On December 9, Kirk Douglas turns 100. Let’s cheer him on that week with a look at some of his finest work.

Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky, a self-described “ragman’s son” (as he titled his first autobiography), Douglas worked in the theater and served in the wartime Navy before he made his film debut in the 1946 film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. His lead performance as an unscrupulous boxer in Champion in 1949 earned him his first Oscar nomination, and it also made him a star. In 1955 he formed Bryna Productions to achieve more control over his work, and as executive producer of Spartacus he helped “break” the Hollywood Blacklist by publicly crediting Dalton Trumbo for its screenplay.

Douglas received three Oscar nominations for his performances, and he received an honorary Oscar in 1996, walking and talking on stage only two months after a debilitating stroke. Always proud of his physical versatility, Douglas continued to write and perform and never retired. From film noir, through action spectacles, to films that tackle challenging subject matter, Kirk Douglas remains a true original and one of the last of a breed of Hollywood star.


Kirk Douglas hired young director Stanley Kubrick for what remains one of the greatest of all anti-war movies. Set during World War I, it stars Douglas as a French officer who finds himself in conflict with his capricious superiors when three innocent men are court-martialed for a company’s failure to advance during heavy German fire. Also starring Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou and George Macready, this devastating indictment of the “game” of war remains one of Douglas’ and Kubrick’s best films. (US 1957) 88 min.

Friday, Dec. 9  •  5:00
Sunday, Dec. 11  •  5:30

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Kirk Douglas earned his third Oscar nomination for his intense performance as Vincent van Gogh, in this adaptation of Irving Stone’s biographical novel. Director Vincente Minnelli filmed on European locations and based the film’s ambitious color scheme on Van Gogh’s paintings. Anthony Quinn won a supporting Oscar for his performance as Paul Gauguin, and this visually ravishing film, produced by John Houseman with a screenplay by Norman Corwin, also features James Donald, Pamela Brown and Everett Sloane. (US 1956) 122 min.

Friday, Dec. 9  •  7:15

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Perhaps the best of the “sword & sandal” epics, this historical spectacle, written by Dalton Trumbo from Howard Fast’s novel, recounts the slave revolt against Rome in the first century BC. Producer-star Kirk Douglas reunited with director Stanley Kubrick, and what a cast they had: Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis, Charles Laughton and, in a scene-stealing, Oscar-winning turn, Peter Ustinov. Shortened following the original roadshow engagements, it was restored in the 1990s, including 14 minutes never shown before. We present the ultimate restoration from last year. (US 1960) 197 min. plus intermission.

Saturday, Dec. 10  •  2:00
Monday, Dec. 12  •  6:30

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Set in the 1860s and based on the prototypical “steampunk” novel by Jules Verne, Walt Disney’s lavish science-fiction adventure, directed by Richard Fleischer, stars Kirk Douglas as a sailor who joins two scholars (Paul Lukas and Peter Lorre) investigating a “sea monster” that turns out to be the submarine Nautilus, helmed by the enigmatic Captain Nemo (James Mason).

This rarely screened film will be enhanced by a live presentation on its production and effects by Oscar-winning filmmakers Craig Barron and Ben Burtt. (US 1954) 127 min. plus presentation.

Saturday, Dec. 10  •  7:15

Admission for this program: $13. ($9. CFI Members)

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Also known as The Big Carnival, this triple-strength noir is now recognized as a classic ahead of its time, and writer-director Billy Wilder’s acerbic satire of the American press-and-publicity machine has never been so timely. Kirk Douglas stars as a seedy reporter in New Mexico who greedily exploits the emergency response to a man trapped in a cave, even purposely slowing the rescue to maximize profits. At the time, The Hollywood Reporter lambasted it as an “uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions – democratic government and the free press.” (US 1951) 111 min.

Sunday, Dec. 11  •  7:30

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35mm PRINT!

Kirk Douglas earned his second Oscar nomination in this, his first collaboration with director Vincente Minnelli and producer John Houseman. The film won five, including Best Supporting Actress for Gloria Grahame. In this melodrama about Hollywood, Douglas stars as a film producer who alienates everyone around him. Lana Turner co-stars as the actress he romances and manipulates, and other denizens of the studio system are inhabited by Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell, Barry Sullivan and Gilbert Roland. (US 1952) 118 min.

Tuesday, Dec. 13  •  7:00

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In the movie he often cites as his favorite, Kirk Douglas stars as a cowboy at odds with modern civilization, who finds himself and his horse Whiskey pursued by the police and the military as they gallop toward Mexico. Written by Dalton Trumbo from a novel (The Brave Cowboy) by Edward Abbey, and directed by David Miller, this Kirk Douglas production also stars Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau, Carroll O’Connor, William Schallert and George Kennedy. “This is what attracted me to the story,” Douglas explained, “the difficulty of being an individual today.”(US 1962) 107 min.

Wednesday, Dec. 14  •  7:00

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Kirk Douglas’ physical dexterity was never on better display than in this rousing adventure, directed by Richard Fleischer and photographed by the great Jack Cardiff, largely on natural Norwegian locations. This is one big, beautiful movie, action-packed and occasionally ferocious, as Douglas plays a Viking prince who lusts for Anglican princess Janet Leigh, but finds a rival in Tony Curtis, a slave with royal blood. This action-melodrama is enhanced by authentic design and details. In an extraordinary scene, it’s Douglas himself who jumps along the oars. With Ernest Borgnine.

Thursday, Dec. 15  •  7:00

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