Thursday, December 21, 2017

Kirk Douglas Discovers a Lovely Way to Die

Italian actress Sylva Koscina.
Beautiful Italian actresses hit the peak of their popularity in Hollywood in the 1960s. Call it the "Sophia Loren effect," since it was spurred largely by her boxoffice hits in the 1950s opposite the likes of Cary Grant and William Holden. Thus, Hollywood studios welcomed Claudia Cardinale, Luciana Paluzzi, and--one of my favorites--Sylva Koscina.

In 1968, Universal tried to turn Ms. Koscina into a big star by pairing her with two popular leading men: Paul Newman in The Secret War of Harry Frigg and Kirk Douglas in A Lovely Way to Die. The latter is one of those movies I saw in the 1970s on television, but seemed to have disappeared. To my delight, it showed up in a 2016 boxed set called Kirk Douglas: The Centennial Collection.

Kirk Douglas looking concerned.
Kirk plays Jim Schuyler, a tough detective who quits the force after getting too aggressive with some bad guys. He has barely turned in his badge when he receives a call from attorney Tennessee Fredericks (Eli Wallach), who wants him to provide protection for his latest client. That client is Rena Westabrook (Sylva Koscina), who is accused with her lover of murdering her wealthy husband. Schuyler has no interest in the gig until he meets Mrs. Westabrook, whose stunning beauty sets his hormones racing.

Rena's innocence is based solely on one key witness, who has unfortunately gone missing. As Jim delves into the mystery surrounding the death of Rena's husband, he can't decide if she's a falsely accused victim or a cold, calculating killer. Either way, he can't overcome his attraction to her, especially since it appears to be reciprocated.

From its peppy title song warbled by Jackie Wilson, it's apparent that A Lovely Way to Die isn't intended as a serious film. Indeed, once the plot is unraveled, it turns out to be pretty simplistic. The film's appeal comes down to its stars and, in this case, they come through.

Kirk Douglas employs his boyish charm to great effect, especially in scenes like the one where he greets Rena's house staff cheerfully after exiting from an overnight stay in the lady's bedroom. He also gets the bulk of the script's one-liners. For example, when Rena asks Jim why he's trying to make love to her, he quips: "I think it had something to do with Mama delivering a boy child." (Later, Rena reverses this line, but it doesn't work as well.)

Eli Wallach as Tennessee.
Still, Eli Wallach practically steals the film--as he often did during his lengthy acting career. It's an impressive feat considering that his role is that of a stereotypical, homespun Southern lawyer. But hey, it worked for Andy Griffith for years on the Matlock TV series. One of my favorite lines in A Lovely Way to Die is when Jim reminds his friend Tennessee that, despite the carefully honed Southern drawl, the attorney hadn't been to Tennessee for decades.

As for Sylva Koscina, she doesn't fare as well as her American co-stars. Despite her jaw-dropping looks, she comes up surprisingly short in terms of allure. Part of the problem may be a lack of chemistry with Kirk Douglas, fueled by an age difference of seventeen years. I also think the costume designers could have created a better wardrobe for her. When Rena asks her maid to pick out "something sexy" to wear, the result is a dress that covers her completely.

Sylva Koscina returned to Italian cinema after A Lovely Way to Die and worked steadily through most of the 1970s. She appeared opposite another Hollywood icon when she co-starred with Rock Hudson in the 1970 Italian-made World War II actioner Hornets' Nest. She died in 1994 at age 61 from breast cancer. She is probably best-remembered by American audiences for her performances as Steve Reeves' love interest in the sword-and-sandal hits Hercules (1958) and its sequel Hercules Unchained (1959).


  1. Kirk Douglas often employs his "boyish charm to great effect", doesn't he? Even if I don't really care for the movie, I am always thrilled to see him on the screen.

  2. Sounds good! I haven't seen this one. But these light-hearted action films with tough-talking heroes were popular in the 60s and it seems like every major actor got to star in a role like this.

  3. A lot of detective stories don't make a lot of sense, and most of us really don't care. Just give us a detective with flare and a sense of humour, and a pretty gal.

  4. Universal has so many "rare" little movies like the 2 mentioned above...George Peppard's "P.J." with Raymond Burr, "What's So Bad About Feeling Good" with Peppard and Mary Tyler Moore, "The Hell With Heroes" with Rod Taylor and Claudia Cardinale, "Fluffy" with Tony Randall and Shirley Jones, "Did You Hear The One About the Travelling Saleswoman?" with Phyllis Diller and Bob Denver and (Uni loved long titles) "The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County" with Dan Blocker and Nanette Fabray.

    1. Yes, I'm a fan of many of these Universal films. Some are actually pretty good (THE HELL WITH HEROES), while others are entertaining based the casts alone (THE BRASS BOTTLE, FLUFFY).

  5. I agree that Eli Wallace pretty much steals this film. “A Lovely Way to Die” is a great title but isn’t going to top many favorite film lists.