With an acting career spanning seven decades, Kirk Douglas is one of the most recognizable and enduring actors in film history. It's no surprise that several of his films have slipped into the public domain, and now Inception Media Group is capitalizing on that opportunity with Kirk Douglas: The Legacy Collection, which gathers five of his films for $20.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
The set kicks off with Kirk's film debut in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, a film noir about a man named Sam Waterston (Van Heflin), who finds himself ensnared in a web of dark memories and suspicion when he crashes his car outside the hometown he ran away from as a boy. While he waits for the shop to repair his vehicle, he meets up with a beautiful girl named Toni (Lizabeth Scott), and reconnects with old friends Walter O'Neil (Douglas), and Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck), who was set to leave town with him all those years ago, but ended up staying after an incident which changed Martha and Walter's lives forever. Now, Martha is married to Walter, who is in the middle of a campaign to turn himself from city D.A. to city mayor, and Martha becomes concerned about what kind of secrets Sam might be bringing back into their lives.
As far as "The Legacy Collection" goes, this is a fine pick: Douglas exhibits star magnetism even in his first film role. Of the three main characters, Walter's the most emotionally complicated, trapped between a rock (the unearned success his father and Martha have secured for him) and a hard place (the choice of sacrificing his life and his genuine love for Martha in order to free himself from his past). Douglas easily brings that internal woe to the surface, eyes brimming with regret as he fights with Martha about blowing off a political speech.
The screenplay, by The Hustler's Robert Rossen, is slightly muddled: although there's a nice dramatic irony to the way the story plays out through misunderstandings and coincidence, the side effect is that Sam, played as the protagonist, has almost no motivation until the last twenty minutes. Rossen also tries to have his cake and eat it too by painting Martha as both the manipulative femme fatale and genuinely regretful. Both of these problems might've been solved by turning Martha and Walter into the leads and Sam into a supporting character. Then again, Stanwyck's pitch-perfect delivery of Martha's regretful side and Van Heflin's hugely entertaining delivery of the world-weary, cynical-yet-morally-obligated attitude that defines many noir protagonists are more than enough (with Douglas' performance as icing on the cake) to carry the film past these issues.
My Dear Secretary (1948)
Stephanie "Steve" Gaylord (Laraine Day) is a publisher's secretary looking to write her own novel. To get tips, she attends a college lecture being given by famous romance novelist Owen Waterbury (Douglas), and ends up being offered a job to become his personal secretary while he writes his newest novel. Eager to learn more about Waterbury's process, she quickly agrees, only to find that Waterbury is a womanizer and a slacker, more interested in going to the races or flying to Vegas than putting words on the page.
My Dear Secretary is a true product of its time, wearing painfully traditional ideas about marriage and sexual politics on its sleeve. After almost thirty minutes of Owen behaving like a complete jerk to Steve, relegating her to laundry duty and even trying and failing to seduce her at his beach house, she randomly agrees to marry him at a fancy dinner party, practically on a dare. Once they're married, we get another twenty minutes of Owen trying to hire a new beautiful secretary and Steve discovering evidence of all the other flings and affairs Owen's had with his previous secretaries. Finally, Steve actually finishes her own novel, which is so good it's picked for a first-time novelist's award, and she decides not to publish it, in order to protect Owen's pride when his new book is seen as underwhelming. What?
Douglas's charm curdles into smarm here, although that may be more the fault of a script that doesn't really want or need Owen to change that much, because he's "good at heart" or something. It only adds insult to injury that Day's performance is bright and entertaining -- all the more reason to hope she ends up with someone other than Owen. The only two bright spots are Keenan Wynn as Owen's friend/assistant Ronnie Hastings, who is a terrible chef, and Irene Ryan as Mary, the poor maid tasked with cleaning up all the messes Ronnie makes in the kitchen. Keenan is good with every one of his co-stars, and the side scenes where he and Ryan banter are decent, near-slapstick routines executed with a light-heartedness that the rest of the film can't manage.
