Tag Archives: Kirk Douglas

Actor Profiles & Reviews

Ace in the Hole (1951) 4.86/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 85.2
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 111 mins
Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur

Billy Wilder shows that film-noir can be done just as well outside the traditional confines of murky streets and shadowy cities by giving us a dry and dusty noir that has all the punch of the more famed classics. Kirk Douglas is the professionally exiled newspaper man who takes up with a small town paper hoping for a big story that’ll propel him back into favour with the big city papers. And when a cave-in traps an average schmuck who had been looting a local Indian burial chamber, he seizes his chance with both hands. There’s just one problem: the schmuck may be rescued too soon for the story to get enough traction. Using all his wiles to co-opt the sheriff and rescuers, the driven reporter orchestrates a slower rescue while, outside the cave, the public interest reaches fever pitch.

Ace in the Hole makes for a rather picturesque film even if you don’t immediately notice it. The sun bleached New Mexican landscape contrasted with the dust and darkness of the cave harnesses the mood of Wilder’s perceptive screenplay to create a rather impressive canvas for his critique of media sensationalism. Chomping down on some outright seminal dialogue, Douglas is arguably in the form of his career and his boisterous presence is the centre of the film. As the money craving wife of the trapped man, Jan Sterling is a streak of caustic self-regard, an underrated triumph in the femme fatale stakes. But Ace in the Hole remains a vehicle for Douglas and his director. The latter peppers more languid moments of contemplation with a litany of amusing carnival type set pieces involving grandiose crane shots and wide contrasts. All framed around Douglas’ arch manipulator buzzing about somewhere within. And on top of all this, they go and give us one of the great noir endings too.

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Detective Story (1951) 3.86/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.4
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 103 mins
Director: William Wyler
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Eleanor Parker, William Bendix

“You must have been kissed in your cradle by a vulture.” Kirk Douglas puts in a tour de force performance as a morally conflicted detective who allows his near fanatical dedication to bringing criminals to justice to excuse his hard edged and even violent treatment of anyone even suspected of misdeeds. This wasn’t an easy role to pull off but Douglas handles it with ease as he keeps the audience both rooting for him and appalled at him in equal measure throughout.

The assorted characters who make their way into his precinct during the course of the single day in which the drama is set are each fascinating in their own right and played perfectly by the ensemble cast. William Bendix scores especially well as Douglas’ caring partner, a more rewarding role to the tough guy persona he was normally govern to play. Robert Wyler and Philip Yordan’s screenplay is a real treat to the ears, littered with wonderfully cutting turns off phrase and some insightful character construction. Director William Wyler contributes strongly too, allowing the tension to build up softly in the background giving the drama an increasingly taught feel which peaks right at the end. However, this movie is all about Douglas who at the time was at the height of his powers and in practically every scene demonstrated just that.

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The Final Countdown (1980)

 

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Rating: The Good – 69.5
Genre: Science Fiction, War
Duration: 103 mins
Director: Don Taylor
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, Katharine Ross

Cracking sci-fi thriller starring Kirk Douglas as the captain of a 1980’s aircraft carrier which gets pulled into a vortex during routine manoeuvres off Hawaii and gets sent back to December 6th 1941. The premise is compelling to say the least and it’s tapped for all its worth as the crew of the massively advanced ship weigh the moral and philosophical implications of intervening in the Japanese sneak attack which is about to be launched against Pearl Harbor. The film is set up wonderfully with plenty of time dedicated to substantially introducing the various characters and establishing their various political and moral positions and whatever relationships which will become relevant later on. The scenario is made more interesting with the inclusion of Martin Sheen as a civilian consultant who provides an unpredictable counterpoint to the hardened military personnel.

