Monday, May 31, 2021

#2,577. Tough Guys (1986) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


Tough Guys marked the seventh time that stars Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas appeared in a movie together, and after seeing this 1986 crime / comedy I can’t help but wish they’d stopped at six.

Having served 30 years for train robbery, Harry Doyle (Lancaster) and Archie Long (Douglas) are released from prison. Their parole officer Richie (Dana Carvey), who also happens to be their biggest fan, does what he can to help the former convicts adapt to a normal life, but Harry and Archie have a rough time of it, and with a nearsighted assassin (Eli Wallach) trying to knock them off, the old friends decide to go back into business for themselves, doing what they do best.

Directed by Jeff Kanew (who previously worked with Douglas in Eddie Macon’s Run), Tough Guys gets off to a decent start; Harry, now in his 70s, is sent to a retirement home, where he reconnects with his old flame, Belle (Alexis Smith). Their scenes together are sweet, while Douglas’s Archie gets most of the laughs early on with his job at a frozen yogurt parlor as well as his whirlwind romance with the much younger Skye (Darlanne Fluegel), whose sexual appetite proves more than he can handle (and for a man in his late ‘60s, Kirk Douglas was in damn good shape!).

Unfortunately, Tough Guys falls apart when Harry and Archie once again turn to crime, resulting in a number of “funny” scenes that fall flat. In addition, Charles Durning is wasted (he plays Detective Deke Yablonski, who busted the duo thirty years earlier), while Eli Wallach is painfully over-the-top as the hired gun trying to kill our heroes.

And the less said about the train heist at the end, the better!
Rating: 4 out of 10

Sunday, May 30, 2021

#2,576. Eddie Macon's Run (1983) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


Eddie Macon (John Schneider) escapes from the Huntsville Prison and heads for the border to reunite with his wife (Leah Ayres) and son (Matthew Meece), who are waiting for him in Mexico.

Unfortunately for Eddie, he has a bloodhound on his trail in the form of Detective Carl Marzack (Kirk Douglas), who won’t rest until Eddie is once again behind bars.

Eddie Macon’s Run tells a standard “innocent guy busts out from jail” story, with John Schneider, fresh off his run as one of the Duke boys in The Dukes of Hazzard, delivering a solid performance as the likable Eddie, whose only crime was standing up to his low-life boss (played by the great John Goodman, making his big-screen debut!).

Eddie’s escape goes off without a hitch (he jumps into a cattle car after competing in the prison rodeo), though he does run into some trouble along the way (the Potts brothers, played by Tom Noonan and Jay O. Sanders, accuse Eddie of being a cattle rustler and threaten to hang him).

Eddie’s story is what gives the movie its heart, yet it's Kirk Douglas who steals the show as the quick-thinking Marzack, who always seems one step behind Eddie (though in his late 60s at the time, Douglas holds his own in the action scenes). And while car chases usually leave me cold (save, of course, the famous sequences in Bullitt and The French Connection), Eddie Macon’s Run features one hell of a nerve-racking chase at the end!

Also appearing in a key supporting role is Lee Purcell as Jilly Buck, the Governor’s niece who lends Eddie a helping hand.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Saturday, May 29, 2021

#2,575. The Man From Snowy River (1982) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


Despite the presence of star Kirk Douglas (who plays the dual roles of feuding brothers), 1982’s The Man from Snowy River is, at its core, an Australian western adventure. And it’s a damn good one, too.

Following the tragic death of his father (Terence Donovan), young Jim Craig (Tom Burlinson) leaves his picturesque mountain homestead to take a job with Harrison (Douglas), a millionaire cattle rancher.

Jim eventually falls in love with Harrison’s daughter Jessica (Sigrid Thornton), but Harrison, who dislikes mountain folk, has no intention of allowing their romance to blossom.

At times a rousing adventure (especially the scenes featuring a herd of runaway horses, which stirs up trouble everywhere it goes), The Man from Snowy River is also beautifully shot (Director of Photography Keith Wagstaff captures the landscapes of Victoria, Australia, in a way that would make the state’s travel bureau proud).

Burlinson and Thornton do a fine job as the young lovers (they would reprise their roles in Disney’s 1988 sequel, the aptly titled The Man from Snowy River II), while Douglas (not even attempting an Australian accent) is equally good as both the stern-and-serious Harrison and his brother, Spur, the down-to-earth gold prospector who befriends Jim.

Story-wise, it isn’t anything special (the above synopsis already told you that), but the film features enough fun and adventure to ensure your trip to Snowy River will be a rewarding one.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Thursday, May 27, 2021

#2,574. The Final Countdown (1980) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


What a cool premise for a movie!

While on maneuvers in the Pacific, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Nimitz is pulled into a time portal that whisks it 40- years into the past, to December 6, 1941, a day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Once they’ve accepted what’s happened, the crew of the Nimitz: Captain Yelland (Kirk Douglas), Air Wing Commander Owens (James Farentino), Commander Thurman (Ron O’Neal), and civilian Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen), an observer for the Department of Defense, are faced with a dilemma. Do they take advantage of their superior firepower to annihilate the approaching Japanese fleet and save Pearl Harbor, or do they sit back and do nothing, allowing the attack to play out as written in the history books?

Like I said, it’s a great premise, and as long as you don’t spend a lot of time pondering the science of it all, 1980’s The Final Countdown is sure to bring a smile to your face.

