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Movie Poster of the Week: The Illustrated Kirk Douglas

A quarter-century of poster art devoted to the recently departed centenarian Hollywood legend.
Adrian Curry
Above: Detail from the French poster for Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, USA, 1951). Artist: Roger Soubie.
Kirk Douglas, who died in February at the age of 103, was the last of the superstars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. We had faces then, said Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. She was talking about her silent-era peers, in a film made just the year after Kirk Douglas broke through as a star, but if anyone had a face to remember in Hollywood it was Kirk Douglas. In the Criterion Collection essay for Ace in the Hole (1951), Guy Maddin described him as a man “whose body has always seemed made up of a series of triangles,” but it is even more true of his face: a pointed weapon culminating in that famous dimpled chin. David Thomson in A Biographical Dictionary of Film wrote that “he is the manic-depressive among Hollywood stars, one minute bearing down on plot, dialogue, and actresses with the gleeful appetite of a man just freed from Siberia, at others writhing not just in agony but mutilation and a convincingly horrible death,” and in so many of the images painted of him over the years he is leading with his chin, his teeth bared in a rictus of ecstasy or sheer will. As Maddin adds, “in facial acrobatics Kirk easily takes the gold.”
Surprisingly, considering that he worked for all the greats—Wilder, Wyler, Walsh, Minnelli, Vidor, Kubrick, Kazan—and considering that he had that face, there are not as many iconic poster images of Douglas as you might expect. In the best known one sheets for two of his most celebrated roles— Paths of Glory (1957) and Lust for Life (1956) —he is denied his close-up. In what you might think would be a movie poster artist’s dream opportunity, rendering Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in the Van Gogh style, he has his back to us (a problem ineptly remedied with an inset headshot of the star out of character). It is Yves Thos’s French re-release poster for Spartacus (1960) that gives us the best rendition of Douglas in Van Goghian brushstrokes. Spartacus you might expect would give us his most iconic poster image, but the best known one sheet for that film has seven members of the all-star cast competing for space as bas-relief portraits on Roman coins.
Still, Douglas was a worldwide star and there are plenty of international posters for Spartacus that do that fierce visage justice. As a golden age star—from his breakout role in Champion in 1949 until one of his last starring roles a quarter of a century later in Posse (a film he directed and produced, the terrific U.S. poster for which notably has no faces), Douglas was painted and drawn on movie posters more often than he was presented in photographs. And by the time the golden age of poster illustration was waning, so was Douglas’s career, at least as far as being a leading man was concerned.
He was illustrated by many an anonymous studio artist in Hollywood but he was also painted by many of the international greats: Roger Soubie in France, Ercole Brini and Angelo Cesselon in Italy, Macario Gómez Quibus in Spain, and Lutz Peltzer in Germany, all of whom capture something of that Kirkian intensity and brooding ferocity. Even in repose he always looks ready to explode. One of my favorite portraits of Douglas, however, is one by the Polish artist Jan Mlodozeniec for Posse (1975) in which the actor’s face is simply a wad of hundred dollar bills with a dimpled chin.
Above: Detail from US one sheet for Champion (Mark Robson, USA, 1949).
Above: US one sheet for Champion (Mark Robson, USA, 1949).
Above: Detail from 1958 Italian re-release 2 fogli for Champion (Mark Robson, USA, 1949). Artist: Angelo Cesselon.
Above: 1958 Italian re-release 2 fogli for Champion (Mark Robson, USA, 1949). Artist: Angelo Cesselon.
Above: French poster for Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, USA, 1951). Artist: Roger Soubie.
Above: Detail from Argentinian poster for Along the Great Divide (Raoul Walsh, USA, 1951).
Above: Argentinian poster for Along the Great Divide (Raoul Walsh, USA, 1951).
Above: Detail from Spanish poster for Along the Great Divide (Raoul Walsh, USA, 1951). Artist: Macario Gómez Quibus aka Mac.
Above: Spanish poster for Along the Great Divide (Raoul Walsh, USA, 1951). Artist: Macario Gómez Quibus aka Mac.
Above: Detail from Belgian poster for Detective Story (William Wyler, USA, 1951).
Above: Belgian poster for Detective Story (William Wyler, USA, 1951).
Above: Detail from French poster for Detective Story (William Wyler, USA, 1951). Artist: Roger Soubie.
Above: French poster for Detective Story (William Wyler, USA, 1951). Artist: Roger Soubie.
