Kirk Douglas: 10 essential films

From Ace in the Hole to Spartacus: a selection of the finest films featuring Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas.

9 December 2015

By Christina Newland

Spartacus (1960)

Angular of face and macho of disposition, Kirk Douglas, who has died aged 103, was one of the remaining living greats of the studio era. Whether in sword and sandals epics, heroic westerns or contemporary dramas, the actor always approached his career choices thoughtfully. Born Issur Danielovitch to first-generation Jewish immigrants, Douglas lived a genuine rags-to-riches story – going from abject poverty to Oscar nominations in a decade.

The star readily admitted that he’d “made a career playing sons of bitches”. In reality, he was remarkably flexible – with a face to match. Depending on lighting and mood, the planes of his face could suggest a stalwart hero with marble-like strength – or a villain of sculpted cruelty. The endless dimensions he manifested made him one of Hollywood’s greatest leading men; he used that power to form his own production company in 1955. Here are 10 career highlights.

Out of the Past (1947)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Out of the Past (1947)

Douglas is a controlling playboy in this cornerstone of film noir, hiring old pal Robert Mitchum to retrieve his runaway girlfriend (Jane Greer) from her hideout in Mexico. His role is relatively minimal by comparison to the leads, but it certainly set up his rep as an utter heel. Oozing with sleazy charisma, Douglas begins as the svengali to his femme fatale and winds up on the receiving end of a bullet. James Woods plays a version of the villain in 1984 remake Against All Odds – a worthy expansion of Douglas’s devious original.

Champion (1949)

Director: Mark Robson

Champion (1949)

The actor received his first Academy Award nomination in this classic boxing drama, starring as hungry, ambitious prizefighter ‘Midge’ Kelly. Penned by High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman, the narrative works in flashback to reveal Kelly’s background as a penniless vagrant. His refusal to return to the breadline breeds a streak of vicious determination in him, and he becomes a champ at the expense of anyone who’s helped him along the way. Douglas brings a dogged tenacity to his role, suggesting the perils of the ‘American Dream’ mythos in this sports-film-as-political-allegory.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Director: Vincente Minnelli

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Vincente Minnelli’s three-act melodrama tells the story of megalomaniacal Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields, a conniving and ruthless character said to be loosely based on David O. Selznick. Lana Turner shares the screen as a fading star/alcoholic floozy hopelessly in love with the producer. Like Hollywood itself, Shields’ reputation outlasts his misdeeds; he serves as the perfect metaphor for the whole corrupt and glamorous system. The characters in the film remain fascinated hangers-on in spite of the injury he causes – much like the audience, they can’t seem to shake the stars from their eyes.

Ace in the Hole (1951)

Director: Billy Wilder

Ace in the Hole (1951)

On-screen journalists rarely come as acidic or bad-bottomed as Douglas’s Chuck Tatum. In one of Billy Wilder’s most scathingly misanthropic films, the tabloid hack exploits a mine collapse with a worker trapped inside. He orchestrates a media frenzy around the tragedy, intentionally sabotaging rescue attempts in order to prolong the excitement. Douglas is toweringly monstrous here – a vulture appealing to the public’s worst impulses. In fact, he may be the scumbag journo against which all others are measured. He makes J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) look like a pushover.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

Director: John Sturges

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

John Sturges, a renowned director of westerns, creates a memorable portrayal of the legendary Tombstone shootout in this glossy film. The elaborate Technicolor production utilised the star chemistry between pals Burt Lancaster and Douglas, as lawman Wyatt Earp and gunslinger Doc Holliday respectively. The star brings a strutting fatalism to the role, with both playful bravado and an occasional tubercular cough.

Paths of Glory (1957)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Paths of Glory (1957)

Set during a near impossible offensive by the French military during the First World War, Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war film dedicates itself to the purgatorial idiocy and shocking arrogance of military middle-management. The officers here are self-satisfied, wealthy men belonging to a crumbling imperial age. They’re the sort who believe that common soldiers are dispensable and that any slight unwillingness to die like a dog is an act of treasonous cowardice. The only man to seemingly see through this charade is Colonel Dax, played with decency and simmering passion by Kirk Douglas. Dax fights to protect his men from a court martial, but the fundamental absurdity of the war machine is overwhelming.

Spartacus (1960)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Spartacus (1960)

A bronzed Douglas is in peak form as the defiant and doomed rebel leader in this Roman slave revolt epic. As portrayed in the recent biopic Trumbo (2015), Douglas’s Bryna Productions had most of the creative control, and the star was involved in hiring Dalton Trumbo. This public show of support would ultimately put a nail in the coffin of the blacklist – and, fittingly enough, the film serves as a perfect allegory for political tyranny and the solidarity of the oppressed.

Lonely Are the Brave (1962)

Director: David Miller

Lonely Are the Brave (1962)

This late-period, low-budget western adopts the same elegiac tone as other end-of-the-frontier narratives from around the same time. Again written by Dalton Trumbo, Lonely Are the Brave is an offbeat contemporary variation on the theme. Jack Burns is a likable New Mexico cowboy and drifter. He has no ID, no fixed address, and no regard for modern trappings – cheerfully moseying across busy highways on horseback. Though the narrative sags somewhat in the middle portion, its rain-drenched conclusion is striking. Trumbo mourns the decimation of the old outlaw soul, made an anachronism in the bold new world of the 60s. Douglas called the film his personal career favourite.

Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)

Kirk’s third collaboration with Vincente Minnelli melds The Bad and the Beautiful with La dolce vita (1960) – focusing again on the cutthroat, rarified moviemaking business, with all the internal politics therein. Set in the starry glamour of early 60s Rome, Two Weeks in Another Town is peopled with a constellation of fabulously-dressed starlets – and Cyd Charisse to boot. Douglas is a movie star whose life has hit the skids, asked to work with veteran director (Edward G. Robinson). It’s a bitter, self-consciously cynical film, grounded by Douglas’s presence as the desperate, ageing screen lover (salaciously rumoured to have another real-life basis: Tyrone Power.) 

Seven Days in May (1964)

Director: John Frankenheimer

Seven Days in May (1964)

John Frankenheimer’s eerily prescient political thriller explores the possibility of a secret military coup against the president – and was made with the implicit support of John F. Kennedy, who felt that the current military-industrial complex warranted the scenario. The story follows Douglas as a veteran military officer working directly beneath Burt Lancaster’s General Scott, an increasingly outspoken critic of nuclear disarmament. Suspecting that his superior is plotting something, he is forced to turn informer in a high-stakes game where government overthrow is at risk. Filmed in a televisual style, Seven Days in May features a talky ensemble cast and a piercingly direct take on contemporary foreign policy.

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