Noirvember Day 11: Three From Kirk D

— There’s more Kirk noir than Out of the Past.

What movies come to mind when you think of Kirk Douglas?

Spartacus? Gunfight at the O.K. Corral? The Bad and the Beautiful? Lust for Life?

For me, without question, it’s Douglas’s body of film noir work. From 1946 to 1951, he appeared in a series of film noir features, serving up striking and memorable performances in each. Whether he was playing a merciless mobster, a ruthless reporter, or a spineless spouse, Douglas was always unforgettable.

In today’s Noirvember post, I’m taking a look at three Douglas noirs that get less attention than, say, his 1947 feature Out of the Past, but are totally deserving of your time and appreciation: Champion (1948), The Big Carnival (1951), and Detective Story (1951).

Champion (1948)

Douglas was offered Champion, an independent feature produced by Stanley Kramer, at the same time that he landed a role in The Great Sinner, a big-budget MGM costumer. “I insisted on doing Champion,” Douglas recalled years later. “It did well for me. Incidentally, The Great Sinner was a flop.”

— Midge and Connie (what was with those names, anyway?)

In Champion, Douglas portrays Midge Kelly, a ruthless boxer who will stop at nothing to achieve the success he craves – despite the cost to his disabled brother (Arthur Kennedy), his long-suffering wife (Ruth Roman), and his devoted manager (Paul Stewart).

Champion gave Douglas his meatiest role to date and transformed him into an “overnight” star. His Midge hails from humble beginnings; he and his brother, Connie (Arthur Kennedy) have dreams of climbing out of their impoverished conditions by opening a restaurant. It’s only by chance that Midge stumbles into the boxing game, and his true self emerges as he uses his friends and family as ladder rungs on his way to the top.

Favorite Midge quote: “It’s like any other business, only here the blood shows.”

Other stuff: For his performance as Midge, Douglas landed an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (he lost, however, to Broderick Crawford in All the King’s Men).

The Big Carnival (1951)

In this film, initially released as Ace in the Hole (which is the name by which it’s commonly known today), Douglas played an unethical reporter named Charles “Chuk” Tatum, who’s trying to make his way back into the big time after being fired from 11 newspapers. He gets his chance when he stumbles upon a small-town curio shop merchant who is trapped in an old Indian cavern. Working with a corrupt local official to prolong the merchant’s plight, Chuck parlays the incident into his own personal news bonanza.

— Chuck is not here to play with you.

The film’s title refers to the circus-like atmosphere that crops up around the cavern; as folks travel from far and wide to the site, the area becomes a tourist attraction complete with amusement rides, concession stands, campgrounds, and even a theme song. As the axis of this madness, Chuck stands as one of Kirk Douglas’s most unsavory characters – and that’s saying something!

Favorite Tatum quote: “I didn’t go to any college, but I know what makes a good story. Bad news sells best. Good news is no news.”

Other stuff: In one scene in the film, Tatum bemoans the things he misses about New York, including pastrami, Madison Square Garden, and Yogi Berra. Kirk Douglas objected to the line, and reportedly wrote a memo to director Billy Wilder, asking, “What the hell is a Yogi Berra?”

Detective Story (1951)

This gritty feature takes place over a 24-hour period in a New York City police station, and contains a mélange of memorable characters, from oddball criminals to salt-of-the-earth cops. Douglas was on hand as one of the latter, playing Jim McLeod, a detective whose uncompromising, highly ethical persona left little room for such trifles as forgiveness and compassion. The film is based on a popular 1949 play of the same name by Sidney Kingsley – it ran on Broadway for 581 performances, and starred Ralph Bellamy in the part played in the film by Douglas. (The film’s cast included several performers from the stage play, including Lee Grant and Joseph Wiseman.)

— Jim: Righteous, but not forgiving.

Jim’s penchant for the straight and narrow is revealed early on when he stubbornly refuses to dismiss a minor embezzlement charge against a first-time offender: “It’s never a first offense,” Jim insists. “It’s just the first time they get caught.” Later, this quirk in his personality is illuminated even more when he is not unwilling, but simply unable, to summon understanding for his wife when he learns about a misdeed that took place several years before their marriage.

Favorite Jim quote: “You butcher one more patient, and law or no law, I’ll find you. I’ll put a bullet in the back of your head and dump your body in the East River. And I’ll go home and I’ll sleep sweetly.”

Other stuff:  Douglas earned much-deserved raves for his performance as the emotionally tortured cop. He was labeled “superb” in the New York Times and “never before so convincing” by the critic for The New Yorker.

And that’s three of my favorite Kirk Douglas film noirs, in a nutshell. If you’ve missed any of these movies, why not track ‘em down? And if you’re already familiar with them, maybe a re-watch is in order.

You only owe it to yourself.

~ by shadowsandsatin on November 11, 2022.

6 Responses to “Noirvember Day 11: Three From Kirk D”

  1. Thank you, Karen. These would likewise be my three for, well, Kirk D. I prefer the title The Big Carnival because it better captures the cynicism of the movie and of Douglas’ character.

  2. Just seeing his name calls to mind Douglas smirking with hurt eyes in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, or sauntering through A LETTER TO THREE WIVES in a performance the Caftan Woman described thusly: “Kirk is working the charm like nobody’s business as George Phipps and, for once, there’s not a smidge of nasty under the smile.”

    But it was that smidge of nasty under the smile set Douglas apart from the start. It added an unexpected dimension to his role in one of my favorite noirs, THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS. It’s not HIS picture, but it wouldn’t have been the same without him.

    • Douglas was so great in so many films — I was always fond of his George in Three Wives because he taught me the correct use of the word “badly.” (To this day, when I hear it misused, I surreptitiously make that little gesture that he does with his hand. It’s like a Pavlovian response.) He was outstanding in Martha Ivers, too — it’s always amazing to me to know that this was his screen debut. What a talent.

      • “(To this day, when I hear it misused, I surreptitiously make that little gesture that he does with his hand. It’s like a Pavlovian response.)”

        I LOVE this!

        I do believe you just inspired a rewatch. (I must admit I tend to focus on Linda Darnell’s sublime performance — for me, her’s is the most compelling storyline of the three — so I don’t always give Kirk the attention he deserves in this picture.

        “He was outstanding in Martha Ivers, too — it’s always amazing to me to know that this was his screen debut. What a talent.”

        When I found out that Ivers was his maiden voyage, it blew my mind!

  3. I’ve yet to see The Champion – haven’t yet crossed paths with it – but Kirk D’s performances in the other two films are mesmerizing, as you said. I think The Big Carnival/Ace in the Hole is my fave Kirk D performance.

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