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August 24, 2005

Kirk Douglas Double Feature

Strangers When We Meet
Richard Quine - 1960
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

Town Without Pity
Gottfried Reinhardt - 1961
MGM Region 1 DVD

A couple of weeks ago I saw Lee Grant's "documentary" about Kirk and Michael Douglas on HBO. While it was sort of heartwarming to see Kirk Douglas' Bar Mitvah at the age of 83, I would have preferred more clips from his movies as well as some better informed commentary. Jack Valenti made the claim that Kirk Douglas was the first star to have his own production company. Ignoring that United Artists was founded by three of the biggest stars of the silent era (Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin), the first sound era star to be his own producer was James Cagney. Douglas was also credited for breaking the Hollywood Ten blacklist by giving screen credit to Dalton Trumbo for Spartacus. My understanding is that this is partially true, as it was it was already known at the time that Otto Preminger was planning to give Trumbo screen credit for Exodus, released two months later.

There was a clip from the Academy Award broadcast of 1958 which seemed to be symbolic of Kirk Douglas' career. Douglas and Burt Lancaster perform a duet singing about how they are glad not be nominated for Best Actor of 1957. In addition to singing together, there is a little acrobatic bit with Kirk Douglas standing on the shoulders of Burt Lancaster. It's an image that seems to sum up Douglas' own sense of self. Call it penis envy, but the guy born Issur Danielovitch always seemed to look up to the guy born as Burton Lancaster. In spite of his self doubts, Douglas and his films have proven that they could stand on their own.

Douglas and Lancaster's duet seems more ironic in view of the films they made in 1957. Together they starred in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, John Sturges' very entertaining western. 1957 was also the year that Douglas produced and starred in Paths of Glory, while Lancaster produced and starred in Sweet Smell of Success.

Stangers When We Meet and Town Without Pity were the films Douglas starred in before and after Spartacus. Strangers' novel and screenplay were by Evan Hunter. It is a bit incongruous to see Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak introduced in the film as suburbanites and parents. More interesting that the story about adultery between housewife Maggie Gault and architect Larry Coe, is the film's exploration of artistic expression in a commericial context. Coe is designing a house for best selling author Roger Altar (a very subdued Ernie Kovacs). Coe is caught between the demands of his client, Altar, and the ability of his builder to create a dream house that all are happy with. Altar is encouraged to write a novel that is more true to himself at the risk of commercial success. While Hunter is undoubtedly writing about himself, he wrote as Evan Hunter for his more literary works and as Ed McBain for his police procedurals, this part of the narrative is also clearly a commentary on the compromises of film making. In an interview Evan Hunter praised Richard Quine for being faithful to his screenplay. The dream house built for the movie was not only real, Quine bought it and lived there with his real life love, Kim Novak.

The most memorable aspect of Town Without Pity is still the theme song. Lyrics by Ned Washington, music by Dimitri Tiomkin, wailing by Gene Pitney, the song was rightly nominated for an Academy Award. The movie makes an interesting contrast to The Young Savages made the same year. Douglas plays a military attorney in what appears to be a clear case of rape. The Young Savages was about a seemingly clear case of murder. Douglas' defense lawyer and Lancaster in The Young Savages both go through a crisis of conscious which leads to the defendants in both movies being saved from death sentences. Town Without Pity is one of those films that isn't bad but should have been better. Of interest is seeing a young Robert Blake and Gomer Pyle's future Sergeant Carter, Frank Sutton, take the stand. But the best part is the music, hearing variations of the theme song, including a twist version.

For those keeping notes on where Burt and Kirk cross each other: In addition to Stranger When We Meet, Evan Hunter wrote the novel that The Young Savages was based on, and Disney ingenue Roberta Shore appeared in both films. Town Without Pity was the English language debut of Christine Kaufmann, who would later star in Taras Bulba, a film produced by Burt Lancaster's former production partner, Harold Hecht. Kaufmann would marry her Taras Bulba co-star, Tony Curtis. Curtis, of course, acted in several films with Lancaster and Douglas. Curtis, Douglas and Lancaster also were in the same film, though not all three together, in The List of Adrian Messenger. Town Without Pity is about a small town in Germany where everyone seems to know everyone else, kind of like Hollywood.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 24, 2005 02:22 PM


For the record. I was in the unit that these men were assigned to. I was a sgt at the time and we were ordered to shake down our men, looking for blood on cloths. We were directed to check the Black soldiers especially close. I find it odd that in the movie the men were white, when in fact all of them were black. I knew a couple of them. Possibly someone could tell me why the race change, was it a matter of being politically correct that far back? How about it? An ideas? Dutch

Posted by: Duane F. Kockx at September 10, 2005 10:07 PM

What is your take on the race change of the rapists?

Posted by: Duane F. Kockx at October 30, 2005 06:35 PM

I am not familiar with the source material. I have to assume that any change of the race of the soldiers was done for several reasons. The issue of race would have complicated the arguments about rape and consent. Having black actors would have possibly hurt the film commercially. The film came out at about the same time as the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. John Ford's Sargeant Rutledge, about a black soldier accused of rape was not a big success. I can only guess at any reasons for the change of the characters.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at November 3, 2005 08:24 PM