Film Review: Spartacus (1960)

Also known as: Spartacus: Rebel Against Rome (US poster title)
Release Date: October 6th, 1960 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Dalton Trumbo
Based on: Spartacus by Howard Fast
Music by: Alex North
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, Tony Curtis

Bryna Productions, Universal International, 197 Minutes

Review:

“If you looked into a magic crystal, you saw your army destroyed and yourself dead. If you saw that in the future, as I’m sure you’re seeing it now, would you continue to fight?” – Tigranes Levantus, “Yes.” – Spartacus, “Knowing that you must lose?” – Tigranes Levantus, “Knowing we can. All men lose when they die and all men die. But a slave and a free man lose different things.” – Spartacus, “They both lose life.” – Tigranes Levantus, “When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” – Spartacus

Spartacus is another one of those classic epic films that I had seen in segments, dozens of times, on television at my granmum’s house as a kid. I don’t think that I had ever seen it in its entirety from beginning to end and with that, it’s the only Stanley Kubrick feature film that I hadn’t watched properly.

As a kid, this and Lawrence of Arabia were very similar to me. I also found this to be similar to the old sword and sandal movies of the same era, mainly the Hercules ones. However, Lawrence of Arabia takes place in a very different time and those Hercules movies can’t compete with Spartacus‘ greatness.

To start, this is directed by Stanley Kubrick, a real auteur who is on my Mount Rushmore of film directors. However, this was the one film where he wasn’t fully in control of the production and had to work within the big studio system, as he was brought in to replace a fired director. Kubrick was brought in at the request of his friend Kirk Douglas, who had worked with him previously on Paths of Glory.

Kubrick still utilized his skill set to great effect, however. While I don’t find this movie to be as stylistic as his other work, some of the shots in this are simply spectacular. For instance, watching the soldiers move into position on the battlefield is incredibly impressive and almost otherworldly while also slowly building up a real sense of dread just before the first attack.

The action in general is fantastic in this from the war scenes to the personal gladiatorial battles and every other skirmish in-between.

Beyond just Kubrick’s incredible artistic abilities, the film is loaded with some of the best acting talent that the motion picture industry has ever seen between Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier. Not to mention Jean Simmons and Tony Curtis. And to be honest, this is some of the best work all these actors have done individually.

I guess it also helps that the director and his actors had a great script to work with from the legendary Dalton Trumbo, who did a stupendous job in adapting Howard Fast’s Spartacus novel, which I read in middle school and loved.

This is a movie that is pretty close to perfect for being what it is, which is a historical war drama with high stakes, a massive battle, action, romance and a good balance of humor and camaraderie between its stars.

Rating: 9.5/10

Film Review: The Fury (1978)

Release Date: March 10th, 1978
Directed by: Brian De Palma
Written by: John Farris
Based on: The Fury by John Farris
Music by: John Williams
Cast: Kirk Douglas, John Cassavetes, Carrie Snodgress, Charles Durning, Amy Irving, Andrew Stevens, Fiona Lewis, William Finley, Dennis Franz, Gordon Jump, Daryl Hannah

Frank Yablans Presentations, Twentieth Century Fox, 118 Minutes

Review:

“…and what a culture can’t assimilate, it destroys.” – Dr. Jim McKeever

The Fury is a movie that I haven’t seen in a really, really long time. I’m talking, late night on cable when cable was still cool… that’s how long.

Also, I never saw it in its entirety from start-to-finish. I always kind of caught it in the middle and it’d be at times where I had to fight to stay awake in hopes of finishing it.

Having now watched it in its entirety for the first time without fighting sleep, I’ve got to say that it’s damn good and it just solidifies the greatness of Brian De Palma, especially in his early days.

This feels like a natural extension of some of the concepts De Palma worked with in Carrie but it isn’t bogged down by Stephen King-isms and it’s a hell of a lot cooler and expands on those concepts in a bigger way, as we now see psychic powered youngsters being abducted and turned into psychic super weapons.

The film stars two actors that are absolute fucking legends: Kirk Douglas and John Cassavetes.

Douglas plays the hero character, trying to save his son, who has been abducted and turned into an evil psychic killing machine. All the while, Douglas is trying to save a young girl from the same fate.

Cassavetes, who just does sinister so well, plays the main antagonist who betrays Douglas and tries to have him murdered so that he can abduct his psychic son and brainwash him while honing his skills. Cassavetes mostly succeeds in the opening of the film but doesn’t realize that Douglas survived the orchestrated assassination attempt.