Shot aboard the actual U.S..S. Nimitz with the full co-operation of the United States Navy, The Final Countdown gets points for its depiction of life aboard an aircraft carrier. An early scene in which a malfunctioning plane comes in for a landing is as fascinating as it is exciting.

And while other time travel movies might debate the ramifications of disrupting the course of history, The Final Countdown doesn’t let such worries get in the way of a good time. At one point, a couple of 1980’s jets battle it out with ‘40s-era Japanese scout planes, and Commander Owens leads a rescue mission to save Senator Samuel Chapman (Charles Durning) and his advisor Laurel Scott (Katharine Ross) when their yacht is attacked (history had reported that Senator Chapman was lost at sea prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor).

The Final Countdown is in no way flawless; the crew of the Nimitz is a little too quick to accept their leap through time, and a twist at the end, involving a mysterious millionaire in a limo, is easily figured out well before the big reveal. But as sci-fi / war mash-ups go, The Final Countdown delivers enough on both fronts to keep you entertained.
Rating: 7 out of 10

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

#2,573. Posse (1975) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


Quentin Tarantino is a fan of Kirk Douglas’ 1975 western Posse, so much so that he hosted a special screening of it at the 2010 Santa Barbara Film Festival, then followed it up with a live Q & A with Douglas himself. Though he seemed more interested in complimenting the director’s own recent film, Inglorurious Basterds, Douglas did have a few things to say about Posse, which is every bit as awesome as Tarantino says.

Howard Nightengale (Douglas), a federal Marshal, is running for State Senator. To impress the voters, he assembles a specially-trained posse and vows to bring notorious outlaw Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern) to justice.

Nightengale eventually gets his man, and is treated like a conquering hero when he marches Strawhorn into a nearby town. But Strawhorn has no intention of remaining a prisoner for long, and concocts a plan that will not only help him escape, but ruin Nightengale’s chances of ever making it to Washington D.C.

During the 2010 Q & A, Tarantino called Posse an “actor’s film”, and it is definitely that. There’s action, of course; the opening shoot-out, a late-night ambush where Nightengale and his posse kill Strawhorn’s men (and in the process burn $40,000 in stolen cash) is damned exciting, one of several such sequences in the film. The final act, set on a burning train traveling in reverse, is especially thrilling. Yet the best scenes in Posse are those in which Nightengale and Strawhorn verbally square off. Their one-on-one in the jail cell is a definite highlight).

Dern, who at this point in his career had already portrayed his share of western villains (Will Penny, The Cowboys), plays a train robber and killer in Posse, yet we get the distinct impression throughout that his Strawhorn is, at all times, the smartest guy in the room. His mind is always spinning, searching for a way out of his dire predicament while at the same time concealing his plot from the watchful eyes of his captors.

Douglas’s character is equally as intelligent, but with a much different agenda. His Nightengale wants only to be elected, and every word he utters is geared in that direction. He even turns down the amorous advances of hotel manager Mrs. Ross (Beth Brickell), saying he’d much rather have her vote.

Equally suspect are the men who make up Nightengale’s posse. Wesley (Bo Hopkins) even seduces a married woman (Katherine Woodville) while her husband sits on the dias, listening to Nightengale’s speech. Howard Nightengale and his men are on the side of the law, but they are not heroic men. Strawhorn, watching through the window of a second-floor jail cell that overlooks the town, recognizes this. In the end, he even uses their shortcomings to his advantage, setting up a finale that will surprise the hell out of you.

This was the second and final film that Kirk Douglas ever directed (his first was 1973’s Scalawag), and to see it is to wonder why he didn’t take the director’s chair more often. Clearly, he had a knack for recognizing quality stories, and Posse tells a great one.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Sunday, May 23, 2021

#2,572. The Light at the Edge of the World (1971) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


A number of fine, family-oriented movies have been based on the writings of Jules Verne, classics such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, and Mysterious Island, just to name a few.

The Light at the Edge of the World, a 1971 film starring Kirk Douglas, is not one of those movies!

Don’t misunderstand me: it’s an excellent film, a beautifully shot, expertly acted motion picture that tells one hell of a story. Where it differs from the others is in its presentation; despite its GP (General Audience) rating, The Light at the Edge of the World is not a movie you’ll want to show the kids.

Douglas plays Will Denton, one of three men assigned to a remote 19th-century lighthouse on the southernmost tip of South America. One day, a ship pulls into the nearby harbor, and Denton’s associates, Captain Moriz (Fernando Rey) and Felipe (Massimo Ranieri), go down to greet the vessel.

Unfortunately, the ship belongs to a band of bloodthirsty pirates, and their captain, Kongre (Yul Brynner), is the most ruthless of them all. After killing Moriz and Felipe, Kongre and his men take over the lighthouse with the intent of luring unsuspecting ships onto the nearby rocks, thus making them much easier to pillage.

Denton manages to escape and hide out in the surrounding hills, hoping he can survive long enough to be rescued by the relief ship that’s due any day.

When Kongre and his men cause a British-bound passenger ship to run aground, Denton rescues the boat’s engineer, Montefiore (Renato Salvatori), and is stunned to discover that the only other survivor, a prisoner of Kongre’s named Arabella (Samantha Eggar), bears a striking resemblance to a woman he once loved!