As two of the most professional actors to ever grace the screen Douglas and Sheen are great either on their own or together and they each bring an abundance of personality to the film. Katherine Ross and the always excellent Charles Durning offer equally interesting points of view as 1941 civilians (Durning playing a wily old senator) rescued by the aircraft carrier after the Japanese attacked their boat. Director Don Taylor is to be commended for his handling of the large scale logistics which include shooting everything from live action fighter jets, helicopters, the carrier itself, to the infamous Japanese “zeros”. The various action sequences are elegantly shot and edited and would rival any dedicated war film from the time. Furthermore, Taylor shows real panache in how he shoots the time-travelling sequence and imbues the moment with a real sense of primordial menace. This is particularly important because if captured in the wrong manner, the tenuousness of the story’s premise could be exposed (for example, just imagine how a “Time Tunnel” like shot of the carrier spinning two-dimensionally into the past could’ve undermined its credibility).

It all builds up to a fitting climax and there’s even time to tie some mind bending logical time-loops into the story in the vein of the best time-travel movies. The Final Countdown is exactly what a war/time travel sci-fi should be. It’s entertaining and reasonably stimulating and it really should’ve been remembered better.

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Out of the Past (1947) 5/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 94.1
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 97 mins
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Stars: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas

“Just get out. I have to sleep in this room.” The prototypical film-noir, Out of the Past (or Build My Gallows High as it is also known), is as close to a perfect film as there has ever been. It stars Robert Mitchum as a former PI living under an assumed name to evade a mobster (Kirk Douglas) whom he double-crossed years before hand on account of who else but a devious woman (Jane Greer). The film opens with him being discovered by one of Douglas’ henchmen and while the process of bringing Mitchum “back in the fold” begins, his story is told in flashback. Mitchum was a truly iconic actor and it was performances such as this one which made him arguably the greatest *movie star* of them all. With his laconic delivery and poise (and director Jacques Tourneur’s immaculate framing), he owns every inch of the screen and becomes the reference point for every other character in the film. What’s remarkable about a  performance like this one is that rather than overshadowing his fellow actors, he enhances their roles and allows them to shine still brighter. Jane Greer is insatiable as perhaps the most treacherous of all the femme fatales as every word shes utters seems laced with poison. Douglas revels in the role of the charismatic bad guy and in his own way helped forge a character that we would see many times again not just in the noir genre but others too.

Tourneur’s direction is inspired, demonstrating some of the most subtly brilliant scene composition in a series of sumptuous night-time and daytime scenes. The exquisite framing and lighting has never been equaled and every shot seems impossibly polished. Of course, the standout strength of Out of the Past is without doubt Daniel Mainwaring’s deeply perceptive and downright sizzling dialogue (adapted from his own novel), which perhaps more than any other film noir paints the murky and romantically charged world of ambiguity that so defines the genre. With the superbly timed delivery of Mitchum and co it takes on an easy grace that massages your ears and captures your imagination. Timeless.

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Seven Days in May (1964) 4.75/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 86.7
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 118 mins
Director: John Frankenheimer
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, Martin Balsam

John Frankenheimer was a director of some renown but given the consistent quality of his work across a variety of genres and throughout five decades, he really should be better appreciated. That he made three of the very best films of the 1960’s in the space of three years is an emphatic testament to this. In 1962, he gave us perhaps the greatest Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, and two years later (right before he gave us The Train), he followed it up with one of the few films that could actually rival The Manchurian Candidate for that mantle.

Seven Days in May is a sweeping hair raiser that follows the efforts of the President of the United States, his closest advisors, and a Colonel in the Pentagon to investigate and expose a possible high-level military conspiracy, the aim of which, is to overthrow the government for its left wing stance on US-Soviet disarmament. That the conspiracy seems to be led by a people’s hero, a four star General with strong right wing tendencies and a megalomania complex, makes matters all the more tricky as the investigation requires negotiating their way through fanatically loyal military brass and equally right leaning members of Congress.

The plot (adapted from Fletcher Kneble and Charles W. Bailey II’s novel) is rich with intrigue and impeccably set up against Frankenheimer’s equally clean black and white canvas, a canvas that is further embellished with a luscious balancing of key and fill lighting. It’s speared forward primarily through its beefy dialogue which is strengthened all the more because a host of that era’s great scene-stealers are responsible for its delivery. Kirk Douglas is his usual mix of professionalism and presence as the honourable Colonel who cannot tolerate what he sees as an overreach by his superiors. Frederic March gets to the core of his character’s presidential predicament showing just enough strength and vulnerability. As you’d expect, Martin Balsam, Edmond O’Brien, and George Macready add substantially to the tone of the film as the presidents’ team who head out to investigate the different elements of the mystery.