The real highlight of the film for me was the big finale and the moments that led up to it, which saw the psychic son unleash his powers in twisted and fucked up ways. The special effects used here were simple, practical and incredibly effective.

There were a lot of psychic power horror flicks in the ’70s and ’80s but The Fury is certainly one of the best of the lot. If this type of stuff is your bag, you definitely should give it a watch.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other ’70s and ’80s psychic horror movies, as well as Brian De Palma’s other horror and thriller films.

Film Review: Champion (1949)

Release Date: April 9th, 1949 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Mark Robson
Written by: Carl Foreman
Based on: Champion by Ring Lardner
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Marilyn Maxwell, Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman

Stanley Kramer Productions, Screen Plays, 99 Minutes

Review:

“I’m expensive. Awful expensive. I didn’t want you to think you could buy me cheap.” – Grace

I heard pretty good things about this motion picture before I actually sat down and watched it. A lot of the film-noir books I’ve read over the years have praised it. It’s also often times discussed alongside The Set-Up, another film-noir from 1949 that features the sport of boxing. In fact, both movies came out less than a month apart and both are very good.

While I give The Set-Up a slight edge, Champion is almost on its level.

To start, this was directed by Mark Robson, who was most known for his noir-esque horror pictures before this. But his transition into more traditional film-noir was incredible and this film truly is a crowning achievement in his directing career.

Robson re-uses a lot of the visual cues from his previous horror work. While noir takes a lot from the visual style of German expressionist films, so did American horror. Robson employs a very chiaroscuro look and it gives certain scenes in this film a very brooding atmosphere. The lighting is fantastic from scene-to-scene and the general cinematography is impeccable. Even in the boxing match sequences, the look stays consistent, giving the bouts a real sense of high stakes and danger.

It’s nice to see how well Robson’s style evolved and developed, just within the 1940s, as he started out as an editor working on the earliest Orson Welles films: Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. He also spent a lot of time working under RKO horror producer Val Lewton. But, honestly, what better filmmakers could one have worked under at the time?

Beyond just Robson, the film greatly benefits from the magnificent performance of Kirk Douglas, who is, hands down, one of the greatest manly man actors of all-time. He plays the main character, here, an opportunist, conman-esque piece of crap that ends up becoming a great boxer but it’s really neat seeing a guy known for being heroic, play a real scumbag. And despite the character’s terrible nature, Douglas plays the role so well that his fate in the film is still sort of a punch in the gut.

Also, Douglas didn’t have to do all the work and carry the load alone, as the film is full of great performances by several actors who probably deserved bigger careers. I especially liked the scenes he shared with Ruth Roman and Marilyn Maxwell.

Champion is a great sports-based classic film-noir. It does just about everything right and it’s carefully crafted, meticulously executed and just a beautiful looking film with depth, character and real human emotion.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: another 1949 film-noir surrounding the sport of boxing, The Set-Up.

Film Review: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Also known as: Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (complete title), Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (poster title)
Release Date: December 23rd, 1954 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Richard Fleischer
Written by: Earl Felton
Based on: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
Music by: Paul Smith, Joseph S. Dubin
Cast: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre

Walt Disney Productions, Buena Vista Distribution, 127 Minutes

Review:

“I am not what is called a civilized man, Professor. I am done with society for reasons that seem good to me. Therefore, I do not obey its laws.” – Captain Nemo

Even though I own most of the stuff I want to see on Disney+, I love the streaming service because I’m exceptionally lazy and it allows me to stay sitting on my ass because I don’t have to walk across the room and get the physical disc.

I’ve wanted to revisit and review this for awhile but it’s one of the films I was waiting to re-watch once Disney+ debuted. Plus, the HD quality of the streaming version is better than my two decades old DVD.

Anyway, this was one of my favorite adventure movies as a kid and still, to this day, this is my favorite Jules Verne film adaptation.

This motion picture is close to perfection from top to bottom. It is the best big budget live action film of its decade and it captures the spirit of the book, the magic of Disney and the incredible fun of high adventure done right!

Richard Fleischer has done several films that I’m a fan of but I have to say that this is truly his best work. Although, I’m not sure how much control he had over the production and how much Walt Disney himself was involved. Whatever the case may be, this was a perfect storm behind the scenes that gave the world one of the greatest adventure movies ever put to celluloid.

As old as this movie is now, it doesn’t feel dated other than how it looks. It still flows nicely, has a great pace and there isn’t a dull moment in its 127 minutes. Everything that happens on the screen is necessary and enriches the story. It’s not bogged down by filler, unnecessary side plots or characters and it doesn’t dilly dally.

