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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