However, it’s probably fair to say that Burt Lancaster’s power-mad General dominates this movie. Lancaster had an ability to be truly intimidating when he wanted, as his portrayal of J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success demonstrated, and the controlled menace he shows in this film is scintillating. If there’s one regret regarding his turn in Seven Days in May, it’s that he never got to share the screen with Ava Gardner again (his co-star from The Killers – his breakthrough movie which also starred O’Brien) who plays the jilted lover and potential threat to his reputation. In truth, the scope of the film doesn’t really allow for such an indulgence but cinephiles would’ve liked it!

There’s a controlled but persistent energy to this film as the action skips relentlessly and with a knife-edge like tension between the White House, The Pentagon, aircraft carriers, military bases, Congress, and dark alleys. The result is a movie that is the very definition of a thriller. Moreover, graced as it is with pure class from the acting, writing, directing, and Jerry Goldsmith’s low key but suitably paranoid score and that it also taps a subject that kept audiences of its time in a state of dull fear, it’s easily one of the most arresting thrillers too.

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Paths of Glory (1957) 4.72/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 93.1
Genre: War, Drama
Duration: 88 mins
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, George Macready

“If those little sweethearts won’t face German bullets, they’ll face French ones!” A truly astounding piece of cinema, Stanley Kubrick’s most poignant anti-war statement was like no other war film before it and is perhaps the most visceral cinematic critique of the mindless trench warfare employed on the battlefields of WWI. The movie opens as George Macready’s grotesque General Mireau professes an unwavering dedication to his troops only to agree to turn them into cannon fodder just moments later as his superior waves a promotion under his nose. As he proceeds to take a tour of the trenches to deliver the news that his troops will attempt to take an impregnable German position, we are given an ever closer insight into the man’s hypocritical and egotistical nature. With the inevitable failure of the assault, the humiliated general is left fuming and orders three of his troops to be randomly selected for court-martial under penalty of execution. However, much to his chagrin, his regiment commander, Colonel Dax, refuses to let these men suffer a straw trial and takes it upon himself to defend his men in court.

Paths of Glory is a deeply touching film, which places you right inside the frustrated and desperate mind of Col. Dax played marvelously by Kirk Douglas. It’s also one of the most visually engaging war movies as Kubrick constantly contrasts the opulent mansions the officers and generals inhabit with the near squalor of the trenches, prisons, and barracks occupied by the soldiers. The former are in particular framed with Kubrick’s usual perfection as his wide shots are defined by the symmetry of the palatial rooms. Conversely, Kubrick’s close claustrophobic tracking shots from inside the trenches do wonders in setting the completely opposite tone but with the same precision symmetry as before. Remarkably, for a war movie which is chiefly remembered for its drama, the most powerful and magnificent scene comes as Col. Dax leads his troops over the trenches and onto the killing fields. This phenomenal sequence shows us the very best of Kubrick: the perfect balancing of his sweeping camera with his near overbearing yet subtly hypnotic use of sound. As the shells rain down to form an unforgettable auditory pattern, the immaculately staged advance of the troops is caught in all its terrible horror. Douglas’ Col. Dax is the focal point of this advance and Kubrick uses him perfectly as such.

Douglas for his part was rarely better and he as much as Kubrick is responsible for the way in which the military aristocracy’s despicable and hypocritical cowardice is shoved back down their throats. Douglas revels in some of his lines and the resulting precision delivery echoes the internal primal scream of the viewer. And as if all this was not good enough, Paths of Glory closes in a profoundly contemplative manner as Kubrick’s future wife melts the hardened exterior of troops and viewers alike.

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Spartacus (1960) 4.71/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 86.2
Genre: Epic, Adventure
Duration: 197 mins
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons

One of the great sword and sandal epics has Kirk Douglas playing the rebel gladiator who unites the slaves of the Roman Empire in revolt and, after defeating their best legions, drives his army towards the sea and the freedom which lies beyond. The troubles which beset the production are well known but despite Douglas’ differences with the film’s original director (Anthony Mann) and the man he replaced him with, Spartacus is a cohesive, captivating, and beautiful piece of cinema.