Can Denton and Montefiore avoid capture long enough to save Arabella, or will they, too, become one of Kongre’s countless victims?

As I already mentioned, The Light at the Edge of the World is a gorgeous movie, thanks to the picturesque locations (a large portion of the film was shot on the coast of Spain) and the expert cinematography of Henri Decae, a favorite of the French New Wave directors (he shot – among others - Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows).

In addition, Douglas and Brynner do a fine job squaring off against one another, with Brynner turning in an especially devilish performance as the cruel pirate with just a dash of sophistication (which he displays proudly in his scenes with Eggar’s Arabella).

Sounds like a rollicking adventure that the whole family can enjoy, doesn’t it? Well, unlike other Verne adaptations, The Light at the Edge of the World is also quite brutal, sometimes shockingly so. The violence is unflinching and occasionally gory (especially during a late torture scene), and Arabella’s treatment at the hands of her captors might have younger viewers asking some uncomfortable questions.

Though it may not be for kids, The Light at the Edge of the World has enough going for it to keep the adults entertained. A grand adventure that doubles as a tense showdown between two strong characters, it is a movie that would have made Jules Verne proud.

As long as he had the stomach for it.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Friday, May 21, 2021

#2,571. The Heroes of Telemark (1965) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


Anthony Mann directs this large-scale yet strangely lifeless war film, which is based on a true story.

The setting is Nazi-occupied Norway, 1942. Scientist Rolf Pedersen (Kirk Douglas) joins forces with resistance leader Knut Straud (Richard Harris) to sabotage a hydro plant in the small town of Rjukan, which is producing heavy water for the Nazis, a key component in the manufacturing of atomic bombs.

Aided by a small band of fighters, including Pedersen’s ex-wife Anna (Ulla Jacobsson) and her Uncle (Michael Redgrave), they put their plan into motion, knowing full well what it means to rest of the world if they fail.

Mann, who also directed The Fall of the Roman Empire and El-Cid, brings an epic sensibility to The Heroes of Telemark, and there are a handful of big moments scattered throughout the film. Hoping western scientists can shed some light on the Nazis intentions, Pederson, Straud, and a few others hijack a passenger ship and force it to sail to London, resulting in a few tense moments when their boat encounters some mines.

Once word arrives that the Germans do, indeed, intend to build atomic weapons, the decision is made to sabotage the plant, leading to another exciting sequence, while the film’s finale, set aboard a ferry, is positively nerve-racking.

Where The Heroes of Telemark falters is in its characterizations. Douglas and Harris do a fine job as the mismatched freedom fighters: Pedersen takes a more practical approach to the situation, realizing it might be necessary to sacrifice a few innocent civilians for the greater good, while Straud fights tooth and nail for a plan that will spare the lives of his friends and neighbors. Unfortunately, the two never click as a team (there was supposedly friction between Douglas and Harris throughout production, and it shows in their scenes together).

Worse still is the relationship between Pedersen and his ex-wife Anna, which is so woefully underdeveloped that it feels like an afterthought (making the scene where Pedersen crawls into bed with Anna more predatory than romantic).

It may seem a bit nit-picky to complain about poorly developed characters in an action-centric war film, and as I said, the movie boasts a fair number of exciting sequences. But in a story with so much on the line, you can’t completely ignore the human element, and the fact that The Heroes of Telemark comes up as short as it does in that department simply cannot be overlooked.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

#2,570. In Harm's Way (1965) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


During a 1971 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, Kirk Douglas took a few moments to discuss fellow actor John Wayne, whom he appeared with in a number of movies. “We have never seen eye-to-eye on a lot of things”, Douglas said, “but… I think he’s one of the most professional actors I’ve ever worked with”. He went on to say how he and Wayne (“Everyone calls him Duke”, Douglas chuckled, “but I’ve always called him John”) never talked politics (a topic on which they were polar opposites), but Kirk admitted “He’s the first guy on the set, he’s the hardest worker I ever worked with, and I think he’s quite a character”.

Both men co-starred in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way, a 1965 black and white WWII epic that manages to sandwich some effective melodrama between its battle sequences.

Wayne is Navy Captain Rockwell “Rock” Torrey. During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Torrey and his executive officer Commander Paul Eddington (Douglas) were out at sea. Both would face disciplinary action in the wake of the attack; Torrey, who was tasked with assembling the remaining fleet and tracking down the enemy, issued an order that resulted in his ship being destroyed by a Japanese sub, while Eddington got into a barroom brawl after learning that his promiscuous wife (Barbara Bouchet) was killed during the attack along with her lover, an Air Force Major (played by Hugh O’Brian).

Torrey and Eddington find themselves on the sidelines as the war in the Pacific escalates, with Rock using his time to romance nurse Maggie Haines (Patricia Neal) and get re-acquainted with his son, Jeremiah (Brandon De Wilde), a Navy ensign whom he hasn’t seen in 18 years (he and Jeremiah’s mother divorced soon after he was born).

Alas, the war is going badly; U.S. forces, under the command of Vice Admiral Broderick (Dana Andrews), have been bogged down, unable to take the island of Levu-Vana from the Japanese. Acting on a recommendation made by Rock’s good friend and fellow officer Cmdr. Egan Powell (Burgess Meredith), the Navy promotes Rock to the rank of Admiral and sends him to the Pacific to head up a fresh offensive.

