best film:  Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) has a comfortable lead over noir mainstay Out of the Past (1947). Kirk Douglas has plenty to chew on in both films. Paths of Glory is Douglas’ best performance, so more on that below, but Douglas in Out of the Past, eviscerates the screen when he is on it – unmistably stealing some scenes from a very game Robert Mitchum. William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951) is clearly Douglas’ third best film and the next closest candidate in this category.


best performance:  Kirk Douglas’ turn as Colonel Dax in Paths of Glory is a juicy performance – it has it all. Douglas is best known for playing hard-headed bastards and Colonel Dax is not fully that – but Dax has backbone and Douglas delivers all of his trademark fury during that explosive courtroom scene. Kubrick elevates this far beyond being just another war film or courtroom film and Douglas is certainly one of the big beneficiaries. The scene of Douglas pacing the trenches does not have half the same effect on the film (or performance) without Kubrick’s choice on the shot (tracking) and duration (long).


Douglas at his finest in Paths of Glory – powerful, intelligent, filled with such believable goodness and a moral compass. His “You can go to hell!” line and delivery is a transcendent moment of screen acting – an atom bomb – and there is no better actor to deliver it.


stylistic innovations/traits: Kirk Douglas has an impressive twenty-six (26) archiveable films with nearly all of them coming between the twenty (20) year stretch from 1946 to 1965 (24 of the 26 come during this period). In some ways, Douglas had the unfortunate position of always being compared to his frequent co-star Burt Lancaster (four archiveable films together) and for peaking at the same time as Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando (and the rise of Method acting). Douglas was on absolute fire from 1951 (two of the best five performances that year) to about 1960 – definitely one of Hollywood’s biggest starts and best actors during this period. One can tell his role in A Letter to Three Wives is prior to him really establishing himself – the casting is strange – without a doubt – this is Kirk Douglas before he is Kirk Douglas. He is always captivating but here he is largely so light and cheery — almost gelded. There is one exception in the film – in one scene he really gets going about how awful the radio is and radio writing. It is an amazing display if intensity – his nostrils are flaring.  In the 1950s alone, Douglas worked with Stanley Kubrick, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, William Wyler and Vincent Minnelli. He was great at playing wrath, arrogance, selfishness, and ruthlessness. He had those features and physicality that oozed masculinity – in the 1961 film The Last Sunset there is a great throwaway line about Douglas’ character and how he “has a hole in his chin” – referring to the actor’s famous dimple chin. But Douglas often challenged himself – John Wayne sort of famously did not understand Douglas wanting to break his tough guy persona like he did for a part like Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life.  Overall, it is a great sign for his depth of quality that neither his work in The Bad and the Beautiful nor his performance in Spartacus made the top five (5) below.


In an average film with an average actor Douglas’ Whit character in Out of the Past is a doormat for Robert Mitchum’s character.  Thankfully – this film and performance (and actor) are very far from average.


directors worked with: Vincent Minnelli (2), Richard Fleischer (2), Stanley Kubrick (2) Jacques Tourneur (1), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1), Raoul Walsh (1), Billy Wilder (1), William Wyler (1), Howard Hawks (1), John Sturges (1), Robert Aldrich (1), John Frankenheimer (1), Otto Preminger (1). Worthy of noting that Douglas was the only actor to get cast as lead actor twice for Stanley Kubrick.


Douglas in William Wyler’s (the depth of field focus should give it away) Detective Story (1951).  Douglas losing his temper  – and he is just about as good as any actor in cinema history at doing this.


top five performances:

  1. Paths of Glory
  2. Detective Story
  3. Out of the Past
  4. Ace in the Hole
  5. Lust for Life


another film from Douglas’ outstanding 1951 (the same year Marlon Brando was becoming a household name) – Ace in the Hole –  one of the legendary cynical Billy Wilder protagonists.


archiveable films

1946- The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
1947- I Walk Alone
1947- Mourning Becomes Electra
1947- Out of the Past
1949- A Letter to Three Wives
1949- Champion
1951- Ace in the Hole
1951- Along the Great Divide
1951- Detective Story
1952- The Bad and the Beautiful
1952- The Big Sky
1954- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
1955- The Indian Fighter
1956- Lust for Life
1957- Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
1957- Paths of Glory
1958- The Vikings
1959- Last Train from Gun Hill
1959- The Devil’s Disciple
1960- Spartacus
1961- The Last Sunset
1962- Lonely Are the Brave
1964- Seven Days in May
1965- In Harm’s Way
1978- The Fury
1982- The Man from Snowy River