The key to this film’s success is the impeccable intertwining of the three tales at its heart. The first concerns the relationship between Douglas and Jean Simmons through which the themes of freedom and courage are most powerfully realised. In this regard, Douglas is at his best, creating in his Spartacus a strong and passionate individual who places the simple joys of a free life above all else. Simmons puts in a measured but lasting performance which reflects that same calibre of strength and Kubrick gives their scenes all the time in the world to breathe.

The second story is one of political intrigue and concerns the battle of wits which Charles Laughton’s wise and erudite Senator Gracchus must fight with Laurence Olivier’s ruthless but fiercely perceptive General Crassus. Set against the marbled splendour of ancient Rome (brought to life through the combination of some awesome production design and matte effects), this strand of the film is perhaps the most universally engaging thanks largely to the rich talents of both Laughton and Olivier. It’s not surprising Kubrick kept them apart for much of the film because so big and encompassing are their performances, it would have been a shame to negate one with the other. Not only does Kubrick also give these players considerable space to work their magic but he magnifies that power by softening the pace of their scenes to a seductive lull. Then blacklisted writer (credit Douglas with demanding he be brought on) Dalton Trumbo’s subtle and layered script comes into its own during these sequences with the Olivier and Tony Curtis bathing scene being particularly clever.

The final story told is the broader tale of tactics and logistics in which the slave and Roman armies do battle. Here, Kubrick uses every second of the astoundingly choreographed battle sequences to amplify the passion and drive which the slaves’ self-determination fosters and weighs it fairly against both the cold and inspiring certainty of fate. In doing so, he gives those last twenty minutes an immortal quality which few films have managed to close on and sets the scene for one of the most iconic lines in all of cinema. All together now…..

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Lonely Are the Brave (1962) 3.95/5 (5)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.7
Genre: Drama
Duration: 107 mins
Director: David Miller
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau

When Jack “W” Burns learns that his friend has been arrested, he orchestrates his own arrest so that he can help his friend break out of prison from the inside. Things don’t go altogether as planned and he ends up fleeing back to the open terrain on his own with a posse of marshals after him and a 5 year jail sentence hanging over his head for escaping. Lonely Are the Brave is a thoughtful work which captures much of the spirit of the US cultural revolution of the 1960’s & 70’s but from the seemingly counter-intuitive and old fashioned perspective of an open ranging cowboy whose life of freedom has been reigned in by the expansion of the modern world and the laws and restrictions that go with it. Kirk Douglas is that cowboy and as usual, he presents us with a charming character who represents an ideology not entirely fashionable for its time.

To say that Lonely Are the Brave defies expectations as a film is an understatement. The film opens with a shot of Douglas’ cowboy resting with his horse, a shot which could have introduced any western of its time. However, this shot is startlingly interrupted by passing fighter jets. A fleshed out story of friendship then threatens to blossom but before we know it, the film takes another couple of turns before a manhunt through mountainous terrain emerges as Burns is pursued by George Kennedy’s nasty prison guard (who had assaulted him while in jail) and Walter Matthau’s decent but determined Sheriff. Sound familiar? It should because it’s First Blood! In all fairness, it must be pointed out that the latter Stallone vehicle brings a lot of its own ideas to the table (some of which are even better than those addressed here) and goes its own way in character construction and overall plot.

David Miller brings a very soft and calm momentum to the film. This is surprising because with so many plot turns, one would assume he would be in a hurry to get to the most exciting part of the film. But he is not. Each segment to the story’s progression is respected and given all the time it needs. This is a refreshing touch and it makes Lonely Are the Brave a uniquely satisfying watch. When he does ramp up the tension, he does so in admirable fashion for the final 30 minutes are gripping to say the least. However, he still manages to remain respectful of Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay and Edward Abbey’s original novel while doing so. Burns remains the same character he was at the beginning and a pleasing sense of authenticity is felt as the chase relentlessly continues.

