There Was a Crooked Man… (1970)

It’s a Dog Eat Dog World

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

If more westerns were like The Was a Crooked Man I could consider myself a bigger fan of the genre. The opening scene in which a black maid who fakes the mammy act sets the stage for a film which defies convention. To date I’ve never seen another western like it; it’s not like a John Ford western or a Howard Hawks western, this is a Joseph L. Mankiewicz western; the first and only Mankiewicz western. I also love that theme song and am happy to hear it again and again in instrumental form throughout the film.

Mankiewicz was a master of handling dialogue and thus there is such a snappy pace to the whole film. “Nothing like fried chicken while it’s still hot and crispy” may be my favourite line Kirk Douglas has ever uttered in a film. The film is full of characters whom each get their own unique stories. The two homosexual lovers and comic buffoons played by Hume Cronyn and John Randolph have the most interesting character arc with an outcome which is the only time in the film someone isn’t totally out for themselves. The large-scale prison set on the other hand captures the mundanity of prison life with the film gradually building up to the impending escape, ranking There Was a Crooked Man among the great prison escape movies.

There Was a Crooked Man is a movie which combines old Hollywood mixed with new Hollywood with its traditional western setting and it’s dosing of cynicism. The cast features stars both veteran actors and younger stars and a script by David Newman and Robert Benton of Bonnie & Clyde fame. Even the one moral character in the film ends up turning bad. Henry Fonda plays the moral role he was known for throughout his career right up until the very end of the picture, leaving me with a big smile on my face. The movie is very cynical but it’s that kind of wonderful cynicism that makes you feel happy, and not feeling down. Although I would call There Was a Crooked Man a funny movie, it is not the kind of film in which I find myself laughing but rather laughing inside to myself.

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Start the Revolution Without Me (1970)

Revolution 1789

To my surprise Start the Revolution Without Me begins with none other than Orson Welles introducing the film as well as narrating it; this along with the stylistic opening credits featuring footage of John Barrymore in Don Juan I know I had to be in for a treat. Start the Revolution Without Me is largely unheard of but surely paved the way for other large-scale historical comedies of the 70’s and 80’s from the likes of Monty Python and Mel Brooks; a type of film comedy which is long extinct. The recurring repetition of the date “1789” in the narration has vibes of Monty Python while the film’s ending reminds me of that from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Likewise, the film is probably the closest thing to a spoof of costume dramas; think the costume drama getting the Mel Brooks treatment. The film includes references to works of fiction including A Tale of Two Cities, The Corsican Brothers and The Man in the Iron Mask (portrayed here as a bumbling fool). With the film’s historical references, King Louis XVI is a slow-witted cuckold and Marie Antoinette is portrayed as a nymphomaniac.

The production spared no expense getting the shoot in actual historical locations in France. You would think they would only allow such locations for more dignified films, not a slapstick comedy. The film itself is as lavish as any big-budget costume drama but not in tone of course. Costume pictures are always a genre I’ve struggled with, dare I say I find them dull with characters I can’t identify with or care about; you know, rich people problems. Thus there’s a sense of satisfaction seeing the genre turned into a slapstick farce. Not only do you get an impressive display of madcap physical comedy, but you even get some swashbuckling action with Gene Wilder getting the opportunity to display his abilities as a swordsman.

Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland play two sets of identical twins who are accidentally switched at birth resulting in an aristocrat with a false brother who was supposed to be born into life as a peasant and vice versa. I get the impression Sutherland plays the twins intended to be aristocrats as they seem more comfortable and in tune with the lifestyle than the two twins played by Wilder. Mistaken identity humour is often looked down upon but it makes laugh whenever it is done well. Start the Revolution Without is inspired zaniness if I’ve ever seen it.

Sometimes a Great Notion (1970)

Sometimes a Great Motion Picture

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

There is no overarching plot in Sometimes a Great Notion yet I was still engaged with the life of this family with their ongoing effort to try and make a living and their own family dilemmas all occurring among the beautiful forest scenery of Oregon. This is a man’s movie reminiscent of the male bonding films from Howard Hawks such as Only Angels Have Wings and Tiger Shark.

Henry Fonda plays a character called Henry so I like to imagine his interactions on set with Paul Newman occur just like they do in the movie. I’ve also often championed Henry Fonda’s unsung abilities as a comedic actor and here he provides the film with some great moments of comic relief. Michael Sarrazin gives the most interesting performance though as the girly man Leeland Stamper who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the men largely due to his long hair. There’s a quiet confidence to his character though as he is unbothered by the remarks of the other men and eventfully wins their respect, by how? Winning a game of the ever manly sport of football.

The logging scenes themselves are actually quite suspenseful, seeing men who are putting their lives in danger in order to make a living, you’re expecting someone to get injured or killed at any time and that brings me to scene in the film which left the greatest impression on me. There are two death scenes towards the end of the film. First, there’s Henry Fonda’s death which is sad, itself but that is but nothing compared to the death of Richard Jaeckel; I was thinking about this scene for days after watching the film and it’s even more powerful watching it a second time as I’m waiting in dread for the scene to arrive. For starters, the character is trapped under a log while the tide is slowly rising and he spends the whole time joking about it and when he is eventually submerged in the water he can only stay alive through constant mouth to mouth resuscitation until help shows up to move the giant log. I can’t imagine a more terrifying situation a person could be in; you can possibly get rescued and live but in order to do so you must remain completely calm; one mistake and you’re a goner. This one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever seen in a film. I doubt I will ever see a more intense death scene or one so difficult to watch.

The Cheyenne Social Club (1970)

Quit Badmouthing the House!

The Cheyenne Social Club sounds like a bad idea on a number of levels. For beginners it stars two elderly actors towards the end of their careers in a comedy about prostitution, not to mention Gene Kelly would be one of the last people I would expect to be directing a western. For a long time it remained a movie I doubt I would ever watch yet much to my surprise the film turned out not only to be perfectly dignified but also very funny and surprising endearing. The idea of Jimmy Stewart being the owner of a brothel and becoming a sugar daddy sounds wrong on paper yet somehow it manages to work. The Cheyenne Social Club paints an idealized version of a whore house in which the women are proud of their profession and worship their boss. The movie doesn’t shun prostitution and while propaganda might be a strong word I certainly got the impression the movie was voicing its support for the legalisation of prostitution.

Henry Fonda is by far the funniest thing in the film; a child in an adult’s body living out a completely carefree existence with Stewart being the straight man and the grown-up one of the two. Even as soon as the film begins Fonda babbles through the entire opening credits which according to the movie lasts for literally over a thousand miles which helps distract from how ordinarily plain the test in the opening credits are. The relationship between the two is incredibly endearing with one of my favourite moments of the film is the two of them innocently sleeping in the same bed together. It is also very amusing as Fonda just follows Stewart wherever he goes as he has nothing else to do with his time but also because he just likes his company. It’s evident through their own screen chemistry that the two where lifelong friends. The film’s other major highlight is Stewart and Fonda’s discussing of politics (Stewart being a Republican and Fonda a Democrat) mirroring their real-life personas and bringing to mind an occasion when their friendship was almost brought to an end when they got engaged in a fist fight over politics in 1947 (“I don’t like to dispute you John but didn’t you always vote democratic?, Well…that was when I didn’t know any better”) .

The Cheyenne Social Club is the third of three films James Stewart and Henry Fonda starred in together. The first two of which are among the weakest films I’ve seen from ether actor. Thankfully the third time was the charm; it took 35 years to get these two legendary actors in a great film together but it was worth the wait.