Kirk Douglas films: the Spartacus actor’s top 10 movies as he dies aged 103

Douglas played all kinds of roles but was mostly known for his brutal tough-guy characters. Picture:Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Douglas played all kinds of roles but was mostly known for his brutal tough-guy characters. Picture:Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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The Spartacus star left behind an incredible body of work to reckon with.

Acting legend Kirk Douglas passed away on Wednesday 5 February 2020 at the age of 103.

Lancaster and Douglas formed one of Hollywood's greatest duos. Picture: Rob Boren/AFP via Getty Images

Lancaster and Douglas formed one of Hollywood's greatest duos. Picture: Rob Boren/AFP via Getty Images

As the tributes roll in to one of Hollywood’s greatest stars, many have turned to his work to help illustrate his talents and honour his legacy.

With more than 90 films to his name, there is no shortage of material. Here are a few of the key titles in his filmography.

Read More: Who is Kirk Douglas’ philanthropist wife, Anne Buydens?

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

Spartacus remained one of Douglas' proudest achievements, and not just for the awards it won. Picture: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Spartacus remained one of Douglas' proudest achievements, and not just for the awards it won. Picture: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

The role which took Douglas to the big screen and started him off on the road to stardom was noir thriller The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

Prior to this, he was mostly a stage actor, although he had also worked in radio and appeared on network television soap operas.

Contrary to the tough-guy roles he is now remembered for, his debut saw him play a jealous, weak-willed young man who turned to alcohol to drown his sorrows.

He landed the role on the recommendation of legendary actress Lauren Bacall – a former classmate of Douglas’s who advised the film’s director to check out a play he was starring in.

Thanks to his performance in the movie, Douglas was immediately earmarked as a future star.

Champion (1949)

His really big break came when he was given the chance to take on a harder, more muscular role – the ruthless boxer, Midge Kelly.

Douglas brought an intensity to the role which saw him receive rave reviews from critics, as well as his first Academy Award nomination.

Although he would ultimately lose to Broderick Crawford for All The King’s Men, the role established Douglas as a leading man.

In one of Hollywood’s many “what if” scenarios, Douglas might easily have passed on the role. He was being offered three times as much money to appear in The Great Sinner instead.

Ignoring the fee, he took the role he felt was more artistically challenging.

Detective Story (1951)

Douglas once again found himself involved in an Academy favourite when he starred in Detective Story, which won four Oscar nominations.

Another noirish tale, it tells the story of a detective’s daily battle against the underworld.

Douglas was once again praised for the forcefulness of his performance and the capacity to communicate a deep well of inner pain and rage, which made him perfect for these sorts of hard-boiled roles.

The actor was so committed to his craft that, to prepare, he sat in on real police interrogations and shadowed officers to get a better understanding of their daily lives.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

His second Oscar nomination arrived thanks to The Bad and the Beautiful, which starred Douglas as a manipulative film producer who abuses all of those around him.

The film was nominated for a total of five Academy Awards at the time and later selected by the Library of Congress for preservation due to its status as a “culturally significant” piece of work.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

After being celebrated time and time again for his portrayals of callous, brutal men in gritty, dark films, Douglas offered a glimpse of the full breadth of his talents in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas.

Essentially, he was doing the same thing as today’s esteemed actors do when they sign up to put on a superhero costume and have some fun in a big, breezy crowd-pleasing movie.

Douglas played the high-spirited sailor who acts as the foil to James Mason’s glowering Captain Nemo.

The film was a massive success and led to him being cast in similar comedic roles in films like Man Without a Star (1955) and For Love or Money (1963).

Paths of Glory (1957)

To gain a sense of the sheer span of Douglas’ Hollywood career – he hit the big screen in the first half of the 20th Century and then worked with one of the great pioneers of its later decades, Stanley Kubrick.

Paths of Glory focused on a French officer in the First World War who is trying to save three soldiers from being executed.

Like many of Kubrick’s movies, the film was highly controversial – it was banned in France for almost 20 years after its release.

However, Douglas remained immensely proud of it, describing the film as perhaps the most important thing Kubrick ever worked on.

Lust for Life (1956)

There have been many attempts in recent years to capture the pain, beauty and madness of Vincent van Gogh’s life on film.

Willem Dafoe did his best to capture his unsteady brilliance in 2018’s At Eternity’s Gate while 2017’s Loving Vincent used oil painting-based animation to try and emulate his style.

Decades before, Douglas donned the red beard to play the famous artist in Lust for Life, sinking in the role to the point where his wife attested that he would often remain in character for hours after arriving home.

His commitment proved enough to snag him the third and final Oscar nomination of his career.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

After spending years tramping the rain-soaked streets as a hard-nosed detective, Douglas turned his machismo to the great wide world of Westerns.

He starred in many of these alongside Hollywood’ beloved cowboy, Burt Reynolds. The two formed a powerful on-screen partnership, leading to many successful movies.

The most well-regarded of which today is likely Gunfight at the O.K Corral, in which they starred alongside Spaghetti Western icon, Lee Van Cleef.

Spartacus (1960)

Many have laid claim to the title but he, and only he, was ever really Spartacus.

The swords and sandals epic was a huge success, telling the story of the man who led a slave revolt against the corrupt Roman republic.

It went on to win four Academy Awards and made more money than any other film in Universal Studios’ history.

The film was directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by Dalton Trumbo, who had to use a pseudonym because he had been blacklisted along with scores of other left-leaning artists and thinkers during the McCarthy years.

Once the film was an established success, Douglas publicly credited it to Trumbo, using his own star power to effectively end the screenwriter’s exile. Even after all the money, praise, fame and awards, Douglas always cited “breaking the blacklist” as his proudest cinematic achievement.

Diamonds (1999)

While the role for which he will forever be most famously associated with came in 1960, Douglas wouldn’t actually make his final on-screen appearance until 2008.

The later years mostly consist of more minor works, smaller roles and camoes, but one film that does bare mentioning is 1999’s Diamonds.

In the mid-nineties, Douglas suffered a serious stroke which impaired his ability to speak. Determined to return to movie-making, he spent years working with a voice therapist to restore his powers.

In 1999, he returned to the screen with Diamonds, which told the story of a retired boxer, struggling in the aftermath of a stroke.

The role was tailored to allow Douglas to draw on his painful personal experiences while returning to the sort of character that made him famous – clips from Champion were even used within the movie.