Tuesday, October 23

Mitchum

I am not kidding when I say I think he was one of the best actors Hollywood ever produced.  Robert Mitchum could act better just standing around than most actors could with pages of sparkling dialogue.  Thanks to his long association with Howard Hughes and RKO, he was king of the film noir pictures, my all-time favorite genre.  He worked with a great many of the best and he worked a great deal, in over 100 theatrical films, which is really quite substantial for a top star.  The Oscar folks are just so busted that they didn't at least nominate Mitchum for about six of his films and it is just plain wrong that the Academy didn't give him an honorary Oscar for his overall contribution to the film industry.  I even wrote to them once to say so.  I have more of his films in my DVD collection than any other big-name actor.

In addition to film noir, he made some outstanding westerns, some great war films, he was an excellent private eye and while he was rarely a bad guy, he was just about the best bad guy there was in at least two films, The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962). 

Much to his delight, he was paired with some of Hollywood's most beautiful and often most talented actresses.  He has said that his two favorites were Jane Russell, with whom he made two films (she was also under contract to Hughes and that whole RKO crowd became a family), and Deborah Kerr, with whom he made three superb films (not counting a fourth TV movie).  Along the way he shared billing (and in some cases much more) with Jean Simmons, Susan Hayward, Ava Gardner, Olivia DeHavilland, Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Linda Darnell, Jane Greer, Lizabeth Scott, Eleanor Parker, Janet Leigh, Lauren Bacall, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe.

Mitchum never had much interest in closeups and how his hair looked and screen time.  When a lot of males would get territorial about another male sharing the same space, Mitchum was nonplussed.  So in came Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Robert Taylor, Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark, Frank Sinatra and Robert DeNiro, among other notables.


















I thought he possessed great charm, even allure.  Maybe part of the attraction for me was his seeming indifference to it all.  While he was nearly always on time and knew his lines and most everyone else's, too, he appeared, with that sleepy-eyed look, to not really give much of a crap.  Part of him truly did not care.  He always said he did it for the money.  On that note, we can share a true Mitchum-ism.  When he was just beginning, making noises about wanting to pursue films, his young wife expressed some concern about it all working out.  Don't worry, Honey, he says, one day you'll be farting through silk.  That was Mitchum.

The I-don't-care boy, however, had another side that very much cared.  He cared that he turned in good work because that's why they paid him.  As a big star, he knew that hundreds of coworkers and their families were counting on him.  So he was not only reliable on that coworker/employee basis, but also in his superb acting.  If that weren't the case, how else could he has been sought out by such esteemed directors as Vincente Minnelli, William Wellman, Nicholas Ray, John Huston, Stanley Kramer, Fred Zinnemann, Henry Hathaway, Howard Hawks and David Lean.  When the brilliant actor Charles Laughton came to direct the only film he would ever direct, he asked for Mitchum.

He was an inconoclast, a rebel, an outsider and truth be told, a bad boy.  He was publicly busted for smoking weed and served time in prison.  He could get into brawls.  When I lived on Maui, I heard about a famous one on faraway Oahu.  I believe it involved some drunk who wanted to see if Mitchum was the big tough guy he played on the screen.  Mitchum would say a thousand times no and even offered to buy the guy and his friends drinks, but the troublemaker would have none of it.  Soon Mitchum would have no more of it either.  Punches were thrown and the actor proved he could manage himself in real life just as he could on the screen.

He was married for nearly 60 years to the same woman, Dorothy.  She was friends with my best friend's mother and I would occasionally see her at their home, swimming in the pool, sipping at the bar, playing cards.  They were all very formidable women... role models for all those tough dames I came to like in the movies and occasionally in real life.  I used to listen to these women talk about their bar bills, their tans, their too-big boobs and often about sex and particularly cheating.  That might include their own cheating and certainly that of their husbands.  While I have no particular recollection of anything Dorothy Mitchum said, I do know, despite that long, long marriage, old Bob tripped the light fantastic with one hell of a lot of women.

He always returned to Dorothy, although there was a rough patch with Shirley MacLaine around the time they made Two for the Seesaw.  She has written about it as have some others.  She has good taste.

Typical of many of his generation, he was a prodigious boozer.  He admitted to loving the little cigarettes, too.  In later life he would seek treatment for his alcohol addiction and he died of lung cancer and emphysema.  But oh how he lived.

