Woefully neglected detective thriller with a sparkling script and sexy leading stars exuding screen charisma. Like the celebrated William Goldman-scripted opening to Paul Newman private eye picture Harper (1966), the credit sequence here is at least as innovative in that it appears to be little short of a trailer, a highlights reel showing the audience what lies in store.
Kirk Douglas is a womanizing cop too handy with his fists, half his arrests making an unexpected detour to hospital. Sylva Koscina is the bored young wife of an older millionaire whose idea of fun is to chuck an expensive scarf out of a speeding car forcing her husband to pull up and go back and fetch. When her husband is shot, suspicion falls on Koscina – inclined to dress in revealing outfits for the media – and her playboy boyfriend.
At the behest of attorney Eli Wallach with a rich Southern accent and a knack for speaking in parables, Douglas, having resigned from the force one step ahead of being fired, is sent in to provide security and find out whether her alibi stacks up. He soon finds out it doesn’t but by this time he has fallen under her spell. Witnesses disappear, intruders are dealt with, attempts are made on the detective’s life, and the twists come thick and fast. Koscina is the arch femme fatale who is a past master in the twisting department – twisting every male within a 50-mile radius round her little finger.
Harper was a throwback to The Maltese Falcon/The Big Sleep but A Lovely Way To Die knocks that shamus tradition on the head. For a start, Douglas is a high-living high-rolling character who doesn’t take prisoners. The second time we meet him he has dumped the girl he took to the races for someone he has met while picking up his winnings. Seducing gorgeous women and dumping them is second nature. This is Douglas as glorious charmer, a part of his screen persona lost after a glut of more serious pictures like Seven Days in May (1964) and Cast a Giant Shadow (1966). Yugoslavian actress Koscina, often little more than eye candy for most of the decade, had vaulted into the higher echelons after a turn as Paul Newman’s squeeze in The Secret War of Harry Frigg (1968).
An inherent part of the attraction of this picture is how deftly she keeps Douglas at bay. Scriptwriter A. J. Russell and director David Lowell Rich (Madame X, 1966) deliver the goods in maintaining the tension in their relationship. There is a wonderful scene where the expectant Douglas follows her up the stairs of her fabulous mansion and three times he ignores the import of her unmistakable “Goodnight,” his uber-confidence taking him to her door – which she shuts in his face.
Sure, in some ways it is slick, but it is also taut and realistic, Douglas does not win all his fights and he eats with the rest of the help at the mansion. And he does some terrific detection so it doesn’t fall short in that department. He is definitely helped by some choice lines – “police methods are sometimes difficult for an amateur to understand” he tells Koscina after brutally despatching an intruder. Koscina is in her element as the sexy, wealthy suspect, and especially in her banter with Douglas, in which her main aim to disarm his cockiness.
Eli Wallach is also superb, given just enough ham to hang himself, but matching Douglas in arrogance and outgunning the D.A. with his courtroom gymnastics. A couple of the subsidiary characters are well-drawn, a housekeeper who plays the markets for example.
For some reason this sank like a stone on its initial outing, audiences perhaps being more attuned to the Bogartian sleuth, but I found it highly enjoyable and this could be seen as a taster for anyone familiar with the antics of the star’s son Michael Douglas who found himself in similar territory in Basic Instinct (1992).
Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service