saying "See... we told you he was crooked." I like it for that reason, for the way it points out that willful blindness that is so part of the makeup of the average American and characterized so much of the last eight years. But I haven't seen this film in over 30 years, so I can't really defend it properly. I just never open bags of money I've buried in the desert without first giving them a good kick.

Arboghost! said...

I also think it's interesting that this movie kinda, sorta replays the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest scenario five years before the Milos Forman movie. Of course, Kirk Douglas had wanted to play R. P. McMurphy in the film as he had on Broadway and he even was the rights owner of the property for a while, which makes this movie feel like a sort of concession prize.

Arboghost! said...

Or consolation prize, rather.

Word verification: pedledu. Isn't that delightful? Pedledu!

bill r. said...

I saw this as a kid and it was one of those movies that really twisted my idea of the protagonist in a film. You expect Douglas will be a hero and even though keeps doing crooked things, lousy things, and getting people killed you half expect there to be some redemption or turn-around. And there isn't. And it's as if the movie is saying "See... we told you he was crooked."

Yeah, well, as I said, I thought this angle might have been what they were shooting for, but ultimately I'm just not really buying it. Or rather, I'm only buying it half way. We're meant to dislike all the regular civilian victims, and it's only when Douglas starts turning on his fellow criminals that we're supposed to lodge a complaint against him. And that bugs me. Plus, the idea that (SPOILER!) Fonda's life is somehow made more pure when he turns his back on law enforcement and makes off with stolen money is kind of repulsive to me (NO MORE SPOILERS NOW!!)

I just never open bags of money I've buried in the desert without first giving them a good kick.

That's probably wise.

I also think it's interesting that this movie kinda, sorta replays the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest scenario five years before the Milos Forman movie.

Now THAT'S interesting, and it obviously hadn't occurred to me. And you're right, it does, but it does so in an unpleasantly twisted way that makes me hate McMurphy.

And yes, sorry, we meant "bone fish".

Word verification: reexoda. Which I think is some kind of cat medicine. Not delightful at all.

Fox said...

I just never open bags of money I've buried in the desert without first giving them a good kick.

Personally, I have had bag anxiety ever sense I saw Audition.

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