Life started out in Connecticut.  His railroad worker father died when the son was only two and he would be raised by his mother and a stepfather.  He resisted authority at a young age and by 14 he was riding the rails, living the life of a hobo.  He wound up arrested for vagrancy in Georgia and served time on a chain gang.  He spent a lot of time not doing the right thing.  About the only thing all these years had in common was that he was dirt poor and he hated it.  He was never indifferent or sleepy-eyed about being poor.   Enter sunny California.  Trains ran out west, too.  He wound up doing amateur theater and was quickly hustled into movies.  He wouldn't be poor much longer.

It would be impossible to discuss all his films, even all his truly good films.  But we will hit some of the highlights.  We'll tackle some of the films containing his best work, some films he liked and some films I liked.   One of the ones I liked is the one that brought him into my consciousness.  It was 1952 (the year I discovered movies bigtime) and it was called Macao.  Technically it was a silly little programmer, with a plot more familiar than fortune cookies at the end of a Chinese dinner.  But I loved it.  It was a difficult shoot with a change of directors and Howard Hughes' constant meddling.  However, he met his lifelong buddy Jane Russell (Mitchum's kind of broad and she became Dorothy's friend, too).  They would work again in His Kind of Woman, which would be released before Macao.  Costarring was Brad Dexter, a Mitchum kind of tough dude   Sultry Gloria Grahame was also on board, her second of three films with Mitchum and in real-life her sister Joy was married to his brother, character actor John Mitchum.   God, I loved that silly little Macao, filmed entirely in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. 

I asked my mother about him and she filled me in on some movie magazine knowledge.  She used to say things like if Bob Mitchum calls and wants me, I'm out of here.  So I sniffed around for more about him and his films.  I still haven't seen his earliest work.  That included some Hopalong Cassidy films and some others done on the cheap, films that would never be mentioned at all today if Mitchum wasn't in them.

One more comment on that famous sleepy-eyed look.  It was the perfect fit for film noir.  He certainly looked like he didn't care.  He looked troublesome or at least troubled.  Add some night air, some wet, dark streets, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, a bad dame that he may not give a dime to for a phone call, some cops, some thugs and we come up with such film noir gems as Undercurrent, The Locket, the brilliant Crossfire, The Racket, Angel Face and both Macao and His Kind of Woman.  And he did even more film noir with the best of the bunch being Out of the Past where Mitchum truly became king of the genre and Jane Greer gave a noir performance on par with Barbara Stanwyck's in Double Indemnity



















Mitchum is a laconic, cynical sort of guy who begrudgingly agrees to some sleuthing to help a sometimes-friend find his girlfriend who has upped and disappeared.  Oh, he finds her alright, goes so far to fall a bit in lust with her, but she doesn't want to return.  Make a note of those last five words and then see this magnificent film.

In 1991, Out of the Past was added to the United States National Film Registry as being deemed culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.  I more than agree. 

Like a lot of actors of his generation, he made a feedbag full of westerns.  In the late 40s he made three of them in a row... Blood on the Moon, The Red Pony and my favorite Rachel and the Stranger with Loretta Young (about the only film I ever liked her in) and an actor whom I also quite liked, William Holden.

Two more westerns came in 1954.  The under-rated Track of the Cat was one of them.  It was one of those times when he wasn't really a bad guy but he wasn't an entirely honorable one either.  I make no apologies for adoring River of No Return.  What certainly started out as a childhood thing has developed into a lifelong love affair.  I don't think Mitchum much cared for the experience and I know Marilyn Monroe did not.  But being the cowboy that I am and teaming one of my favorite actresses with one of my favorite actors and having the beautiful Cinemascope cameras roaming around equally beautiful Alberta is good enough for me.  Oh, and then there was Tommy Rettig, Lassie's master, along for the raft ride.  C'mon now, what's not to like about River of No Return?  (And no, it's not on my 50 Favorite Films list.)















In 1955 he turned in an unforgettable performance in the frightening western The Night of the Hunter.  The film itself would in 1992 become a part of the National Film Registry.  He was a reverend-serial killer bent on romancing and killing widows and their children for the dough.  After he dispatches Shelley Winters, the story takes us on a thrill-a-minute ride as he tries to find her children who have run away with knowledge of where the loot is.  The camera work helped create a film noir mood as well. 

With all her ladylike qualities, I think Deborah Kerr was a little naughty, at least in her head.  Mitchum could have run a school for naughty boys and I suspect this greatly appealed to her.  Their long friendship began when they went to work for John Huston down in Tobago for 1957's yummy Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.  It was a war drama where a nun and a marine are isolated on a Japanese-held island, hiding and falling a little bit in love.  It was pure serendipity casting these two and it was our good fortune when it happened again in 1960... twice.













