He’s one of the finest actors I’ve ever had anything to do with. His air of casualness, or rather, his lack of pomposity is put down as a lack of seriousness, but when I say he’s a fine actor, I mean an actor of the calibre of Olivier, Burton and Brando. In other words, the very best in the field.
– John Huston on Robert Mitchum
I said in my piece on OUT OF THE PAST (1947) that Robert Mitchum was my all-time favourite screen actor, but it was actually a late-night BBC2 screening of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) that acted as the gateway drug to my obsession. So to get this out of the way, the “canonical three” (according to my canon, which is the canonical canon) essential Robert Mitchum performances, the films you should watch even if you bother with no others, are:
1. OUT OF THE PAST (Tourneur, US, 1947)
2. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (Laughton, US, 1955)
3. FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (Richards, US, 1975)
But here I’ve put together a list that tries to dig a little deeper into the man who redefined cinematic cool. Robert Mitchum was one of the Hollywood “tough guys” who you felt you really wouldn’t want to mess with in real life. His off-screen life was just as compelling as his on-screen persona. If you believe the man himself he grew up as a grifter and a bum, hopping freights through the Great Depression until he became a movie star because he figured it’d give him the most days off of any profession he could think of. In public he laughed at the idea of his “hell-raiser” image even as he provided more fuel for the fire with his womanising, bourbon-soaked exploits. In later life he gave great interview: though he claimed never to have watched most of his films, or many films in general, he was an encyclopedia of Tinseltown anecdotes. As Bogart once said of himself and Mitchum: “The difference between us and the rest of those guys is that we’re funny.”
BOB’S YOUR UNCLE
1. CROSSFIRE (Dmytryk, US, 1947)
1947 was a hell of a year for Mitchum. In the space of nine months, PURSUED, OUT OF THE PAST, and CROSSFIRE all hit cinema screens and cemented his position as one of the hottest properties in Hollywood. CROSSFIRE is not the most obvious showcase for Mitchum, as he curiously gets second billing behind Robert Young, a man then at the end of his film career, and the film arguably belongs to Robert Ryan, whose outstanding performance as a violently anti-semitic soldier gets billed third: “The Three Bobs”, as the film’s press would call them. But CROSSFIRE is a taut, effective thriller about the evils of prejudice, and demonstrates a subversive streak that would run right the way through Mitchum’s filmography, indeed director Edward Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott became two of the infamous “Hollywood Ten“. Some would question why HUAC never came knocking at Mitchum’s door, maybe because he was too busy getting himself locked up for more, ahem, “recreational” offences.
2. THE LUSTY MEN (Ray & Parrish, US, 1952)
Robert Mitchum and Nicholas Ray: though Ray would later attempt to hire Mitchum for the Sterling Hayden role in JOHNNY GUITAR (1954), THE LUSTY MEN would be the only outing for this brilliant pairing. Despite the terrible Howard Hughes title, this is a key film in the post-war evolution of the Western. There are Mitchum films where the entertainment is in seeing him pile on the charisma and wry asides, but as a rule his best performances are tempered with a distant sadness. The story of broken-down ex-champion rodeo star Jeff McCloud lusting after the wife of his young protégé, Ray shoots with almost documentary-style realism. You can smell the horses. Just thinking about the final scene gives me shivers: McCloud limps back to the rodeo where he is thrown from a bronco and lies dying in the dust:
There never was a bronco that couldn’t be rode, there was never a cowboy that couldn’t be throwed. Guys like me last forever.
3. ANGEL FACE (Preminger, US, 1952)
ANGEL FACE was one of the last black and white film noirs in the classic mould, giving Jean Simmons the chance to play the very last in Howard Hughes’ personal motion picture scrapbook of homicidal femme fatales. Like director Otto Preminger’s other noir pictures LAURA (1944) and FALLEN ANGEL (1945) the whole thing is marvellously cynical and sleazy. Mitchum turns his legendary disengagement up to eleven to play a character both completely amoral and disturbingly cool. “Never be the innocent bystander. That’s the guy who always gets hurt.” In many ways, ANGEL FACE can be seen as the end of the first phase of his career. The final image we get of Mitchum-as-noir-icon is him pouring champagne in the passenger seat of a sportscar, before Simmons slams the car into reverse and sends them both over a cliff.
4. THE YAKUZA (Pollack, US/Japan, 1974)
Like Brando, Mitchum can be said to have had a fallow period in the sixties. “Classic” war movies THE LONGEST DAY (1962) and ANZIO (1968), and sterile Technicolor Westerns EL DORADO (1966) and THE WAY WEST (1967) did good box office but have little of interest to recommend. Films for your Grandad to fall asleep in front of on a Sunday afternoon, basically. But, also like Brando, the seventies saw a return to form: RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970), THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1973) and the aforementioned masterpiece FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975) are just some of the highlights. By this point Mitchum’s detached demeanour had developed into a kind of sympathetic world-weariness. Credits for THE YAKUZA read like a Who’s-Who of seventies American cinema. With a script by Paul & Leonard Schrader and Robert Towne, Mitchum requested Sydney Pollack, who had just completed THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), for the director’s chair. After a brief prelude in the US, the majority of the film is set in Japan and deals with the clash between traditional Japanese values and the country’s emerging economic success in the decades after US occupation. The climax, with Mitchum blundering through shōji paper doors with a double-barrelled shotgun “like a very, very powerful and lazy horse” as Pollack described him, is an absolute hoot.
ONE FOR THE BOBCATS
5. UNDERCURRENT (Minnelli, US, 1946)
I had seen Vincente Minnelli and Mitchum’s subsequent collaboration HOME FROM THE HILL (1960), which is a great William Faulkner-esque story of a strict Texan patriarch struggling to accept an illegitimate son, but I struggled to get hold of UNDERCURRENT for ages. Even more enticingly, this is the only film to feature both Mitchum and Katharine Hepburn, which is like Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier as far as I’m concerned. Expectation was high. But what a disappointment. Hepburn is woefully miscast and just too old for the part as a meek wallflower who suspects her husband of murder, and Mitchum isn’t so much giving it the minimalist approach as making like a tree. For Kate or Bob completists only.