Taking Eddington along as his second-in-command, Rock successfully captures several key areas, only to discover the Japanese have been sending in heavy reinforcements. With most available troops and equipment tied up elsewhere, Rock, Eddington, and a select few must somehow defeat the Japanese and take Levu-Vana, no matter the cost.

While the battle scenes range from adequate (the final confrontation with the Japanese Navy has its moments) to mediocre (the attack on Pearl Harbor isn’t given much attention, and a few of the sea skirmishes suffer from poor effects), In Harm’s Way proves a very effective wartime drama. Wayne delivers a subdued performance as second-generation Navy man Rock Torrey, and his relationships with Patricia Neal (quite good as the romantic interest) and Brandon De Wilde (as the son who is nothing like his father) are enough to keep us watching until the action picks up again.

Adding a darker element to the story is Douglas’s Eddington, who turns to booze as a way of dealing with his unfaithful wife’s death, then later has a fling with Nurse Annalee Dorne (Jill Haworth), which ends badly (the scene on the beach, where Annalee tells Eddington that she’s engaged to Jeremiah Torrey, is easily the film’s most disturbing moment).

Also strong in support are Burgess Meredith, Dana Andrews, Tom Tryon (as Lt. McConnell, a young Commander who is reported missing in action), Paula Prentiss (as McConnell’s distraught wife), Stanley Holloway (as an Australian who scouts Japanese positions for the Navy), and Patrick O’Neal (as Broderick’s slimy subordinate, who intends to run for office after the war).

In addition to its cast, In Harm’s Way features sparkling cinematography (the work of Loyal Griggs, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work) and a great score by Jerry Goldsmith.

Wayne (who, a few months after production had wrapped on In Harm’s Way was diagnosed with lung cancer) would become a polarizing force in Hollywood in the years that followed; he won his only Academy Award in 1969 (for True Grit), only to incur the wrath of his peers after an explosive 1971 interview with Playboy magazine (Wayne called Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboyperverted films” and justified the stealing of land from the Native Americans, who were “selfishly trying to keep it for themselves”).

Whatever your opinion might be of John Wayne (and I certainly can’t bring myself to defend his positions or statements, many of which are indefensible), he did manage to shine in the right role, and while Kirk Douglas (like many of us) may not have liked the man, he respected the actor.

Together, these two Hollywood legends helped make In Harm’s Way a truly memorable motion picture.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Monday, May 17, 2021

#2,569. Seven Days in May (1964) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


Two years after directing The Manchurian Candidate (one of my all-time favorite films), John Frankenheimer again cranked the tension up to 10 with Seven Days in May, a politically-charged thriller with one hell of a cast.

The Cold War is in full swing, but that hasn’t stopped U.S. President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) from entering into a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. Lyman is convinced it’s the right thing to do, though not everyone agrees. A recent poll revealed that President Lyman’s approval rating is the lowest it has ever been, and the military establishment believes he’s leading the country into a trap, and that the Russians will attack the moment the United States disarms.

The President’s most vocal critic is Air Force General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As Lyman’s popularity plummets, Scott’s skyrockets, and there are those in both the Senate and the press who believe the General should be the one calling the shots.

While going about his duties as the director of the Joints' Staff, Colonel “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) stumbles upon classified information that seems to suggest General Scott and a few others are planning to oust President Lyman and take control of the government. A staunch supporter of General Scott’s, Casey nonetheless feels it is his duty to prevent this coup, and though he has no direct evidence, alerts President Lyman of his suspicions.

With only seven days before Scott’s alleged plan is put into motion, the President and his allies, including White House Chief of Staff Paul Girard (Martin Balsam), Treasury Secretary Chris Todd (George MacReady), and Senator Ray Clark (Edmond O’Brien), move quickly, gathering evidence to expose Scott and prevent his intended coup.

The opening sequence of Seven Days in May, a clash in front of the White House between picketers who oppose the treaty and others who support it, gets the movie off to a nerve-racking start, and from there on out it never loses an ounce of momentum. As he did with The Manchurian Candidate, Frankenheimer brings us to the edge of our seats more than once, especially in the final act, when President Lyman and his team are fighting both the clock and those who are out destroy them.

Lancaster delivers a bravura performance as the egotistical Scott, while Douglas, Balsam, O’Brien (who won a Golden Globe for his turn here), MacReady and Ava Gardner (as a former lover of Scott’s who may just hold the key to exposing the coup) are also strong in their respective roles.

It is Fredric March, however, who damn near steals the show as President Lyman, a man whose political beliefs have made him a target. March is excellent throughout, though his finest moment occurs in the final act, when his President Lyman, still lacking sufficient proof, confronts General Scott. It is an intense exchange, with both actors at the top of their game.

A harrowing, occasionally frightening tale of political conspiracy written by the great Rod Serling, Seven Days in May is as thrilling as they come.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, May 15, 2021

#2,568. The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


Adrian Messenger (John Merivale) is dead. He was one of over a hundred people who perished when his plane, bound for Canada, exploded in mid-air and crashed into the sea.

A few days before he died, Messenger handed a list of names over to his good friend, former Intelligence Officer Anthony Gethryn (George C. Scott), asking him to track down each person's whereabouts, and if they are still alive.