Their performances were magical in The Sundowners, a film about a nomadic sheep-herding family in the Australian outback.  The drama unfolded when Kerr wants to settle down and Mitchum wants to keep on keeping on.  It was a lovely film with both of them at the top of their game.  It's too bad he didn't make more comedies (although I understand why he didn't) and he was excellent in the drawing room comedy The Grass Is Greener where he and Kerr are joined by Cary Grant and Jean Simmons.  It was Simmons' third film with both Mitchum and Kerr.  Four real-life buddies having a good time in a British romp about adultery and snobbery delighted me.

I have mentioned 1960s Home from the Hill in a previous posting so we will not go there except to say he was riveting as a control-freak husband and father and this stands as one of my top five favorite Mitchum films.  In 1962 he made what is considered by many to be the best war film ever made, the all-star The Longest Day

That same year he gave another of his consummate bad-guy performances in a little black and white thriller called Cape Fear.    Teamed with another one of my favorite actors of all time, Gregory Peck, they were adversaries of long-standing from when lawyer Peck had thug Mitchum put in prison.  Once released our story begins and Mitchum wreaks havoc on Peck and all that he cares about. 










The above scene where he confronts Peck's wife Polly Bergen on a houseboat out in the bayou, roughly grabbing her and breaking raw eggs over her chest as he tells her what he's going to do to her gives me shills just writing about it.  He sureinthehell could be one of the most menacing actors ever.  His entire physicality spelled danger and that's before he opened his mouth.  Once the words came, he was a monster.

In 1970 he made the very ambitious Ryan's Daughter in Ireland.  He always said it was a year of his life he would never get back.    He liked to make fun of the length of time it took to make and of director David Lean's fastidiousness.  Long and slow it may have been but I think it contained one of Mitchum's most beautifully realized performances in a film that is simply stunning to look at.  I can't recall that he's ever played a beaten down character, weak even, but he pulled it off magnificently.  Here was a final chance for an Oscar but it was not to be.

I have made no mention of The Lusty Men, Second Chance, Not As a Stranger, Fire Down Below, The Hunters, Thunder Road, The Way West, Villa Rides, Anzio, 5 Card Stud, El Dorado, Farewell My Lovely, The Big Sleep, That Championship Season, Mr. North... oh wait, I just did.   Some of his films are little more than that rainy Sunday afternoon fare I am so fond of.  Some are not even worth that.  But some are grand films with glorious performances by one of Hollywood's most famously under-rated actors.  It was hard to catch this man acting... and maybe those who give out awards just didn't get that. 

His movie path wasn't always covered with rose petals.  He did a lot of drinking, even while working.  That caused him to be fired by director William Wellman in 1955 from the set of Blood Alley and he was replaced by John Wayne.  Twenty years later he got into a major tiff with Otto Preminger (who had directed him in River of No Return) on Rosebud and he was replaced by Peter O'Toole.

It might surprise some that he was very intelligent with interests in books and the arts and lot of life's offerings.  He would even feign indifference on that.  It was part of his schtick.  He liked his bad boy image.  He liked making people's jaws dropped from something shocking he'd said or done. 

He once famously said... movies bore me, especially my own.  It is certainly classic Mitchum but I couldn't disagree more.  I do know this was a truly gifted actor, a legend.














  

2 comments:

  1. I don't know why, but I forgot to ask You to write something on Robert Mitchum, one of my favorite actors.Apparently You read my thoughts. It's difficult for me to mention which movie I prefer: there are so many! Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a jewel, but I can't forget The Lusty Men, a very good movie with very good actors.( By the way: what about Susan Hayward?)I cannot forget My Forbidden Past either, but I think that Ava plays a big role in my choice. Just a few more lines: my nephew michael who lives in Washington and knows about my tastes very well, brought me a DVD with a film that was the first musical I saw right after the war and, as far as I can say, is still one of my favorites. I am speaking of Two Girls And A Sailor. What's Your opinion on this film? OK I am really through. All my best. Carlo

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    1. Ciao, Carlo, always great hearing from you. Glad you liked the piece on Mitchum. He made fabulous films. You'll probably like my posting on Susan Hayward as well... titled "That Fiery Redhead," published Feb. 15, 2012. Check it out & let me know what you think. I did like "Two Girls and a Sailor," the first of 5 June Allyson-Van Johnson movies. None were great films but definitely fun, lightweight, entertaining ones. Thanks, as always, for writing.

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