Kirk Douglas was a legend. You can see why in these 9 movies.

The late screen star played tenacious heroes, ruthless cynics and anguished artists in a career that spanned a half-century.
Image: Kirk Douglas
Kirk Douglas in 'Lust for Life' (1956), 'Paths of Glory' (1957) and 'The Bad and The Beautiful' (1952).IPX/MGM file

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By Daniel Arkin

Kirk Douglas, the iron-jawed leading man who died Wednesday at 103, may be best known for his commanding performance in Stanley Kubrick's swords-and-sandals epic "Spartacus." But in dozens of movies over the second half of the 20th century, Douglas proved to be one of the most layered and resourceful stars of Hollywood's golden age.

Here's a look — in alphabetical order — at some of the most essential performances of his celebrated career on screen.

"Ace in the Hole" (1951)

Billy Wilder ("Sunset Boulevard," "The Apartment") elicited one of Douglas' boldest performances in this acid-dipped satire of news media sensationalism and professional ego. Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a relentless and unscrupulous reporter who winds up in sleepy New Mexico and stops at nothing to gin up lurid headlines. Tatum is deeply unlikable — and Douglas seems to relish every cynical one-liner.

"The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952)

Douglas delivers one of his most insidiously charming performances in this slyly comic melodrama, which centers on Jonathan Shields, a ruthless but oddly sympathetic Tinseltown power broker. The film is catnip for film history obsessives, with its winking nods to real-life personalities (like the mogul David O. Selznick) and its skewering of industry politics.

"A Letter to Three Wives" (1949)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz ("All About Eve") gave Douglas a secondary but crucial role in this ensemble melodrama about three women who each suspect that their husbands have run off with a mysterious, unseen mutual friend. Douglas plays a low-paid schoolteacher and high-minded intellectual who rages against his wife's narrow-minded boss.

"Lonely Are the Brave" (1962)

Douglas turned in a magnetic performance in this proudly unorthodox revisionist Western, a sneakily political drama that both celebrates and undermines the genre. He plays Jack Burns, a cowboy with a rebellious streak, who tries to free a friend imprisoned for giving assistance to illegal immigrants.

"Lust for Life" (1956)

Vincente Minnelli drew out some of Douglas' most anguished and sensitive screen work in this blazingly vivid biopic of the post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh that doubles as a portrait of artistic obsession. Douglas is said to have immersed himself in the challenging role, attempting to paint in Van Gogh's style to prepare.

"Out of the Past" (1947)

Robert Mitchum, a Hollywood legend in his own right, leads this black-hearted film noir, but Douglas steals nearly every one of his scenes as suave, menacing gangster Whit Sterling. "Few movies use smoking as well as this one," Roger Ebert wrote in 2004. "In their scenes together, it would be fair to say that Mitchum and Douglas smoke at each other, in a sublimated form of fencing."

"Paths of Glory" (1957)

Stanley Kubrick trained his lens on Douglas in this trenchant, fiercely intelligent career highlight, which remains one of the most blistering anti-war dramas ever filmed. Douglas plays Col. Dax, a military officer who defends some of his soldiers against charges of cowardice at a court-martial. The intense, unflinching depiction of World War I trench warfare remains unsurpassed.

"Spartacus" (1960)

Douglas seems to course with electricity and raw power in his second collaboration with Kubrick, a stirring (and at times campy) salute to a slave who doggedly leads a rebellion against the Roman Empire. Douglas famously broke Hollywood's blacklist by recruiting the gifted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to work on the script.

"Two Weeks in Another Town" (1962)

Minnelli reteamed with Douglas for a fourth and final project in this ludicrously over-the-top but strangely compelling melodrama, which updates "The Bad and the Beautiful" for the final years of Hollywood's golden age. Douglas plays Jack Andrus, a washed-up alcoholic screen idol who tries his hand at directing on a troubled film shoot in Rome.

The actor, as ever, brings soulful pathos and startling ferocity to a part one cannot imagine anyone else playing.