The movie world is mourning the death of one of the greatest stars of Hollywood, Kirk Douglas, whom we lost yesterday at the age of 103. While you can read many articles and posts on the Douglas's personal life, I wish to focus on his cinematic work. Finding myself in the middle of other projects with pressing deadlines, I've chosen to adapt a post from 2016 celebrating Douglas's 100th birthday. I hope you will join me in honoring the cinematic career of Kirk Douglas.
I wonder if we really can grasp just how spectacular was the career of Kirk Douglas. He made his first screen appearance in 1946 with The Strange Love of Martha Ivers next to the great Barbara Stanwyck 70 years ago. In many ways, this was not a typical Kirk Douglas role, but even this early on (and even in what's essentially a weak character), you can see something magnetic in the actor.
I can’t remember the first time I saw Douglas onscreen, but it was probably in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), which I revisited in 2016. The first Douglas film that had any real impact on me is one that no one ever mentions anymore, a Western co-starring Johnny Cash called A Gunfight (1971). I was nine years old at the time, old enough to understand that these two guys were going into a gunfight and the whole town was coming out to see who was going to win and who was going to die. (SPOILERS) I love him now, but I remember there was something about Johnny Cash that I just didn’t trust. He seemed like the bad guy here and I wanted him to lose the gunfight. Douglas, for some reason, struck me as a winner, a guy I really liked, the guy I was pulling for to emerge victorious. He didn’t. I remember very little about that film other than the outcome and how much I wanted Douglas to emerge victorious. I’d like to see that film again. (Maybe there’s an alternate ending and it’ll turn out differently next time.)
Without intending to, I watched or re-watched several Kirk Douglas films this year including Out of the Past, The Bad and the Beautiful, Young Man with a Horn, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and more. Douglas was excellent in all of them.
Yet my favorite Kirk Douglas performance will always be his portrayal of journalist Charles Tatum in Ace in the Hole (1951), a movie that has lost absolutely none of its power and impact. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert had this to say about Douglas:
Kirk Douglas was and still is a ferocious competitor. Little wonder one of his first screen roles was as a boxer in “Champion” (1949). When I interviewed him for Esquire in 1969, the role of a champion was his central theme: “It doesn’t matter if you’re a nice guy or you’re a bastard. What matters is, you won’t bend!” His focus and energy as Chuck Tatum is almost scary. There is nothing dated about Douglas’ performance. It’s as right-now as a sharpened knife.
Ace in the Hole and Paths of Glory (1957) are two of Douglas's finest performances. I encourage you to check out these and many of the actor's other films as we remember him today.