Douglas is not as intense as he often is and seems content for his character to play the hand dealt by the script. There seems to be a genuine admiration for his character’s way of life and there’s a lot of charm to it but it’s not as memorable as some of his other turns. Kennedy is suitably boo-hissable as the mean prison guard and adds a really interesting layer of veiled cowardice to his character (this idea would be further tapped and built on to brilliant effect in the later First Blood). Matthau isn’t really given enough to do but he provides some welcome comic relief to the pursuit. And let’s not forget Gena Rowlands who steals the show in a scene and a half as the wife of the Burns’ friend. In fact, the sub-plot between Burns and her offers as much interest as the one the film ultimately builds around.

Lonely Are the Brave is an originally written and directed film and it’s finely acted. It offered much to the jaded western genre before Sergio Leone was to revitalise it five years later. Traditional western themes are analysed softly within the narrative and there’s a strong retrospective tone to the piece. As many filmmakers were arguing in various films throughout the 1960’s, from The Wild Bunch to The Professionals to Once Upon a Time in the West, there was a real sense that the genre’s time was passing into history in the same way the era itself did. Lonely Are the Brave is definitely putting that idea out there and far earlier than the those other better remembered pictures did. Just another reason, this little gem deserves to be seen.

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Town Without Pity (1961) 4/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.3
Genre: Drama
Duration: 105 mins
Director: Gottfried Rheinhardt
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Barbara Rütting, Christine Kaufmann

From the opening scene, we know we’re in for something special here as four inebriated and aggravated GI’s, stationed in Germany, leave a bar to walk back to their base in the summer heat and Dmitri Tiomkin’s arresting title song (sung by Gene Pitney) erupts to fill every corner of our consciousness. In Town Without Pity, Kirk Douglas stars as a compassionate but tenacious defence council assigned to represent those same GIs as they’re tried for the rape of a sixteen year old girl which they committed on their way home that day. What unfolds is a mature, considered, and essential analysis of a cold hearted legal system which puts the victim of rape on trial in order to bring her “justice” and the veiled viciousness of the small townsfolk who use the trial to satiate their petty grievances. There’s no two ways about it, this film is damning and it needs to be. Every film which tackles this subject needs to be but few are.

Douglas continues to chose his roles with intelligence and social conscience and he embodies the moral dillema which burns at the centre of such legal drama. His Major Garrett sneers at his defendants as they explain their behaviour and at the town’s people as they cue up to help him besmirch the girl’s name. But he uses them to do what he has been charged to do. He doesn’t like it and he tries to spare the victim it but the politics of the town’s leaders, the military brass, and the girl’s father demand she be put under his ferocious scrutiny. It’s a perceptive piece of acting that is mirrored by Christine Kaufmann’s stunning turn as the victim who captures all the fear and confusion of a young woman in her position.

This is complex stuff and while compassionate in implication, it moves through the gears dispassionately (as is necessary). Based on Manfred Gregor’s The Verdict and adapted by Jan Lustig and George Hurdalek, the dialogue is piercing in both it’s subtly and extremity as the script moves unerringly from the former to the latter. Gottfried Rheinhardt’s direction was as daring as the subject matter. It eschews conventions for large parts of the film employing an impersonal style not quite documentary but not nearly as subjective as is traditional. There are some beautifully lit and staged scenes too which complement the dark themes with a classic noirish look.

As a Swiss-US co-production, Town Without Pity gives off a strong independent vibe which is most clearly identified in its atypical use of sound. The German dialogue isn’t subtitled or dubbed but translated through one of the reporters who follows the case and whose reports narrate us through the film in a wonderfully cynical voice. Who the target of that cynicism is remains murky and so it perfectly reflects the moral quagmire which the film’s themes run through. To accentuate this, the conversations between characters occur at a pitch which makes us feel like we’re overhearing a gossipy conversation while in the backdrop, Tiomkin’s magnificent title track fades in and out throughout the film just as his seminal piece did in High Noon. Few compositions had the ability to direct a movie as his songs did and when accompanying the acting and striking screenplay in Town Without Pity, it makes for some compelling cinema.

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