Messenger never told Gethryn why he wanted this information, and the reasons behind his inquiry would have died with him if it wasn’t for Raoul Le Borg (Jacques Roux), the only survivor of the plane crash and the man who heard Adrian Messenger’s seemingly incoherent last words.

Gethryn is convinced Adrian’s final utterances were, in fact, an attempt to get a message to him, and sure enough, when the pieces fall into place, Gethryn concludes that the plane carrying Adrian Messenger was sabotaged. What’s more, the men whose names are on his list have also died, under mysterious circumstances.

How these men connect to Adrian Messenger, and why anyone would want them all dead, forms the basis of John Huston’s 1963 film The List of Adrian Messenger, a movie that will grab your attention in the very first scene and not let go until the mystery has been solved.

And even then, the filmmakers have one more, very big surprise in store for you!

We know from the first scene that someone is killing the people on Adrian’s list, and before long we even know who the killer is: Kirk Douglas, always in disguise when carrying out his various killings (using make-up to pose as an elderly man, a vicar, and several others, we watch him finish off a handful of victims). Still, we have no idea why his character is committing these murders, and it’s here that the movie distinguishes itself as an exceptionally entertaining mystery.

Scott is remarkable as the ever-inquisitive Gethryn, whose deductive reasoning skills are beyond impressive (though he has very few clues to go on, Gethryn manages to stay one step behind the killer at all times). As for the supporting players, Douglas disappears behind layers of make-up to portray what amounts to a number of different characters, and Roux is strong in the sidekick role (he’s the Dr. Watson to Gethryn’s Sherlock Holmes). Also along for the ride are Dana Wynter as Lady Joselyn Burttenhold, Adrian Messenger’s cousin and a member of a very prestigious family; as well as Herbert Marshall as Sir Wilfred Lucas, Gethryn’s superior.

But it’s the rest of the cast you won’t soon forget, even if you can’t recognize a single one of them. Appearing in cameos throughout The List of Adrian Messenger are Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, and Frank Sinatra, all sporting disguises so amazing you'll have no idea which character they played until the very end.

A brilliant mystery that is an incredible amount of fun, I can’t recommend The List of Adrian Messenger enough!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Thursday, May 13, 2021

#2,567. Lonely Are The Brave (1962) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


A westerner likes open country. That means he’s got to hate fences. And the more fences there are, the more he hates them”.

John W. Burns (Kirk Douglas) – Jack for short – is a rare breed. He’s a cowboy in the modern world, living by his own rules... even when they’re at odds with the law. We discover in the opening scene of 1962’s Lonely are the Brave just how much Jack Burns hates fences when he ignores a warning sign, cuts through some barbed wire, hops on his horse “Whiskey”, and rides on through.

After reading in the newspaper that his good friend Paul (Michael Kane) has been arrested for giving aid to illegal immigrants, Jack pays a quick visit to Paul’s wife, Jerry (Gena Rowlands),then heads to a bar, intent on getting himself arrested so that he can break his old buddy out of jail.

Sure enough, Jack has a fight with a one-armed man (Bill Raisch), is hauled to the clink, and reunites with Paul. Using two small hacksaws he hid in his boot, Jack manages to cut through a bar in their jail cell, but Paul refuses to go with him, deciding instead to quietly do his time so that he can get back to his family (if the escape fails, it would result in five years being added to his 24-month sentence).

Once free, Jack heads back to Jerry’s house, jumps on Whiskey, and heads for a nearby mountain range, knowing that if he makes it over those hills, he’ll be a free man.

But the police, led by Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau), have no intention of letting Jack Burns slip through their fingers, and with the entire force – as well as an army helicopter - joining in the manhunt, it’s going to take more than a little luck for Jack to escape.

Shot in gorgeous black and white, Lonely are the Brave was written by Dalton Trumbo (based on a novel by Edward Abbey), whose script features plenty of sharp, witty dialogue (though he plays the character straight, Walter Matthau gets his fair share of laughs as the Sheriff) and even the odd action scene (the bar fight is exciting, as is the chase that makes up the film’s final act). 

In addition, there’s the seemingly unrelated tale of a long-distance truck driver (Carroll O’Conner) trying to meet his deadline. Trumbo smoothly weaves this side story into the main narrative, and we know it will somehow - eventually - connect to Jack Burns and his escape, even if we’re not sure how.

Yet as good as all of this is, the best scenes in Lonely Are the Brave feature Jack on the open range, talking with his horse (time and again, we sense the camaraderie between the two, and this proves to be the most poignant relationship in the entire movie). As played by Douglas, Jack Burns is an upbeat, likable guy, a man who enjoys his freedom and will do whatever is necessary to hold onto it. We root like hell for him throughout the movie, and before long even Sheriff Johnson comes to admire the man he’s trying to recapture. The supporting cast – Rowlands, Matthau, Kane, and O’Connor - is also superb, and turning up briefly are both George Kennedy (as a particularly nasty cop) and Bill Bixby (as an Army helicopter pilot).

Kirk Douglas once called Lonely Are the Brave his favorite of all his movies, and it’s easy to see why. Crisply directed (by David Miller), flawlessly written, and expertly acted, Lonely Are the Brave was a perfect storm of creativity.
Rating: 10 out of 10

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

#2,566. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


The date was October 26, 1881

The time, around 3 p.m.

