Kirk Douglas: A Brief Appraisal

I feel that I am missing out on a vital part of cinematic history by having seen only a handful of Kirk Douglas films, but I do know that in each one he certainly gave a memorable performance. In honor of today being his 97th birthday (!), let’s take a look at the seven titles I am familiar with:

Out of the Past (1947, dir. Jacques Tourneur) – This classic film noir features Douglas in his second film role, playing a gangster who targets antihero Robert Mitchum. Douglas gleefully chews the scenery.

A Letter to Three Wives (1949, dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz) – Douglas had one of his finest 1940s roles as a testy English teacher, bitter because his job gets him no respect and his wife earns more money than he does. He has many of the best lines and moments in this dark comedy, including his explanation of “bad” versus “badly.”

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, dir. Vincente Minnelli) – One of the indisputable classics of the 50s, this Hollywood-set melodrama stars Douglas as a producer so eager to claw his way to the top that he’ll use anyone in order to get there, including an alcoholic starlet (Lana Turner).

Lust for Life (1956, dir. Vincente Minnelli) – You couldn’t have asked for a better Vincent van Gogh lookalike than Douglas. He is such a force of nature in the role, so brimming with passion and despair, that it’s hard to believe he lost that year’s Oscar to Yul Brynner (no offense to fans of The King and I).

Two Weeks in Another Town (1962, dir. Vincente Minnelli) – Another Minnelli melodrama, Two Weeks serves as a sort of companion to The Bad and the Beautiful. Douglas is easily the best thing about the film, imbuing his washed-up actor character with poignancy. The film boasts a cast full of famous faces (Edward G. Robinson, Cyd Charisse, George Hamilton, Daliah Lavi, Claire Trevor, Leslie Uggams, etc.) but it is all to no avail since the script is such a stinker. Only Douglas is able to convey any real depth.

In Harm’s Way (1965, dir. Otto Preminger) – As World War II movies go, this one’s pretty weird. The cast does not appear to be wearing clothes specific to the time period, most glaringly in the opening scene taking place during the attack on Pearl Harbor (a party where, if I recall correctly, women seemed to be wearing go-go outfits and dancing to 60s-sounding music). Douglas manages to shine, however, as a violent naval captain desperate for redemption.

Diamonds (1999, dir. John Asher) – In Douglas’s first film made after his 1996 stroke, he is warm and funny as an elderly widower who goes on a road trip/treasure hunt with his son and grandson, meeting a lovely older lady (Lauren Bacall) along the way. It’s really a sweet little film, worth seeking out if you have the Netflix Instant viewing capability.

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