The film is also greatly accented by its four leads: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas. Each man played their part to perfection, each had unique voices and points of view and it was their chemistry and camaraderie that was the glue of the picture.

The special effects were also the best of the era. I’ve really tried to think of anything that can compare to it and there really isn’t anything, at least not in the decade that this came out in. It was ahead of its time and the effects were done so superbly that even now, 65 years later, it’s hard to tell what shots are actual effects. Everything looks good and seamless. Even the big rubber tentacles of the giant squid hold up. Plus, that sequence is still captivating and hasn’t become cheesy in the way that giant rubber monsters of yesteryear have become.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is an incredible picture and it also launched its own genre for awhile, as a slew of Jules Verne adaptations and ripoffs started to flood theaters for twenty years following this. Frankly, I think they only died off due to the disaster movie trend that really took off in the ’70s.

It’s probably hard to quantify just how much of an impact this movie had on the film industry and American culture but I don’t think that the modern blockbuster would exist in the same way without this film’s existence.

Rating: 9.75/10
Pairs well with: other Jules Verne adaptations of the era.

Film Review: Saturn 3 (1980)

Also known as: The Helper (working title), Saturn-City (Germany), Kronos III (Greece)
Release Date: February 15th, 1980
Directed by: Stanley Donen, John Barry (uncredited)
Written by: Martin Amis, John Barry
Music by: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Farrah Fawcett, Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel

ITC Entertainment, Associated Film Distribution, 88 Minutes

Review:

“Now tell me. Can you talk? Or are you malfunctioning?” – Benson, “I AM NOT MALFUNCTIONING – YOU ARE” – Hector

This film has three actors and a killer robot. Well two actors, a robot and Farrah Fawcett, who isn’t as robotic as the robot but is clearly overshadowed by the two other actors in this: Kirk Douglas and Harvey Keitel. Fawcett was the top billed star however, as she was at the absolute height of her career when this came out and she got her boobies out, which was something to behold when I was way too young to see this film for the first time.

I remembered this movie feeling incredibly cheesy and it does have a lot of cheese. However, it is also better than my memory’s recollection of it.

This film is pretty damn dark for looking like it was made on leftover sets from Battlestar Galactica. The robot is creepier than most of the killer robots from the time period. However, the story behind the robot and why it is a killer is more interesting than what similar films did, as he actually has a backstory and you fully understand why he is out for blood.

This film has a lot of narrative layers to it, which was impressive for a 1980 sci-fi film with an obviously small budget. There is some real philosophy in this movie, which was way over my head as a kid.

Harvey Keitel was a great slimeball in this but he wasn’t as disturbing as his role in Taxi Driver. But he did bring some of that darkness into this and he was great as the villainous Benson.

Kirk Douglas was typical Kirk Douglas as the more heroic male character of the two and he just came off as he always does, as a real man’s man.

Fawcett was also pretty impressive when you compare this to her most famous role as one of Charlie’s Angels. She got to be dramatic in this and showed signs that she could perform well beyond just being a TV sex symbol. I wouldn’t say that she ever became great but had her career continued on an upward trajectory, she wouldn’t have been half bad.

Saturn 3 looks fantastical and lighthearted in its style but it is a pretty dark movie with some disturbing undertones to it. It’s definitely worth checking out if you like sci-fi films of its era.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: Outland, The Black HoleFlash Gordon (1980), The Last Starfighter, Dune and the original Battlestar Galactica TV series.

Film Review: Out of the Past (1947)

Also known as: Build My Gallows High (UK)
Release Date: November 25th, 1947
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Daniel Mainwaring
Based on: Build My Gallows High by Daniel Mainwaring
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming

RKO Radio Pictures, 97 Minutes

Review:

“My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them.” – Whit

Up until now, I had never seen Out of the Past. It was one of those film-noir thrillers I was really excited to check out though, as I always heard about how good it was and it starred Robert Mitchum. It also gives us Kirk Douglas in only his second film role, following his success in his debut, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Add in noir beauty Jane Greer, in probably her most memorable role, and you’ve got a pretty solid recipe.

Also, this is directed by Jacques Tourneur, whose work was always pretty stellar in the horror genre. In fact, his horror-noir hybrid pictures under Val Lewton at RKO were superb. As was 1957’s Night of the Demon and the two films he did with Vincent Price in the 1960s.

