Posts Tagged ‘Kirk Douglas’

Movie Reviews 424 – Ace in the Hole (1951)

February 14, 2020

ACE IN THE HOLE [US 1951] DIRECTED BY BILLY WILDER WITH KIRK DOUGLAS Date: 1951

When legendary actor Kirk Douglas passed away last week at the ripe old age of 103, most of the obituary notices made mention of his most famous titular role in Spartacus, the epic Stanley Kubrick film. While the film was a huge success, Douglas himself never really got the accolades and award recognition for it. At least for his work in front of the lens that is.

His real success and achievement with Spartacus was what he had done behind the scenes. As executive producer and having acquired the rights to the novel, Douglas openly hired blacklisted Dalton Trumbo to pen the script for the film, thus breaking tradition with the studios who adhered to the unwritten code banning those accused in the infamous HUAC proceedings during the McCarthy era Red Scare. This act is generally recognized as the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the success of the film forced the studios to formally recognize the blacklisted writers, most of whom were still working but using pseudonyms and ‘fronts’, and being underpaid for those efforts.

A prolific actor in both films and television, one of my favorite movies starring the charismatic dimple-chinned Douglas has always been Ace in the Hole (1951) in which he plays a newspaper reporter that crosses the line in order to advance his career.

Chuck Tatum (Douglas), a former high flying, big city reporter finds himself down on his luck, out of a job and out of money, even enough to pay for gas for his car. Stuck in remote Albuquerque, New Mexico and plumb out of options he basically begs the editor of the local paper for what he believes will be a short term stint until he gets back on his feet. But after a year of writing mundane news filler, he is at wits end, looking for that ‘big break’ that will get him back into the big league papers. As luck would have it on his way to yet another bland assignment (a rattlesnake hunt), a stop at a desert gasoline station brings news that the station owner, also a relic hunter, has just gotten himself stuck in a mountain passage after a cave in. Already smelling a scoop he is the first on the scene to venture the perilous cave path that leads to the half buried man. It is clear that a rescue will take time and equipment. Time, Chuck muses, that he alone will be in a position to scoop the story.

As soon as Chuck leaves the cave he begins scheming to retain his exclusive reporter status and to make sure that the world hears about the human interest story. He first coaxes the equally unscrupulous Sheriff to keep other reporters out of the cave, while peddling the story to all the major newspapers. As news quickly spreads, the mountainside erupts into a veritable roadside carnival – ferris wheel, barkers, treats, the whole zoo – for rubberneckers who want to savor every aspect of the rescue mission. But Chuck hits rock bottom (so to speak) realizing that the crew shoring up the cave will get to the man in a little over a day. Needing more time to raise his profile, he manages to redirect the rescue crew to dig a rescue hole from the top of the mountain instead of proceeding with the simpler approach.This method will take seven days, enough time for Chuck to punch in his ticket back to the majors and even, perhaps a Pulitzer Prize.

Despite initial assurances from the local doctor that the trapped man can last that long, his deteriorating health soon becomes a race against death. A race, Chuck realizes, that will have the eyes of the world clearly focused on him, but for the wrong reason.

A tale of selfishness taken to extremes, Chuck is not the only one looking out for himself. The trapped man’s peroxide blonde of a wife (Jan Sterling), on the cusp of leaving while her husband lay trapped, is lured back by the sudden flow of the cash register ringing at the station and manages to squeeze every last cent she can from the mass of visitors. Chuck even manages sway a budding young photographer down the path of glory over value.

While perhaps not up to par with some of director Billy Wilder greatest films (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Witness for the Prosecution being just some examples), Ace in the Hole, initially released unde the title The Big Carnival, remains a noteworthy and a riveting story.

R.I.P Kirk.

Movie Reviews 405 – Seven Days in May (1963)

August 29, 2019

These are trying times when the president of the United States makes foreign policy changes on a whim, backs them up with preposterous untruths and delivers them incoherently on social media. More troubling is the evident pandering to a brutal Soviet dictator willing to openly exterminate any democratic challengers, and one who for all intents and purposes manipulated the election that delivered the US presidency via social media manipulation.

But what do you do? There are legal means that are not only available, but that have been used before to remove a president, if not by enacting impeachment, having them leave the post voluntarily before the inevitable (I’m looking at you “Tricky Dicky”!). But impeachment takes time and just like any other legal case require a substantial burden of proof. What happens when such a powerful figure puts the country and the world in actual danger and you don’t have the luxury of time to stop the threat?

Director John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May, based on the best selling novel by Charles W. Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel, came at the height of the cold war’s nuclear proliferation and pits a maniacal general with White House ambitions against a president about to sign a controversial disarmament treaty.

