Lust for Life (1956)

Lust for Life (1956)

“I want to create things that touch people.”

After a brief career as a minister in a Belgian mining community, troubled young Vincent Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) returns home to his parents (Henry Daniell and Madge Kennedy) and obsessively but unsuccessfully tries to court his beautiful widowed cousin (Jeanette Sterke). After receiving art supplies from his supportive cousin Anton Mauve (Noel Purcell), Vincent begins his career as an artist, living for a while with a former prostitute (Pamela Brown), then requesting help from his art-dealing brother Theo (James Brown), who eventually ends up paying painter Paul Gaugin (Anthony Quinn) to live with Vincent; but can Vincent’s mental challenges be kept at bay while he continues to practice and refine his art?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Anthony Quinn Films
  • Artists
  • Biopics
  • Henry Daniell Films
  • Kirk Douglas Films
  • Mental Breakdown
  • Niall MacGinnis Films
  • Obsessive Love
  • Vincente Minnelli Films

Vincente Minnelli directed this beautifully vibrant homage — based on the 1934 novel by Irving Stone — to the life and art of Vincent Van Gogh. Kirk Douglas (who was told early on that he looked like Van Gogh — he does) is perfectly cast as the tortured but gifted young artist who so clearly wants to do good in the world — and who recognizes that his own intensities are simultaneously what drive him and get in his way. It’s heartbreaking watching Van Gogh first be rejected from mainstream ministry work:

… then by his understandably overwhelmed cousin (Sterke), who recognizes that Vincent’s obsessive love is more than she can manage:

We’re happy for Vincent when he meets a like-minded soul in Brown, who he’s able to live and paint with for at least a while:

… though the eventual dissolution of their partnership is painful to watch, too. Thankfully, Vincent’s caring brother Theo is a consistent source of quiet sustenance:

… and we remain grateful for everything he did to help make Vincent’s life easier while he could. His hiring of Gaugin to “babysit” Vincent leads to yet more heartwrenching scenes, culminating in Vincent’s infamous slicing off of his own ear:

Vincent’s personal recognition and insistence that he will be safest in a sanitorium makes us grateful for the self-preservation he possessed, at least for a while (Marion Ross of “Happy Days” fame plays the nun below):

Most marvelous about this picture, however, are Minnelli’s successful attempts to show us Van Gogh working on dozens of his best known pieces, across a variety of landscapes and scenarios (below, Everett Sloane portrays Dr. Paul Gachet, who ‘treated’ Vincent during his last years of life):

It’s also a joy to hear so much smart dialogue about art and colors, as when Vincent is explaining his process to Gaugin, who utilizes a different approach:

“When I paint the sun, I want the people to feel it revolving — giving off light and heat. When I paint a peasant, I want to feel the sun pouring into him like it does into the corn… Look, Paul: when I painted ‘The Night Cafe’ I tried to show evil, the most violent passions of humanity. I painted it blood red and dark yellow, and a green billiard table in the middle, four lemon-yellow lamps with a glare of orange and green in an atmosphere of pale sulfur, like a furnace. I tried to show a place where a man can ruin himself — go mad — commit a crime.”

The film’s closing image, gradually panning out to see the scope of much of Van Gogh’s work:

… is an especially fitting and touching finale to this fine biopic.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh
  • Strong supporting performances

  • Excellent use of location shooting
  • Freddie Young’s phenomenal cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a fine biopic.


  • Noteworthy Performance(s)
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee


One thought on “Lust for Life (1956)

  1. Not must-see.

    Since I’m not a fan of the work of Minnelli (with some exceptions), this version of Van Gogh’s life doesn’t sit well with me. I tried rewatching it – and ended up doing a kind of skip-through.

    Overall, it simply feels too overly earnest and reverential, like it consciously set out to be AN IMPORTANT FILM about the painter. Part of the problem is the script (which apparently is very fictionalized; not surprising). But mainly I have a hard time buying it all emotionally – esp. Douglas’ actor-y performance (which he tends to give regularly; I usually don’t find him convincing).

    More to the point, however… I think Minnelli’s film is now dwarfed by Altman’s superb ‘Vincent and Theo’ (1990) and I would steer ffs to that film instead.

    For the sake of comparison, I started a rewatch of ‘V&T’ – only this time I watched the original made-for-tv version, which is over an hour longer than the version released in theaters. I was pulled in immediately and stayed riveted for the entire 3 hr., 20-minute running time. Now *that* is a must-see flick!

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