Remembering Robert Mitchum

Feature Aliya Whiteley 11 Jun 2014 - 06:07

He might not have wanted to be called an actor, but Robert Mitchum was still a pretty great one. Aliya recommends his best movies...

Robert Mitchum never took himself seriously as an actor, and would be amused if anyone else did. "You won’t catch me acting," he told Michael Parkinson once in a generally monosyllabic interview, and he always maintained he had two styles of delivery – on a horse, or off it.

Considering he didn’t act, Mitchum was amazingly versatile onscreen. From heroes to psychopaths, from the strong to the weak, he was the focus of many movies with his heavy-lidded stare and his drawl. He could appear to be a languid soul, unbothered by the machinations of people around him, or he could burn on screen, white-hot with rage or passion. He also had great comic timing, and a slow, measured voice. He could sing, too – he released a couple of albums, one in the calypso style, and composed some of his own songs.

Mitchum was a busy man for someone who liked the give the impression that not a lot was going on. He appeared in movies for over fifty years and worked with stars such as John Wayne, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Deborah Kerr, and Bill Murray. Never once was he upstaged by another performance. If he was onscreen, he held your attention. Maybe that was because he never looked like he cared for your attention one way or another.

A Brief Biography

Robert Mitchum was born in Connecticut on August 6 1917, and was labelled as a troublemaker throughout his childhood. After being expelled from school he travelled, living on the road, and ended up on a chain gang at age 14. After escaping and returning home, he waited another two years before heading off once more, this time to California.

An involvement in stage acting and poetry led to an interest in movie acting, and from 1942 he could be found in B-movie Westerns, usually as a bad guy. Then he worked his way up within Westerns to the occasional good guy role, but his big break came in 1945 as a soldier in The Story Of GI Joe. His performance won him his only Academy Award nomination.

Mitchum moved into film noir, such as Out Of The Past (1947), and into even darker territory when he personified murderers and rapists in films such as The Night Of The Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962). He also had great chemistry as a leading man with Jean Simmons and Deborah Kerr. By the beginning of the 1970s his face had a weary quality to it that came across well when he played an older detective, bringing the character of Philip Marlowe to a fresh audience in such films as Farewell, My Lovely (1975). He continued to appear onscreen until 1996, and died in 1997 from lung cancer, leaving behind his wife of over fifty years, and three children, two of which also became actors. His advice to them when they decided to follow in his footsteps? "Whatever you do, don’t get caught at it," he said.

Five of his best roles

1. The Night of the Hunter (1955)

It’s difficult to pick just five great Mitchum roles, but there’s no doubt that this has to be one of them. It’s a film that feels like an intense and powerful nightmare. After you’ve experienced it you find yourself remembering it with that same sinking feeling in your stomach.

Mitchum plays the Reverend Harry Powell, one of the most frightening of screen creations. He is the stuff of terror to John and Pearl Harper, two children to whom he has become stepfather, and as the film is told mainly from their perspective we see him as a huge figure, unstoppable, pursuing them with relentless energy. "Don’t he ever sleep?" whispers John. No, and after watching this film, we don’t sleep either.

If you’re feeling brave enough to want to see more of Mitchum as a psychopath, then try the original Cape Fear (1962). His depiction of Max Cady was selected by Newsweek as one of the ten best villains in cinema history.

2. Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (1957)

A great big Cinemascope extravaganza in places, Heaven Knows, Mr Allison manages to keep a gentle focus on a relationship between a marine (Mitchum) and a nun (Deborah Kerr) who are trapped together on a South Pacific island after the Japanese invade. They have romantic feelings for each other, of course, but that annoying notion of duty continually gets in the way.

It’s an interesting film, combined big-budget war effects with what is, at heart, a love story, and the two lead actors are great in it. Mitchum made two more films with Kerr, and had cracking chemistry with her in both of them – The Sundowners (1960) and The Grass is Greener (1960). They are both definitely worth a look too.

3. The Story Of GI Joe (1945)

You can see the influence of this film on movies such as Saving Private Ryan (1998); everything is quiet, the men trudge onwards, or sit around in damp tents, and then from nowhere there are bombs and screaming. The brilliance of GI Joe is in the fact that there are no predictable plotlines. The GIs concern themselves with letters from home, or what everyone’s getting to eat. War itself takes on a kind of horrible normality.

I’m not a big fan of the music in The Story Of GI Joe. It seems to come crashing in at some moments that I would prefer to leave to silence. But the key performances by Burgess Meredith (as war correspondent Ernie Pyle) and Mitchum (Lt. Bill Walker) overcome the melodrama of the music. There’s a scene in which they sit together, late at night after a miserable thanksgiving, and Mitchum reveals how he feels about the war. It’s a wonderful moment, quiet and intense, and it makes the war scenes that follow it so much more painful to watch.