With mere days to go before the agreement is in place and believing that the erosion of the country’s nuclear deterrent will be followed by an inevitable Russian invasion, Air Force general Scott (Burt Lancaster) secretly aligns all the brass of the other defence agencies to stage a coup by assassinating the President (Fredric March). One of his aides, Colonel “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) comes across some bizarre coded messages that appear to be innocent petty betting between Scott and all the other generals on the upcoming Preakness Stakes horse race which he laughs off at first. But when he brings up the betting eyebrows begin to raise and he subsequently learns that a newly created unit, ECOMCON, is non-existent as far as official channels are concerned. While he cannot prove beyond a doubt Scott and the generals plans for an overthrow, he presents his findings to the President and his aide (Martin Balsam) and hope that they believe him.

While I have seen Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, another film political thriller wherein the position of the President is manipulated by foreign influence, this was my first screening of this film, but certainly not my last. Scripted by none other than the brilliant Rod Serling the film wastes little time on such things as gauging who is on one side or the other and whether or not the threat is real. Instead it builds intense suspense on uncovering all the facets of the staging of the coup and how the treat can dealt with, which is hardly a simple matter. The only slightly ineffective plot device (a red herring really) was the inclusion of Scott’s mistress (Ava Gardner) being dragged into the affair. But even that angle, while unconvincing, is masterfully scripted by Serling (or perhaps the novel’s authors). The point of patriotism is front and center, especially by the fact that Casey himself disagrees with the President’s stance on the treaty.

Eerily John F. Kennedy, a fan of Frankenheimer’s Candidate and this novel, accommodated the filming of segments in front of the actual White House, only to be assassinated himself and never lived to see the film. If that weren’t enough, I have this film on a Burt Lancaster box set which includes three other films, one being Executive Action, a film with a plot about carrying out the JFK assassination.

Fantastic film with a stellar cast even beyond those I’ve mentioned. Now I’m not in any way condoning this plot as a means to get rid of a certain clown currently occupying the oval office but at least it’ll take your mind off the sad state of affairs for two hours.

Movie Reviews 367 – The Final Countdown (1980)

November 2, 2018

A few years before Swedish rock band Europe had a mega-hit with their song The Final Countdown I was sitting in a movie theater watching Kirk Douglas (101 and still kicking today I should add) in one of his last major starring roles. But The Final Countdown here is a bit of an oddity both for what we seen on screen; a Sci-Fi film which included Martin Sheen, Katherine Ross, Charles Durning and James Farentino – none of which you would associate with the genre including Douglas – and offscreen based on a behind the scenes revelation that I happened to pick up reading the credits.

The plot is simple enough. We have a modern day (well 1980 modern day) atomic powered US aircraft carrier, the Nimitz, with a full complement of supersonic jets, all armed to the teeth operating off the coast of Pearl Harbor when then are engulfed by a sudden unexplainable fierce magnetic storm vortex which appears to have brought them back in time. But not just any date. They are brought back to December 6th 1941. The day before the infamous surprise attack by the Japanese on the US naval base there which annihilated the entire US Pacific fleet and which forced the US to enter the fray of World War II.

This was an event that clearly changed history and now the captain (Douglas) must decide whether he should use the might of the carrier and aircraft at his disposal to circumvent the attack and alter history. Despite the fact that many lives will be clearly be saved by circumventing the attack, the change will also have an impact on how the war plays out. Would that mean the hindering or delaying the US involvement would allow the Axis to win? Not an easy decision to make regardless. I guess you’d call it a lose-lose proposition.

Star power aside, what makes this movie a fascinating watch is the powerful footage of both the carrier and it’s dizzying array of aircraft. Even after all these years the footage caught is quite mesmerizing. The production crew had almost full access to the ship and it is evident that many of the action scenes were clearly staged to showcase their capabilities. You can easily call this an armed forces recruiting device and I’m sure that was the intent in providing that special access in the first place.

Where the film does falter is how the eventual conclusion on what to do is practically hoisted into the plot after having a decent buildup of suspense. It’s a cheap cheat only partially rescued by a small time-anomaly final scene.

And that behind the scenes surprise I mentioned? While perusing the credits I happened to notice the name of Lloyd Kaufman listed as associate producer, production manager and even a minor playing role. Could this be THE Lloyd Kaufman of Troma studios fame who gave us such classics as The Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke ‘Em High, and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead? Yep, the one and only. Turns out that this was the movie that was the tipping point that turned him away from mainstream studios and embark on his now legendary B movie career.

Fun to watch for sure, despite the mediocre handling. And if nothing else you can play ‘spot Uncle Lloyd’ while watching some pretty amazing acrobatics.