The place: Tombstone, Arizona.

The Earp brothers and Doc Holliday were on one side, and the “Cowboys” - Ike and Billy Clanton, the McLaury brothers and Billy Claiborne - on the other.

Approximately 30 shots were fired, and the melee is said to have lasted no more than 30 seconds. Yet this showdown, which occurred at a small stable on the outskirts of town, is, to this day, the most famous shoot-out in U.S. history.

It has been immortalized time and again on the silver screen, starting in 1932 (the Walter Huston vehicle Law and Order) and as recently as 2017 (Alex Cox’s Tombstone Rashomon). The most noteworthy films to throw a spotlight on this firefight, however, were directed by John Ford (1946’s My Darling Clementine), George P. Cosmatos (Tombstone, released in 1993), and, of course, the great John Sturges, whose 1957 movie is the only one of the three named after this legendary conflict: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

As the movie opens, Marshal Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) and gunslinger / gambler Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas) are in Fort Griffin, Texas, on opposite sides of the law. Holliday is forced to kill Ed Bailey (Lee Van Cleef), who was looking for revenge (Holliday shot Bailey’s brother, in self-defense). When Holliday is arrested by the sheriff, Wyatt - spurred on by Doc’s girlfriend Kate (Jo Van Fleet) - helps him escape, narrowly avoiding the lynch mob that was forming in the streets below.

From that point on, Wyatt and Doc are friends. Doc settles down in Dodge City, where Wyatt is the law, and even helps Wyatt when Shanghai Pierce (Ted de Corsia) and Johnny Ringo (John Ireland) ride into town.

Wyatt, who has fallen in love with gambler Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), decides to hang up his guns and settle down. That all changes, however, when Wyatt’s brother, Virgil (John Hudson), the sheriff of Tombstone, asks for his help.

It seems Ike Clanton (Lyle Bettger) has been rustling cattle South of the border, and needs to move the herd through Tombstone to take it to market. Wyatt, joined by his other brothers Morgan (DeForest Kelley), and Jimmy (Martin Milner), ride in to help Virgil stop Clanton and his gang, with Doc Holliday tagging along as well, setting the stage for a showdown unlike any the west has ever seen.

Lancaster delivers a strong performance as the straight-laced Wyatt Earp, a lawman who never backs down from a fight. But it’s Douglas’s turn as the ornery Doc Holliday that steals the show. A drunk with a persistent cough (the real Doc Holliday suffered from tuberculosis), we, like Wyatt, are never sure if Doc can be trusted. He is often drunk, and mistreats Kate, so much so that she eventually leaves him and hooks up with Johnny Ringo. Yet, when the chips are down, each man knows that the other has his back, and it’s watching that friendship grow that gives Gunfight at the O.K. Corral its center.

Director Sturges, who in later years would helm The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, does a fine job staging the film’s various battle scenes, and the supporting cast, which also features Jack Elam (as Tom McLaury) and a young Dennis Hopper (as Billy Clanton), is excellent. But it’s Lancaster and especially Douglas who helped Gunfight at the O.K. Corral rank alongside The Searchers, High Noon, Rio Bravo, and Winchester ’73 as one of the finest westerns of the 1950s.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Sunday, May 9, 2021

#2,565. Lust for Life (1956) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch artist whose paintings were revered only after his death, once said “I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process”.

Vincente Minnelli’s 1956 film Lust for Life seems to have taken these words to heart. A gorgeous motion picture (shot on-location in many of the towns and provinces in which the real Van Gogh resided), Lust for Life tells the story of a man who poured his very being into his creations, only to see his mind turn on him in the end.

Having failed as a Christian minister, Vincent Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) falls back on his true love; art. With the financial support of his devoted brother Theo (James Donald), Vincent creates hundreds of sketches and paintings over the course of a decade, primarily in the South of France, where he resides for a while with good friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn).

Alas, Vincent’s mental state has always been fragile at best. After spending time in an institution under the care of Dr. Gachet (Everett Sloane), Vincent feels he’s once again ready to set out on his own, but has he truly conquered the illness, or will his demons win out in in the end?

Douglas delivers a career-defining performance as Van Gogh, portraying a tormented soul who is governed by his emotions; the early scenes in which he becomes the spiritual leader of a small mining community are contrasted by his romantic obsession with his cousin, the recently widowed Kay (Jeanette Sterke), who ultimately rejects his aggressive advances.

In these sequences and all others - especially those detailing Van Gogh’s tumultuous friendship with Gauguin (played with gusto by Quinn, who would win an Academy Award for his performance) - Douglas generates empathy for a man whose motivations remain a mystery; we connect with his Van Gogh on an emotional level while, at the same time, aligning ourselves with his brother Theo, whose only wish is that Vincent finds happiness. We want that for Vincent Van Gogh as well, even when it’s obvious that peace and tranquility are beyond his grasp.

Vincent Van Gogh has been the subject of several films in recent years, from Robert Altman’s oft-overlooked Vincent and Theo to 2018’s At Eternity’s Gate, in which Willem Dafoe played the tortured artist. There was even an extraordinary animated feature – 2017’s Loving Vincent - that adapted the style of a Van Gogh painting as it related the sad tale of the artist’s life and death.