Above: Detail from Italian 4-fogli for Detective Story (William Wyler, USA, 1951). Artist Ercole Brini.
Above: Italian 4-fogli for Detective Story (William Wyler, USA, 1951). Artist Ercole Brini.
Above: Detail from Australian daybill for The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincent Minnelli, USA, 1952).
Above: Australian daybill for The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincent Minnelli, USA, 1952).
Above: Detail from Italian 4-fogli for The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincent Minnelli, USA, 1952). Artist Ercole Brini.
Above: Italian 4-fogli for The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincent Minnelli, USA, 1952). Artist Ercole Brini.
Above: Detail from US poster for The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincent Minnelli, USA, 1952).
Above: US poster for The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincent Minnelli, USA, 1952).
Above: Detail from US herald for The Indian Fighter (Andre de Toth, USA, 1955). 
Above: US herald for The Indian Fighter (Andre de Toth, USA, 1955). 
Above: Details from US poster for Man Without a Star (King Vidor, USA, 1955).
Above: US poster for Man Without a Star (King Vidor, USA, 1955).
Above: Detail from UK quad for Ulysses (Mario Camerini, Italy, 1954).
Above: UK quad for Ulysses (Mario Camerini, Italy, 1954).
Above: Detail from US one sheet for Ulysses (Mario Camerini, Italy, 1954).
Above: US one sheet for Ulysses (Mario Camerini, Italy, 1954).
Above: Detail from 1970s re-release German poster for Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (John Sturges, USA, 1957). Artist: Lutz Peltzer.
Above: 1970s re-release German poster for Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (John Sturges, USA, 1957). Artist: Lutz Peltzer.
Above: Detail from US one sheet for Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1957).
Above: US one sheet for Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1957).
Above: Detail from US title card for Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1957).
Above: US title card for Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1957).
Above: Detail from 1967 Argentinian re-release poster for Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1960).
Above: 1967 Argentinian re-release poster for Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1960).
Above: Detail from 1970 French re-release poster for Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1960). Artist: Yves Thos.
Above: 1970 French re-release poster for Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1960). Artist: Yves Thos.
Above: Detail from 1964 Italian 2-fogli re-release poster for Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1960).
Above: 1964 Italian 2-fogli re-release poster for Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1960).
Above: Detail from 1967 Russian poster for Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1960).
Above: 1967 Russian poster for Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1960).
Above: Detail from Italian locandina for Strangers When We Meet (Richard Quine, USA, 1960). Artist: Ercole Brini.
Above: Italian locandina for Strangers When We Meet (Richard Quine, USA, 1960). Artist: Ercole Brini.
Above: Detail from German poster for The Last Sunset (Robert Aldrich, USA, 1961).
Above: German poster for The Last Sunset (Robert Aldrich, USA, 1961).
Above: Detail from US one sheet for Town Without Pity (Gottfried Reinhardt, USA/W. Germany, 1961).
Above: US one sheet for Town Without Pity (Gottfried Reinhardt, USA/W. Germany, 1961).
Above: Detail from US one sheet for Two Weeks in Another Town (Vincent Minnelli, USA, 1962).
Above: US one sheet for Two Weeks in Another Town (Vincent Minnelli, USA, 1962).
Above: Detail from Argentinian poster for Lonely Are the Brave (David Miller, USA, 1962).
Above: Argentinian poster for Lonely Are the Brave (David Miller, USA, 1962).
Above: Detail from Japanese poster for The Brotherhood (Martin Ritt, USA, 1968).
Above: Japanese poster for The Brotherhood (Martin Ritt, USA, 1968).
Above: 1973 Czech poster for The Arrangement (Elia Kazan, USA, 1969).
Above: Detail from Spanish poster for Mousey (Daniel Petrie, USA, 1973). Artist: Macario Gómez Quibus aka Mac.
Above: Spanish poster for Mousey (Daniel Petrie, USA, 1973). Artist: Macario Gómez Quibus aka Mac.
Above: Detail from German poster for Posse (Kirk Douglas, USA, 1975). Artist: Lutz Peltzer.
Above: German poster for Posse (Kirk Douglas, USA, 1975). Artist: Lutz Peltzer.
Above: Polish poster for Posse (Kirk Douglas, USA, 1975). Artist: Jan Mlodozeniec.
Posters courtesy of Heritage Auctions and Posteritati.

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