The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
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)
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)
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)
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 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.
The Video and Audio
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.
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).