Yet as good as these later films are, Lust for Life, thanks to the amazing performance of its star, stands as the quintessential Van Gogh film.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Friday, May 7, 2021

#2,564. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


Produced by Walt Disney, 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is more than a great adventure movie; it’s arguably the finest live-action film that Disney ever released.

The year is 1868, and rumors of a terrible sea monster - a creature large enough to devour an entire ship - have brought trade and commerce in the Pacific region to a standstill. Hoping to get things back on track, the United States government enlists the help of Professor Arronax (Paul Lukas), who, accompanied by his assistant Consell (Peter Lorre) and master harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), boards a U.S. Navy vessel and sets sail, all in the hopes of tracking down the elusive monster.

They do, indeed, have a run-in with the creature, which sinks their ship and sends Arronax, Consell, and Ned scrambling for the nearest lifeboat. While drifting at sea, though, the trio discovers that the “monster” is, in fact, the Nautilus, a submarine commanded by the nefarious Captain Nemo (James Mason).

Having escaped a penal colony on the island of Rura Penthe, Nemo and his crew (also former prisoners) now roam the Pacific, attacking and sinking every military or trade vessel they encounter. With Arronax and the others as his “guests”, Nemo continues to lash out at the world, while Arronax tries to convince the mad Captain that violence isn’t the answer.

Across the board, the cast assembled for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is strong (Kirk Douglas even gets a chance to sing, belting out the incredibly catchy tune “A Whale of a Tale”). Yet the standout performance is delivered by James Mason as the charismatic Nemo, who, despite playing the villain, is at times a sympathetic character (we may not agree with Nemo’s methods, but we understand his motivations).

That said, the real stars of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are its set pieces and the wonderfully choreographed adventure scenes. The interior of the Nautilus is breathtaking, as is the design of the sub itself (which, from a distance, looks very much like a sea monster). As for the more exciting moments, the best are the various underwater sequences (in one, Ned and Consell stumble upon a treasure chest, only to be chased by a shark) as well as the movie’s most famous scene: the fight with the giant squid, which has attached itself to the Nautilus and refuses to let go (set during a raging storm, this battle will have you on the edge of your seat).

Over the years, a number of fine movies have been based on the writings of Jules Verne, from the Academy Award-winning Around the World in 80 Days to 1961’s Mysterious Island (which featured special effects by Ray Harryhausen). Towering above them all is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, one of the most timelessly entertaining movies that Disney ever released.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

#2,563. Ace in the Hole (1951) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


Edward R. Murrow, American journalist extraordinaire, once said “To be persuasive, we must be believable. To be believable, we must be credible. To be credible, we must be truthful”. But as movies have shown us over the years (Picture Snatcher, Network, Absence of Malice), members of the press can be just as ambitious as the politicians and businessmen they’re paid to keep tabs on, and won’t let anything – not even the facts – stand in the way of a good story.

Yet in the long history of Hollywood, there hasn’t been a reporter quite as merciless or corrupt as the lead character in Billy Wilder’s 1951 masterpiece, Ace in the Hole.

Having been fired from all the big city newspapers, Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is forced to take a job with the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, where he hopes to eventually land a story so big it will put him back on top. His break comes when he and his young photographer Herbie (Robert Arthur), en-route to cover a rattlesnake hunt, stop at a small desert gas station and discover that a man has just been trapped in a nearby cave-in.

It turns out the owner of the station, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), was gathering ancient Native American pottery in an old cliff dwelling when the ceiling collapsed on top of him. His leg pinned under a rock, Leo can’t get out, and with the rest of the cave looking like it might give way at any minute, rescuing Leo isn’t going to be easy.

Convinced he can turn Leo’s plight into a nationwide headline, Tatum- with the help of both Leo’s unhappy wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling) and Sheriff Kratzer (Ray Teal) - manages to slow down the rescue operation, just long enough to draw the attention of every newspaper in the country.

As word gets out, people flock to this tiny town to root Leo on, and, sure enough, Tatum’s bylines make him a celebrity. But will poor Leo survive long enough to give Tatum the happy ending his story needs?

Kirk Douglas is at his slimy best as Chuck Tatum, a guy who has been fired from more newspapers than he can count, and for a variety of reasons (from drunkenness to having an affair with the editor’s wife). Yet his past failings have done nothing to bruise his ego; on the contrary, Chuck Tatum is as arrogant as ever, promising his co-workers that it won’t be long before New York comes calling again. When the Leo Minosa story lands in his lap, it’s like a dream come true, and Tatum quickly gets down to business, bribing officials (to get exclusive rights to the story) and stalling the rescue workers (to ensure he has enough time to turn Leo’s plight into a sensation). Douglas, who also played an anti-hero in 1949’s Champion, is so convincingly ruthless throughout Ace in the Hole that, as much as you hate him, you can’t wait to see what he does next.

Tatum isn’t the only shady character to be found in Ace in the Hole; Jan Sterling’s Lorraine, Leo’s disgruntled wife, had packed her bags, ready to leave the trapped Leo before Tatum convinced her there’s money to be made if she sticks around (later on, she even flirts with Tatum). Then there’s Ray Teal’s sheriff, who - urged on by Tatum - uses his influence to keep Leo trapped until his newfound popularity wins him re-election.