The Big Trees (1952)
Although the story of a lumber man who hopes to make a fortune logging the California redwood forests and ends up fighting to save them sounds like it could easily be heavy-handed or preachy, The Big Trees is a surprisingly exciting and light-hearted battle of wits. Douglas plays Jim Fallon, who takes advantage of a change in the law that frees up a section of Northern California land to the highest bidder. Through a series of slightly suspect wheelings and dealings, Fallon wrangles the land away from the Quakers living on it and starts chopping away, but when the battle over control of the area turns violent, he starts to rethink his greedy ways.
Of all the films in the set, this is the one where Douglas' charm is in full effect. He's likable as the kind of con man who'd pull a fast one on his men with a check that has nothing but scribbled lines on it, stays likable as he goes head-to-head with the Quakers in escalating bits of good-natured sabotage, and he's still likable as when the decent person in him starts taking over. Although the film doesn't really play the moment when Alicia's father is accidentally killed by a falling tree all that seriously, Douglas does, giving the moment dramatic and emotional weight without losing sight of the film's tone. You even want him to end up with Alicia (Eve Miller), the woman who stands toe-to-toe with Fallon when the two sides are scheming against each other.
Director Felix E. Feist (what a name) stages some impressive moments, including the aforementioned tree fall, a few fistfights, a train chase, and a massive dam explosion, all while maintaining the same sense of tone that Douglas exhibits in his performance. Patrice Wymore also makes a strong impression as Daisy Fisher, a prostitute who frequently helps Fallon execute some of his more complicated tricks. The Big Trees isn't a great movie, but it's a highly entertaining little film that stands out and lends an impressive amount of replay value to a public domain collection like this one.
To Catch a Spy / Catch Me a Spy (1971)
A farce in the truest sense of the word, To Catch a Spy is an incredibly broad comedy about a wealthy woman named Fabienne (Marlène Jobert), whose husband is taken away by the Russian government during a vacation under suspicion of espionage. In order to secure his return, the government's plan is to exchange one of the Russian spies they have in captivity for Fabienne's husband, but when the best candidate they have sinks into an icy pond during the transfer, Fabienne is left to find a suitable replacement on her own.
Although Kirk Douglas has top billing, this is basically Jobert's show. Nearly forty minutes of her schemes and plots go by (including the admittedly amusing seduction of a British policeman played by Tom Courtenay that Fabienne mistakenly believes is a spy) before Douglas really enters the movie, and even after that, the focus is still on her slightly ditzy, slightly spoiled character. Personally, her performance was amusing if not laugh-out-loud funny, but I wouldn't be surprised if many viewers are annoyed by her silly broken English and bratty attitude.
Director/writer Dick Clement and writer Ian La Fresnais are a surprisingly prolific team that are still working (recent credits include The Bank Job), but their sense of comedy here is pretty silly, including Douglas hiding in a shower that gets turned on, and a mysterious-looking man who confronts Douglas while he's snooping around and demands to know where the bathroom is. It's pleasurable in a way that means it probably has great nostalgia value for those who saw it in theaters or on TV years ago, but will only get a few smiles out of anyone else.
Un uomo da rispettare aka The Master Touch (1972)
The Master Touch closes out on a high note, both in terms of the set and in and of itself. Douglas plays Steve Wallace, a thief fresh out of prison after a botched job sent him away from several years. Before he can step inside his house, his old crime boss asks him to consider a high-risk job stealing over a million dollars from a cutting-edge techno-safe in a building in Hamburg. He declines, but eventually decides to do the job himself, enlisting the help of a trapeze artist named Marco (Giuliano Gemma), and his frustrated wife Anna (Florinda Bolkan).
The first third of The Master Touch is pretty forgettable, with Douglas hardly saying a sentence consisting of more than five words, and a bunch of side nonsense involving Marco being relentlessly chased by Romano Puppo as a nameless thug. The second act perks up a little with a reasonably inventive and highly destructive car chase through suspiciously deserted streets, but the film doesn't really kick into high gear until the job itself is in motion, which builds to an unexpected and surprisingly powerful turn of events that transforms Douglas' glib confidence throughout the first two acts into the foundation for an emotionally charged payoff. It's such an impressive turn of events that it's easy to let the movie's faults slide; an ending that truly saves the best part of the film for last.
