In the meantime, here are the notes I prepared for last week's film I WALK ALONE, which featured the first teaming of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. I hope you enjoy:
Born about three years apart, and both in New York State, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster shared remarkably similar paths to stardom and shared the screen on several occasions. Lancaster was born in 1913 Harlem and Douglas in 1916 Amsterdam, NY, and both were exposed to the entertainment industry before they enlisted in the Armed Forces during World War II. After the war, they individually went back to the theater and were introduced to producer Hal Wallis by friends (Harold Hecht for Lancaster and Lauren Bacall for Douglas), who “discovered” them and took them to Hollywood.
Lancaster’s film debut was in the 1946 film noir classic The Killers, directed by Robert Siodmak. Douglas’s film debut was also in 1946 and also in a film noir, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, with Barbara Stanwyck. They went on to act in additional films noir. Lancaster was the star of Jules Dassin’s Brute Force, and Douglas supported Robert Mitchum in one of the finest noirs of all time, Out of the Past. And in 1948, the pair collaborated for the first time on an additional noir, I Walk Alone, for Byron Haskin, a former cinematographer. It was Douglas’s fourth film and Lancaster’s fifth, but they had already established themselves as Hollywood stars of the first order. The story about two bootleggers separated by a long prison sentence brought them together, but they didn’t become friends on the set.
The two men went on to their own careers, working in all kinds of films, including film noir. Lancaster, especially was drawn to this kind of role. Later in 1948 he starred in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands as an American on the run from an accidental homicide. 1948 also brought Sorry, Wrong Number with Lancaster as an unwitting conspirator in a plot to kill his wife, played by Barbara Stanwyck. In 1949, Lancaster starred in Criss Cross, one of his most under-rated films, as loser Steve Thompson, a man whose terrible decisions always bring him back to the woman he can’t forget, and a fate he can’t escape. Lancaster also went on to roles in films such as Jim Thorpe – All American, Trapeze, and The Kentuckian. In 1953, he earned his first Academy Award nomination as Sergeant Warden in From Here to Eternity.
Meanwhile, Douglas made his own way. 1951 saw the release of two films noir: Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival) and Detective Story. In the first film, Douglas starred as the unscrupulous reporter Chuck Tatum; in the second he is James McLeod, a cop with a vicious streak and a hidden agenda. Douglas also distinguished himself with roles in Young Man With a Horn, The Glass Menagerie, Ulysses, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It was also in this period that he received all three of his Oscar nominations: for Champion (1950), The Bad and the Beautiful (1953) and Lust For Life (1956) as the great Vincent van Gogh.
Lancaster and Douglas re-teamed for Gunfight at the OK Corral, with Lancaster taking the Wyatt Earp role and Douglas at his side as Doc Holliday. It was on this film that their friendship really took off. They would stay up talking well into the night, on subjects of all kinds. It was only two years later that they were together again in the Revolutionary War film The Devil’s Disciple, opposite Laurence Olivier. And in 1963, Douglas played multiple roles in The List of Adrian Messenger, while Lancaster had a cameo.
Meanwhile, they continued to foster their own careers. In this time, Lancaster won an Oscar for Elmer Gantry and got another nomination for The Birdman of Alcatraz. His other films included The Sweet Smell of Success, Run Silent, Run Deep, The Unforgiven, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Visconti’s The Leopard. Douglas had his own string of hits with Paths of Glory, The Vikings, Spartacus, and Lonely Are the Brave.
The two actors’ next collaboration was the Rod Serling-scripted Seven Days in May. A taut political thriller about a potential military coup in the United States played on Cold War fears and the threat of a “military-industrial complex” at work behind the scenes. This was the actors’ last collaboration for more than twenty years, but they continued to be movie stars. Lancaster made The Train, The Professionals, The Swimmer, Airport, Local Hero, and got one last Oscar nomination for Atlantic City. Douglas went on to make In Harm’s Way, Cast a Giant Shadow, Is Paris Burning?, The Villain, and The Man From Snowy River.
The two actors teamed one last time in 1986 for Tough Guys, the tale of two aging gangsters who no longer fit in the world after being released from prison. Burt Lancaster died in 1994 at the age of 81, but Kirk Douglas, despite suffering a stroke in 1995, celebrated his 94th birthday in December.