Cast as a leading man from early in his career, Kirk Douglas, who died Wednesday at 103, commanded the screen with a booming voice and chiseled physique, but he also showed enough humility to allow for more complicated heroes — and even a couple of outright heels. At the height of his powers, Douglas broke away from his studio handlers, formed his own production company, and joined forces with Hollywood rebels and outsiders like Stanley Kubrick and Dalton Trumbo. Here are 13 films that illustrate his range, durability and swarthy magnetism.
‘Out of the Past’
It’s a mark of Kirk Douglas’s charmed career that his second feature is widely considered a film noir staple, though his casting as a straight-up heavy would turn out to be a rarity. Of the beautiful shadows in Jacques Tourneur’s classic tale of double-crosses and bad romance, Douglas looms as the darkest, a crime boss who summons a small-town gas station attendant (Robert Mitchum) to do a job for him. The two men have a past together, when the gangster hired Mitchum’s then-private eye to track down his diabolical mistress (Jane Greer), who split to Acapulco with $40,000 of his money. The femme fatale puts them at odds.
Based on a Ring Lardner short story, “Champion” is a boxing drama as tough and tormented as its hero, a poor Irishman (Douglas) who accidentally stumbles into the undercard of a fight and winds up brawling his way toward the top of the profession. Yet this isn’t the inspirational tale of an underdog made good, but a gritty film noir about an impulsive drifter whose moxie and ragged charm are short-circuited by a nasty temper and a stubborn pridefulness. When he fails to honor the dictates of the game’s corrupt elites, it threatens his career — and his life.
‘Young Man With a Horn’
As in “Champion,” Douglas plays a poor, willful iconoclast who refuses to play by the rules, but “Young Man With a Horn” has a more luscious, romantic quality, courtesy of the director Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”). Inspired by the short and influential life of jazz soloist Bix Beiderbecke, the film starts with Rick Martin as an orphan who scrapes together enough money to buy a trumpet. Under the tutelage of an accomplished jazzman (Juano Hernández), he becomes a prodigy, but his improvisational flair, in music and in life, leads to strained relationships and a descent into alcoholism. Lauren Bacall’s turn as a woman of ambiguous sexuality is a fascinating footnote, but the alternately joyful and bittersweet performance sequences are most enduring.
‘Ace in the Hole’
Hays Code censors, Paramount Pictures and American moviegoers rejected Billy Wilder’s caustic satire in 1951, but time has only affirmed its ugly truths about tabloid journalism and its corrosive effect on society. Douglas’s willingness to play the heel, combined with his man-of-the-people charisma, made him the ideal choice to star as Chuck Tatum, a former big-city journalist who creates a media sideshow around a man trapped by a New Mexico cave-in. Feeding the story as much as reporting on it, Chuck gives himself scoop after scoop while turning the site itself into a tourist trap. “Ace in the Hole” decries journalistic malpractice, but it reserves plenty of contempt for the culture at large, which feeds off the story voraciously without thought to the human consequences
The director Vincente Minnelli’s highly charged drama about an unscrupulous movie producer and the three successful careers he both launched and sabotaged gets at the contradictions of Hollywood, where dreams are made and discarded with breathless speed. Gathered together at a studio office, a director (Barry Sullivan), an actress (Lana Turner), and a screenwriter (Dick Powell) each flash back to their experiences working with the producer (Douglas) who nurtured their talent, only to betray them. They swear off working with him again, but as the scorpion in this scorpion-and-the-frog scenario, Douglas is awfully persuasive.
‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’
Photographed in CinemaScope and Technicolor, and supervised by Walt Disney himself, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” remains a model of Disney live-action cinema — broad, silly, colorful and loaded with wonders. The underwater discoveries of the Nautilus, a wondrous submarine commanded by the mysterious Captain Nemo (James Mason), may be the main attraction, but Douglas’s robust performance as a master whaler offered early proof that the force of his personality couldn’t be blunted by spectacle. His song-and-dance number, “A Whale of a Tale,” suggests a future in musicals that he never got around to pursuing.