Out of the Past is a solid picture and definitely at the high end of the spectrum that is Tourneur’s oeuvre. I prefer his horror-noir movies that came out a few years before this: Cat PeopleI Walked With a Zombie and The Leopard Man but this is still quite a good film. It is top notch as a straight up film-noir tale.

Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas command the screen when they are present but both are slightly overshadowed by Jane Greer, a true femme fatale and arguably one of the all-time best. I certainly don’t mean to take anything away from Mitchum or Douglas; both men bring an intense bravado and gravitas to this picture. Greer just has an enchanting quality that permeates and makes her transcend the celluloid that has captured her.

The cinematography is handled by Nicholas Musuraca, a veteran that worked on several noir-esque pictures before. He worked with Tourneur on Cat People and continued on at RKO with the fabulous The Seventh Victim, as well as The Curse of the Cat PeopleBedlamThe Spiral Staircase and the psychological horror film The Ghost Ship. Musuracsa was a favorite of Val Lewton and was a key contributor to the look of the highly respected Lewton produced films for RKO.

Out of the Past has a very layered story that is difficult to describe without getting too detailed. In a nutshell, it showcases a man who has a hidden past. He opens up and tells his story to his girlfriend, as he drives to meet with an old rival. His story involves a femme fatale, his time as a private eye and the events that lead to him seeking out a new life, far away from his old one.

I really liked Out of the Past. It is a real testament to how skilled Jacques Tourneur and Nicholas Musuraca were. I don’t quite consider it to be their magnum opus but it makes a strong case. The film also helped to propel Mitchum, Greer and Douglas to legendary Hollywood status.

Rating: 8.25/10

Film Review: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

Release Date: July 24th, 1946 (New York City)
Directed by: Lewis Milestone, Byron Haskin (uncredited), Hal B. Wallis (uncredited)
Written by: Robert Rossen, Robert Riskin (uncredited)
Based on: Love Lies Bleeding by John Patrick
Music by: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott, Kirk Douglas

Hal Wallis Productions, Paramount Pictures, 116 Minutes

Review:

“I missed a bus once and I was lucky. I wanted to see if I could be lucky twice.” – Toni Marachek

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a damn fine film with a weird title. I mean, the title makes sense but Love Lies Bleeding, the title of the book this was based on, sounds more fitting. But maybe it was too harsh for the time and conjured up ideas of horror.

The film stars Barbara Stanwyck at the height of her fame and she made no bones about her status while on set with the other actors. She didn’t want anyone trying to upstage her performance and she had control over how she was lit and captured on film. She even took issue with Van Heflin’s coin trick, which he learned for the film in an effort to make his gambler character more authentic. Regardless of her diva attitude, Stanwyck still gave an incredible performance and Van Heflin was there to match her.

This film is also the debut of Kirk Douglas and only the second film for Lizabeth Scott, an incredibly beautiful actress with serious chops.

Like most film-noir pictures, this one has a plot with a lot of layers to it and it all just sort of develops when it is good and ready. It’s a movie that takes its time but it isn’t boring by any means. In fact, the movie is engaging and captivating.

The plot summary on IMDb reads, “A ruthless, domineering woman is married to an alcoholic D.A., her childhood companion and the only living witness to her murder of her rich aunt seventeen years earlier.” However, it is so much more than that and the summary is really just sort of a framework.

Most of the stuff I have seen Van Heflin in, he’s played either a really despicable character or a carefree Don Juan, usually both at the same time. This is the first time I can recall, where he plays a character that is mostly a good guy. He makes a few selfish mistakes, here and there, but in the end, his moral compass wins out. This was also his most complex character that I have seen and it is a role where his performance really impressed me.

Barbara Stanwyck was perfect as a ruthless and cold business shark. Really, she was the matriarch of her town. Her husband, played by Kirk Douglas, was the town’s district attorney but unlike his normal macho roles, in this he is a drunken pushover. Their chemistry as a married couple full of bitterness towards one another was well played. The tension between them felt real.

Lizabeth Scott was the scene stealer, even though she didn’t have as much screen time as the other three stars. She was charming and despite her checkered legal past, felt like the only real embodiment of innocence in the picture.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this. It caught me by surprise and really impressed me. Every actor was truly on their A-game, especially the newcomers Douglas and Scott, who both were able to hang with the more experienced Stanwyck and Heflin.

This doesn’t fall under my favorite kind of noir, which are the private dick stories, but it is a solid melodrama with the right amount of twists and turns to keep it moving briskly in a way that keeps one engaged.

Rating: 8/10