Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Kirk Douglas

With this ongoing series, our goal is to help people who are new to classic movies, get a foothold. To make it easy, we give you 4 representative choices and then some supplementary options.

Sadly, with the passing of Kirk Douglas earlier this week at 103 years of age, it seemed apropos to tackle his career for those who might be interested. There are so many great movies to choose from, spanning the decades, but we’ll give it our best shot.

Champion (1949)

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Kirk Douglas had so many stellar early supporting roles in noir: Strange Love Martha Ivers, Out of The Past, I Walk Alone are all memorable. However, Champion was Kirk Douglas’s big break channeling his trademark intensity into the ring as an overzealous fighter. It would set the tone and help shape his growing reputation in Hollywood.

The Bad and The Beautiful (1952)

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Despite all the glitz and glam to go with a Hollywood storyline, Kirk Douglas is as blistering as ever. Like Sunset Boulevard or In a Lonely Place, it shows another side of the industry and Douglas and Lana Turner deliver some of the most memorable performances of their careers in this Vincente Minnelli drama. That’s saying something if you consider Kirk’s work in Detective Story and Ace in The Hole around the same time.

Paths of Glory (1957)

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Paths of Glory stands as one of the great wars films for the very reason it runs counter to many of the narratives we know well. At the core of this Stanley Kubrick WWI piece is Douglas as a man caught in the middle of the insanity of war, in this case, perpetrated by his own superiors. If you want more conventional entertainment there’s also Gunfight at The O.K. Corral (1957) highlighting Douglas’s longtime screen partnership with Burt Lancaster.

Spartacus (1960)

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Spartacus is arguably the tentpole of Kirk Douglas’s entire career, and it has the epic spectacle of sword and sandal epics of the era with Douglas anchoring the action with his typical dimpled charisma opposite Jean Simmons. Behind the scenes, the picture would prove to be a watershed for unofficially ending the Hollywood Blacklist by openly crediting ostracized writer Dalton Trumbo. It’s one of Douglas’s great moral triumphs as a Hollywood producer.

Worth Watching

A Letter to Three Wives, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Man Without a Star, Lust for Life, Last Train from Gun Hill, Lonely are The Brave, Seven Days in May, etc.

Angel Face (1953)

angelface1Rumor has it that Howard Hughes was angry at Jean Simmons who had cut her hair short prior to filming, as her contract was due to expire soon. But not to be outdone he told Otto Preminger that the director would get a bonus if he could shoot the picture before Simmons was released. That he did, and in the 20-day interim he gave us yet another stylish film-noir classic to follow in the footsteps of Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Robert Mitchum plays ambulance driver Frank Jessup who falls victim to the webs of young beauty Diane Treymayne who adores her superficial father, but nurses a lifelong grudge against her step-mother. She has it in for her arch nemesis and meanwhile strings Frank along, coaxing him to become her family’s chauffeur. He loses sight of her other side, and their budding romance means trouble for Frank’s longtime relationship with the sensible Mary. She sees a better fit in one of Frank’s ambulance coworkers, but he still wants her back.

Instead, Diane and Frank get caught up in a trial for their lives, after they are accused of a murder that Diane did indeed commit. But due to some wheeling and dealing, their shrewd attorney gets them off. It’s at this point that Angel Face takes an unsuspecting twist that ends up being intriguing. Could it be that the seductive Tremayne girl is actually remorseful for her actions? Is she a more nuanced femme fatale then would first be assumed? Frank was an unsuspecting lout, but then again maybe Diane is a sort of victim to. Her tryst with Frank is doomed and he is stuck becaangelface2use Mary no longer wants him, so of course, he can only end up going one place. The slow buildup to the finale makes these last moments all the more shocking. Angel Face seems to be less of a deadly poisoning than a slowly ticking time bomb just waiting to blow.

Jean Simmons is most often associated with civilized and demure beauties. A couple counterpoints or variations would be The Grass is Greener and this film. Playing against type proves to be as fruitful for her as it did for the likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Tierney, Cary Grant, and Henry Fonda, just to name a few. However, in a way, Angel Face had a far more complex femme fatale than I was expecting and that’s to its credit. Still, I would never want to be trapped in her nightmarish world like Frank.

4/5 Stars

Guys and Dolls (1955)

8d99c-guys_and_dolls_movieposterHeadlining this film are Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra as Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit respectively. Both men are high stakes gamblers and things have heated up in town because the police are trying to crack down on a floating crap game. That’s not the only thing that turns hot though. Masterson is bet by Detroit that he cannot get a sidewalk missionary (Jean Simmons) to fly with him for an evening in Cuba. Detroit has his own problems brought on by his reluctance to marry the girl he has been going with for 14 years. All along the way money constantly switches hands and “markers” are doled out as IOUs.

Both Masterson and Detroit ultimately show their noble sides and as you would expect the guys get the dolls.

This musical certainly had its moments and it looked lavishly beautiful in color like many of the contemporary musicals. I will say that there were some great personalities here including Vivian Blaine. However, Brando seemed painfully out of his element here and I’m pretty sure Sinatra had better roles. I wonder what this film would have looked with a different cast? We can only speculate now.

Also, the dialogue almost completely lacking in contradictions was quite noticeable, but I’m not sure if that was a bad thing or not. Overall I think this one would be better for the stage than on film. But don’t get me wrong a lot of the numbers like Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat were catchy. I will say I was surprised that Brando ended up singing Luck Be a Lady and not Sinatra. I had previously only heard the Sinatra version.

3.5/5 Stars

The Big Country (1958)

230bc-big_country833Directed by William Wyler and starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, and Carroll Baker, this pacifist western revolves around a feud between two ranching families. A gentleman sea captain comes out west to be with his fiancée on her father’s ranch. After his arrival, he encounters a jealous farmhand (Heston), the beautiful schoolteacher friend of his fiancée, and of course the Hannasseys, who are sworn enemies of the Terills. In a sense he is a fish out of water because he never feels a need to try and prove his bravery to others. The schoolmarm is caught between the two families since she owns the vital watering hole “Big Muddy.” Mckay buys the land as a wedding present but when the wedding ties are cut now he is the one in the middle of it all. In order to stop the imminent bloodshed, he bravely rides into the Hannassey’s territory in order to get both sides to reason. Whether it be the score, the cinematography, or the dialogue, you will certainly come to realize that this is a Big Country.
 
4/5 Stars

Great Expectations (1946)

ad366-great_expectationsWith director David Lean, and starring John Mills as Pip, the film begins with Pip as a young boy. Upon meeting a fugitive, Pip show him kindness and the man promises he will return the favor. A year or so later Pip begins to go to the home of an eccentric, rich widow to call on her. There he meets the lady’s adopted daughter Estelle and he falls for her. Now an adult, Pip learns he has a mysterious beneficiary who is paying for him to move to London to be a Gentleman. There he interacts with Mr. Wemmick, the attorney of Mr. Jaggers, and also Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness). Then, someone shows up on his doorstep and changes his world. Soon he is orchestrating an escape for his friend, saying goodbye to the cold Estelle, and showing his displeasure for the elderly Ms. Havisham. However, in the end he learns a happy truth and reunites with Estelle. This moody, Dickens adaption actually has an optimistic side which is a nice change.

5/5 Stars