‘Lust for Life’
The same overweening passion that propels and destroys Douglas’s characters in “Champion” and “Young Man With a Horn” applies to his take on Vincent van Gogh in “Lust for Life,” a biopic that follows the artist deeper into an obsession that eventually kills him. Working again with the director Vincente Minnelli, whose eye for color aligns with van Gogh’s, Douglas opens the film as a Protestant missionary who devotes himself to helping the poor in coal country, then pivots when he discovers painting, a craft that leads to frustration, poverty and madness. “Lust for Life” is perhaps best remembered, however, for van Gogh’s contentious back-and-forth with Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn), a relationship in which shared interests curdle into vicious rivalry.
Every bit as scabrous as his “Dr. Strangelove” — and nearly as funny, though the laughs stick in the throat — Stanley Kubrick’s antiwar film offers Douglas as a beacon of sanity and decency in the midst of an irrational, needlessly tragic situation. As leader of the 701st Regiment of the French infantry during World War I, Douglas’s Colonel Dax gets the order to attack a heavily fortified German position. When this impossible mission inevitably fails, his superiors try to save face by ordering three men to be executed for cowardice, and it’s up to Dax to defend them in court-martial. In measuring the absurdity of the situation against the human cost of war, Kubrick draws a stinging conclusion about how wars are waged and who pays the price.
‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’
With slick-backed hair and an irrepressible grin, Douglas plays Doc Holliday as a quick-fingered outlaw who always has the drop on his enemies and looks pleased with his own virtuosity. “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” pairs him with Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp, a lawman who steps down from his post and enlists Holliday in a showdown in Tombstone, Ariz, against the murderous Clantons. John Sturges’s unfussy telling of this famous Wild West story casts two legends-in-the-making as two legends-in-the-making and allows their chemistry to carry his diverting Western forward.
Though stirring as a tribute to rebellion and justice against authoritarian rule, “Spartacus” doubles as a monument to Douglas himself: his chiseled physique, his booming voice, his noble bearing and his political sympathy toward the disenfranchised. Douglas would tweak that image throughout his career, but not in Stanley Kubrick’s sumptuous sword-and-sandal epic about a slave who leads a rebellion against the Roman republic. Spartacus isn’t a particularly rich character — Kubrick would later distance himself from the film for this reason — but the scope and grandeur of the production remains seductive, and its reputation has rightly improved since a 1991 restoration.
Douglas helped end the blacklist by securing a screenplay credit for Dalton Trumbo on “Spartacus,” and their working relationship continued with this utterly unique western, which upends a conservative genre with a strong leftist bent and anticipates the revisionist westerns that would arrive later in the decade. Photographed in stark black-and-white, “Lonely Are the Brave” stars Douglas as a cowboy who first appears to be ambling through the Old West … until he directs his horse across a New Mexico highway. A rebel and an anarchist, he deliberately gets himself thrown in jail in an effort to break out a friend who’s been arrested for helping illegal immigrants.
‘Seven Days in May’
Fresh off his electrifying thriller “The Manchurian Candidate,” the director John Frankenheimer continued to engage in the insidious politics of the era with “Seven Days in May,” which imagines a plausible future when the military orchestrates a coup against a sitting American president. With Burt Lancaster as the general who spearheads the coup from his post on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Douglas plays his Pentagon subordinate, who catches wind of the plot and works frantically behind the scenes to stop it. Frankenheimer’s no-frills, black-and-white, documentarylike style adds to the sensation that American democracy could collapse under the right circumstances.
Douglas was 60 years old when “The Fury” was released to theaters, and the film’s director, Brian De Palma, allots much of his screen time to marveling over him as a physical specimen, whether he’s gunning down assailants in the Middle East or performing acrobatics across the elevated train tracks in Chicago. De Palma’s terrific follow-up to “Carrie” also delves into psychic powers, casting Douglas as a former C.I.A. agent trying to find his son, who’s been abducted by the government as part of a telekinesis program. Amy Irving plays a powerful young psychic who tries to help him, and John Cassavetes is delectably evil as the old colleague who’s behind the kidnapping.