A spelling mistake aside, Kirk Douglas: The Legacy Collection arrives in a nicely-designed black-and-white cover art that doesn't go overboard with garish fonts. Housed in a single-width three-disc case (with two discs on the double-sided flap-tray), it's an attractively designed package. You only wish the same people who designed the box had designed the menus, which appear to have been done in one of those free programs bundled with Windows.
The Video and Audio
All of the films in the set are presented in 1.33:1 full frame, except for The Master Touch, which is presented in 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen. Every single transfer (in fact, nearly every single thing on all three discs) is watermarked with a Hollywood Select Video bug in the lower right-hand corner. When sampled on a full-screen television, there is a fair amount of overscan, with the watermark and many credits cut off. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers seems to have been assembled from at least two sources; the first half of the film is dark and murky, but the latter half is actually fairly impressive in clarity and detail. My Dear Secretary generally looks like the latter half of Ivers with a suprising amount of detail, although contrast seems a little harsh, and there's plenty of print damage. The Big Trees continues the contrast issues, but boasts strong colors and a reasonable amount of detail. Finally, To Catch a Spy and The Master Touch like VHS transfers, with low detail and significant color bleeding that's more in line with the usual quality of a public domain transfer. The Master Touch is also extremely dark; in one low-light scene, it's basically impossible to tell what's going on.
All five films have been granted middling 2.0 audio tracks. My Dear Secretary, The Big Trees and To Catch a Spy are all a little fuzzy, with My Dear Secretary faring the worst. The Master Touch is a further step down, sounding very much like a single channel of sound flatly sent to both speakers; the car chase in the middle of the movie is a harsh howl of engine noise without any separation or clarity. The absolute worst, however, is The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which is rendered nearly unwatchable thanks to an actual echo through nearly twenty minutes of the movie: all dialogue and sound effects will play at a very low volume, and then play again at full volume a half-second later. It may have something to do with the two sources used; the sound fixes itself when the picture does. In any case, it's one of the most glaring errors I've ever experienced on a DVD, and fans looking for an alternative to the out-of-print Paramount DVD of Martha Ivers are not likely to find this to be a suitable replacement.
One could argue that the inclusion of an episode each of "The Jack Benny Program" (29:26) and "The Colgate Comedy Hour" (59:35) is actually part of the feature programming, but I'm going to consider them extra features. The former mostly consists of a pretty amusing sketch where a bunch of famous faces (among them Fred MacMurray) assemble at Benny's house for a jam session. The show is also presented with two Lucky Strike commercials that are so thick with smoke I almost got nauseous. Sadly, I could not bring myself to get through "The Colgate Comedy Hour" to Douglas' appearance -- no offense to Eddie Cantor.
Although the back cover indicates only a "filmography," disc 3 actually houses "Kirk Douglas: A Video Scrapbook" (58:07), a corny, extremely cheap documentary that summarizes Kirk's career. Although it's not bad from time to time, it relies far too heavily on film clips (nearly a half hour of Martha Ivers is shown without comment), and visually looks like something prepared in Microsoft Powerpoint.
Trailers for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Man With a Horn (Disc 1), Illusions, Paths of Glory, The Vikings, Town Without Pity, and In Harm's Way, as well as Michael Douglas' Fatal Attraction, War of the Roses, Summertime, Black Rain, and The Ghost and the Darkness (Disc 2) are also included. Many appear to be improperly formatted (stretched vertically).
Although three solid films (Martha Ivers, The Big Trees, and parts of The Master Touch) is actually a very good batting average for a public domain collection, but price tags are usually under $10 for more films, and the best film in this set is plagued with an audio issue that basically ruins the experience. Although I recommend the films in question to any Kirk Douglas fan, I can only advise they skip this DVD.
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