Stuart Burge (director)
Network on Air (studio)
30 April 2018 (released)
01 May 2018
This 1960 comedy is a real rarity in the Wisdom oeuvre. Unseen for over 50 years due to American objections of Wisdom posing as a cocky US-General requisitioning UK land (or so the story goes) it was deemed to offensive to the all powerful country that pulls the English purse strings… 1776 was indeed a very long time ago!
Norman Wisdom, unfashionable at present (an antidote to the current “Look at me, aren't I clever” school of comedy) may even find himself coming back into vogue. The man was still touring, albeit to comparatively small audiences, well into his old age. Although never intrinsically sexist or racist he was by that time by the nature of his work 'outdated'. THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN, like GIRL ON A BOAT, is a real curate's egg with Wisdom cast totally against type. Also, the film represents a completely different production team to those usually employed on a Wisdom vehicle, no funny ill-fitting suit or silly cap, no straight man a la Jerry Desmonde or Mr. Grimsdale (Edward Chapman). And by contrast the film has thankfully, for the anti-Wisdom school, a totally different 'feel' to it. For a start it is actually based on a little known James Bridie play 'The Odd Legend of Schultz' - one can only imagine it differs considerably from the film whilst maintaining a similar premise.
Wisdom plays a 'hopelessly naive' (obviously) out of work and penniless former wartime explosives expert named Davy Cooper (how many ex-service men are on the streets still begging?). You name it, he can blow it up! Davy is also an expert lock-picker! He is soon befriended by old services pal Flash Dan (Timothy Bateson) who promptly, being acquainted with Davy’s unique skills, introduces him to the gang of crooks that he works for. Starving Norman is fed well before the well spoken gang leader Adolf Carter (Alfred Marks) puts our hero 'in the picture'. At first the honest Davy is appalled and wants to call the police. Then Adolf explains to him precisely why society has a need for crooks. This speech is an interesting little economic sermon which any professor of Economics might have seen eye to eye with. Davy is won over by the 'brilliance' of Adolf's speech and, before you know it, embarks on a life of crime. Quite frankly the gang are lost without him. Unfortunately after a series of successful robberies the main coup, which takes place in the surgery room of a hospital which happens to be adjoined to a bank, goes spectacularly wrong and our Davy gets caught red handed… and ends up with a bum rap of seven years (whilst the gang get away scot-free). Davy actually really likes being in prison although (and as we see) he could, with his skills, easily have escaped anytime!
Whilst tending his pride and joy, which happens to be the ‘Governor's’ garden, the prison priest reveals that Davy has got time knocked off his sentence for good behavior but low and behold, our anti-hero likes being there so much he wants to complete his sentence. Despite all protests, he is given a job (slave labor of course) working for some huge industrial firm in the small and fictitious town of Sleath (presumably up north). It appears that practically everyone of working age is employed by Mr. McKillops (Andrew Cruickshank) – the head of firm. It goes without saying he is a greedy capitalist. Despite a first day at work riddled with calamities Davy is initially taken in by his boss - only to discover by default how totally corrupt he really is. That said, Davy fares slightly better with love interest Ellen (Susannah York), the daughter of his landlord. Davy is framed by McKillup and is forced to go on the run. It doesn’t take him long to get in touch with his old mate Adolf and gang in order to exact terrible revenge on the crooked McKillup. They attempt to pull the most audacious con trick imaginable… by posing as high-ranking US-military personnel, in Davy’s case posing as a four star American General (Wisdom attempting a curious South-West American accent, which to these ears doesn't sound that bad). Yes, we’re talking a complete army unit (the gang, the jeeps et al) and inform McKillop they that want to BUY up the entire town in order to blow it up just for rocket testing purposes - yes, all of it. And offering McKillop a staggering million bucks and getting him to buy back all the shares in his company from his factory workers at double their value, thus bankrupting him. Will they succeed with the most outrageous con trick of all time? This is where the fun really starts!
You can see why (unfortunately) this film was not successful. Deeply anarchic and littered with Socialist doctrines (amply provided by Reginald Beckwith, in his best role as a caring Trotskyist station master) it also deeply insulting to our American neighbors… no namby pampy UK politician (then and now) would have it.
Despite Davy’s character not tying up (on the one hand we have a hopeless naive fool while on the other we have a man who is capable of thinking very sharply and quickly) this is one riot of a comedy with Wisdom at his best. He is ably supported by the versatile Alfred Marks as smart-ass Adolf. And it is nice to see an actor of Andrew Cruickshank's caliber reduced to behaving like an undisciplined schoolboy. You hardly need to know that the film’s screenwriter, Canadian Reuben Ship, fell foul of McCarthy and was blacklisted and deported. Some might see this as a kind of revenge.
THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN is released on Blu-ray with additional bonus material including info booklet.