With his trademark cleft chin and a passionate urgency that the best directors could darken and deepen until his performance suggested a dangerous self-belief, Douglas was an ideal Hollywood leading man for the post-WWII era.
After stints on the stage and in the US Navy, he made his feature debut at the age of 30 in 1946 – his screen persona was almost fully formed. Douglas did his finest work in a period of little more than 15 years, and while he never had an emblematic late career role like his frequent co-star Burt Lancaster subsequently enjoyed, the concentrated application of his best years yields numerous highlights.
Ace in the Hole (1951)
Billy Wilder’s most abrasively cynical film – which is really saying something – Ace in the Hole (and the following year’s Hollywood drama The Bad and the Beautiful) established Kirk Douglas as a leading man whose self-loathing was fiercely charismatic.
His venal reporter Chuck Tatum is at his 12th masthead, having been fired from the previous 11, in the American southwest when a man trapped underground becomes a story he masterfully manipulates for notoriety and gain. Tatum’s self-interest is acidic, and the movie was a notable failure for Wilder, but Douglas was far from diminished. If his adventure films had brio, his dramas could be withering.
Lust for Life (1956)
There’s virtually no physical resemblance between Kirk Douglas and the now revered 19th century painter Vincent Van Gogh, but Douglas makes the Dutchman’s considerable anguish the foundation of his performance. Struggling to find reason and success, whether as a minister, a suitor or an artist, Van Gogh is plagued by his passion, falling out with all but his brother Theo (James Donald) as his physical and mental health spirals downwards in the years prior to his suicide.
Vincente Minnelli’s use of authentic European locations supplies the necessary light for Van Gogh’s inspiration, but his tangible darkness stems from Douglas.
Paths of Glory (1957)
Kirk Douglas’s salary took up a third of Stanley Kubrick’s budget, but it was only with his casting that Hollywood backing was found for what remains one of the cinema’s fiercest anti-war films.
Set in the blood-soaked French trenches during WWI, the film adapts historical events to depict the decorously corrupt French officers who brazenly order a costly, failed attack and then demand random court-martials and executions as punishment for their men. The lack of justice is systematically complete, and there is little that Douglas’s Colonel Dax, a field officer and civilian lawyer, can do to save them. Before Kubrick’s purposeful camera, Douglas is consumed by his character’s revulsion.
Stanley Kubrick, this time a director hired by Kirk Douglas the producer, did much to apply texture and tension to this epic swords-and-sandals tale of a slave rebellion crushed by the Roman Empire. At 184 minutes it’s a sprawling film, and there are moments when Douglas indulges the heroics of his titular gladiator while the shading comes from an eminently qualified supporting cast that includes Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Woody Strode and Peter Ustinov. But it’s also the film where Douglas ended Hollywood’s McCarthy-era blacklist by forthrightly commissioning and crediting Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay.
Lonely are the Brave (1962)
“Have you ever noticed how many fences there are getting to be?” asks Kirk Douglas’s Jack Burns, a cowhand determined to lead his life like his 19th century forebears despite the Old West being long gone.
Crossing highways on horseback, Burns goes searching for a jailed friend, Paul Bondi (Michael Kane), getting himself incarcerated just so he can bust Bondi out. Jack’s beliefs border on the delusional, but David Miller’s film predates both the likes of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and today’s real-life nativist American sentiment, and when the character is pursued by a doleful, methodical sheriff, Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau) their duel is bittersweet with the outcome seemingly predestined.