4. El Dorado (1966)

Howard Hawks loved the plot of this western so much that he made it three times (a fact that Den of Geek has covered before) and this version of it might well be my favourite because of Mitchum’s presence. It’s a difficult thing to be the comic sidekick in a movie and yet maintain a sense of danger when necessary. You laugh at Mitchum’s turn as the drunken Sheriff, and then clench your fists when he bursts into the bar with the shakes and demands to know who’s laughing at him.

John Wayne and James Caan help to sober up the Sheriff and take out the bad guys (of course). If you like your Westerns big and beautiful, El Dorado is the one for you. Having said that, Mitchum made a few other good ones. I have a soft spot for Rachel and the Stranger (1948) which is an entirely different romantic number about settling land. But something about the hat and the gun suited Mitchum’s laid-back attitude, no matter from which angle he approached the Western.

5. Out Of The Past (1947)

Jacques Tourneur directed this slice of film noir. It has everything you expect from that genre: a man trying to escape his violent past, a double-crossing woman, a sweet kid in trouble, and a mob boss who’d as soon kill you as look at you. And everyone smokes like a chimney.

Tourneur knew how to photograph things to their best advantage, so both the smoking and the star turns from Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas as the mob boss, look amazing. I’m not sure Mitchum looks too bothered in this with the love interest. Another piece of film noir, Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1952), suffers with the same problem. He observes the machinations of the women with a puzzled acceptance, as if he’s thinking to himself – dames do weird stuff, huh? Still, it’s Mitchum and Kirk Douglas together who make Out Of The Past come to life. Douglas is all energy and fakery, and Mitchum is still and watchful, and very tired of being caught in this story.

So when you add them all up, it turns out that I’ve recommended ten movies rather than five, and have left out lots of good ones along the way. At least it shows that Mitchum wasn’t what he liked to portray in interviews. Whether he liked it or not, he was a great actor. His performances deserve to be remembered.

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Robert Mitchum is one of my favourite actors. The Night of The Hunter has the most incredible and beautiful cinematography ever. The scene where the mother has sunk to the bottom of the lake is incredibly alluring but also horrific. The only movie that I can think of that matches it from that era in that regard is The Third Man. I'll need to look at Out of the Past, I love my film noir.

Great Article DOG
Michael Madsen (Mr Blonde - Reservoir Dogs, Free Willy etc.) told a great story about meeting Robert Mitcham in a bar. Madsen had a drink with Mitcham, whom he considered a great idol and asked for some advice. Mitcham told Madsen to buy a padded coat so he would not have to lift weights in between movies, to always be real
and not to act (as mentioned above in the article) and never to cheat the audience.
As Mitcham was leaving the bar, Madsen passed him a rolled up joint and
Mitcham replied "Well kid, gonna be a hell of a ride back to Santa Monica..."
Always makes me laugh....

The Grass is Greener is a very under appreciated comedy. The cast is hard to beat too: Mitchum, Kerr, Carey Grant and Jean Simmons, directed by Stanley Donen.

Mitchum and Madsen drinking at the same bar and neither one started a brawl? Remarkable!

I watched 'Out of the Past' or 'Build My Gallows High' as it was also called the other day. Definitely worth a watch.

I know Night of the Hunter always seems to get mentioned, but Mitchums ability to be impossibly menacing and not actually be doing a great deal to create that feeling at the same time is a lesson a lot of actors and film makers should observe closely.

Cheers. I'll give it a watch. I've not watched much Film Noir recently and I'm in the mood to find new stuff. Mitchum, like Bogart has the right amount of grumpiness that fits into the PI style stories.

Wouldn't mind a top 25 Film Noir films list... DoG?

I can't help but mention that he narrated Tombstone. For me it grounded the movie and added some sort of truth to what we know was fiction...if that makes any sense. Anyways, great article. They just don't make em' like they used to...

One of his finest performances was as Paddy Carmody in 'The Sundowners'. He and Deborah were one of the screen's greatest,most underrated pairings. She deserved that elusive Oscar for her brilliant work in this film, and the fact that Mitchum wasn't even nominated is disgraceful. They also worked together in 'Reunion at Fairborough', a middling 1984/5 TV movie, but their chemistry remains, made more poignant by the passage of time.

I really enjoyed this, but I'm a huge fan of Mitchum's. I'd also recommend 'Thunder Road', which I seem to recall was a personal project for Mitchum and pretty much invented the car chasing/moonshine-smuggling hillbilly genre

Mitchum looks to be in Cary Grant mode in The Grass Is Greener, made all the more wonderful by the fact that one of his co-stars is Grant himself. The duel scene between Mitchum and Grant is something to treasure.
My personal favourite Robert Mitchum film is the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep.

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