On the flip-side is the victim, Leo, a simple-minded guy who actually believes Chuck Tatum is his friend, and doing everything in his power to save him. Whereas Tatum and company will have you seeing red, the scenes featuring Benedict’s Leo are bound to bring a tear to your eye.

This superb cast, coupled with Wilder’s sharp direction and even sharper script, helped make Ace in the Hole one of cinema’s bleakest condemnations of the Fourth Estate, and one of the darkest - yet at the same time most engaging - of all the film noirs.
Rating: 10 out of 10

Monday, May 3, 2021

#2,562. Young Man with a Horn (1950) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


Based on a 1938 novel of the same name (which was itself inspired by the life of jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke), Young Man with a Horn stars Kirk Douglas as Rick Martin, a gifted trumpet player whose passion for music is all-consuming.

Taught how to play by Jazz trumpeter Art Hazzard (uano Hernandez), Martin rose from obscurity to become one of the best musicians of his generation, and along with his good pal Smoke Willoughby (Hoagy Carmichael) played dance halls, jazz clubs, and everywhere in between.

The women in Rick’s life, including singer Jo Jordan (Doris Day) and psychiatrist Amy North (Lauren Bacall) - the latter of whom would become his wife - realized early on that Rick Martin’s real love was his trumpet. But when life took a turn for the worse, he found that not even music could see him through the dark times.

By the time he made this 1950 musical / drama, Michael Curtiz had directed around 150 movies, some of which (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce) still rank among the finest ever made. True to form, he does a remarkable job staging Young Man with a Horn's various musical numbers, giving them a vitality that is tangible; even a late funeral sequence, which features gospel standards like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, has energy to spare.

As for the cast, Douglas delivers a top-notch performance as the always-optimistic Martin, a guy who cares more about the music than he does making money, while Doris Day (who also gets to sing a few songs), Carmichael (who doubles as the film’s narrator), and Hernandez shine as Martin’s down-to-earth friends, all of whom try to convince him there’s more to life than his trumpet.

Then there’s Lauren Bacall as Amy, Martin’s eventual wife. Supported by her rich yet estranged father, Amy has failed at everything she’s ever attempted - from playing the piano to getting her college degree - and is envious of Rick’s talent, which has carried him to the top of his profession. It’s a toxic relationship from the start, and Bacall manages to bring a little humanity to what is easily the movie’ most unlikable character.

With great tunes (band leader Harry James served as the musical advisor and doubled for Douglas’ trumpet playing), an excellent cast, and an old pro like Curtiz at the helm, Young Man with a Horn rises above the standard musical drama to deliver something much more substantial.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Saturday, May 1, 2021

#2,561. Champion (1949) - The Films of Kirk Douglas


It wasn’t until 1996 that Kirk Douglas finally got his hands on an Oscar statuette, and even then it was only honorary (for his “50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community”).

Prior to that, he had been nominated on three separate occasions for Best Actor, the first of which was for his portrayal of boxing champion Midge Kelly in 1949’s Champion (he was later nominated for The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life). Directed by Mark Robson, Champion is a gritty drama / film noir about a fiercely independent fighter who is often his own worst enemy.

Clawing their way up from skid row, Midge and his kid brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy) bounce around from job to job until Midge finally takes the advice of boxing manager Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart), who, after seeing him stand in for an injured fighter, felt he had the potential to be a great boxer. Dedicating his every waking moment to the sport, Midge wins fight after fight, eventually earning a New York title bout against current champ Johnny Dunne (John Daheim).

But the gamblers, who have heavy money on Dunne to win, order Midge to take a dive. Tired of waiting for his shot, Midge pulls a double-cross and instead knocks Dunne out in the first round.

From that point on, Midge Kelly is unstoppable. He becomes champion of the world, aligning himself with shady characters like Grace (Marilyn Maxwell) and promoter Harris (Luis van Rooten) while at the same time turning his back on his real friends. Through it all, Midge continues to win, but how long will he stay on top?

Douglas gives a searing performance as Midge Kelly, a boxer with a chip on his shoulder who won’t play the patsy for anyone, even when it’s in his best interest to do so; after defeating Dunne in the championship bout, the gamblers beat up not only Midge, but Tommy and Connie as well.

He’s also less that scrupulous when it comes to the ladies. Before deciding to take up the sport that would make him famous, Midge and Connie waited tables and washed dishes at a small beachside café. While there, Midge fell in love with co-worker Emma (Ruth Roman), whose father was their boss. Fearing the romance would disgrace his family, Emma’s dad forced Midge at gunpoint to marry Emma, but after the wedding, Midge and Connie took off for greener pastures, leaving Emma alone to deal with her broken heart. It was the first of several hearts Midge would break as the story unfolds (he even has an affair with Harris’s wife, Palmer - played by Lola Albright - that ends just as badly).

The supporting cast is solid. Kennedy is quite likable as Connie, the kid brother with a bum leg, as is Stewart as the father figure who teaches Midge the ins and outs of boxing. In addition, director Robson does a fine job staging the film’s many fight scenes (especially the climactic bout, a rematch between Midge and Johnny Dunne).

But Champion belongs to Kirk Douglas, whose Midge Kelly is hero and anti-hero at the same time. Even when we don’t like Midge, we root for him, and only an actor of Kirk Douglas’s stature could win over an audience that knows his character is a louse.
Rating: 9 out of 10