A brief guide to Robert Mitchum

James Oliver 29 June 2021

Robert Mitchum was a reluctant movie star which enhanced his cool factor, says James Oliver

Who is the coolest male movie star? Like, ever? Marlon Brando? Lee Marvin? Samuel L Jackson? Nah. They—and just about everyone else—are jostling for Silver. First place is taken and it's not even close. Robert Mitchum was the sleepy-eyed icon of film noir, a rebel—nay, outlaw—on screen and off.

No-one had more fun with, or fewer illusions about their stardom: once asked why he was an actor, he replied: “Beats working”. His life-story sounds unbelievable but no one's managed to disprove it yet. Born in 1917, he was barely a year old when he lost his father, an accident at work. Young Bob was something of a handful and, at 13, decided to leave the family home and go wandering. Like a hero of some Depression-era ballad, he hopped rides on trains, seeing the country and getting up to mischief. Later on, he said he'd even done time on the chain gang.

Eventually, the railways took him to California, where his sister was trying to make it in the movies. She didn't cut it but her baby brother Bob—who wasn't even trying to land a part—was spotted by the talent scouts. Aged 25, he started playing in low-budget Westerns, acting as either ally or adversary to Hopalong Cassidy, with no ambition to do much more: it was certainly less arduous and better paid than the manual labour that he'd been doing before.

"Aged 25, he started playing in low-budget Westerns, acting as either ally or adversary to Hopalong Cassidy, with no ambition to do much more"

And yet, as so often with Mitchum, opportunities just fell at his feet. He was cast as a seasoned soldier in The True Story of GI Joe, which became a big hit in the aftermath of the war (Mitchum's own contribution to defeating the Axis powers was more limited, working in a Los Angeles armaments factory before Hopalong Cassidy came calling). It got him nominated as Best Supporting Actor (his only shot at an Oscar, ever) but, more importantly, made him a star. Or at least bankable: proper stars were wholesome and friendly, while Mitchum refused to play that game. He'd never be the housewives’ favourite but it did mean he was perfect for a new style of movie that emerged post-war, the crime dramas that would retrospectively become known as film noir. Mitchum found his way into some of the very best of them, including Out of the Past (getting pulled back into an underworld he thought he'd escaped); Crossfire (uncovering racial animus in the army) and Angel Face (as bad girl Jean Simmons' love interest).

He suited the half-light and moral uncertainty of these films perfectly, a one-man demi monde. Audiences were about to discover that this was no pretence. Although married—quite happily, by all accounts—he was never especially troubled by fidelity. One night in 1948, Mitchum was enjoying the company of a young Hollywood wannabe called Lila Leeds when the police rolled up. It wasn't their job to enforce morality but the drug laws were a different matter. Mitchum had been a habitual smoker of marijuana since his days roaming the country and was indulging that night with Leeds. Trouble is, it was somewhat illegal. Astonishingly, he got away with it. Not legally, of course—the cops had him bang to rights there and he did some time on a prison farm. But he was acquitted in the court of public opinion; his next picture—completed before his bust—was a hit and the studio decided not to invoke the morality clause that could have killed his career stone dead (Lila Leeds was less lucky. A couple of exploitation films, then zilch. Not everyone had Mitchum's luck.).

If anything, the bust supercharged his career. There are few Hollywood actors of the Golden Age who worked with so many of the great directors. Otto Preminger (on River of No Return), Josef Von Sternberg (Macao) John Huston (Heaven Knows, Mr Allison) Howard Hawks (El Dorado), Robert Wise (Blood on the Moon), Nicholas Ray (The Lusty Men), Joseph Losey (Secret Ceremony)... Even if the films weren't always the best their respective auteurs made, each was definitely enhanced by Mitchum.

"Even if the films weren't always the best their respective auteurs made, each was definitely enhanced by Mitchum"

Most especially, there's Night of the Hunter, the only film to be directed by Charles Laughton. A legendary thespian himself, Laughton sought Mitchum to play the mad preacher in his film noir fairytale, chasing two children he believes to be in the possession of a small fortune (it's freshly released on blu-ray by The Criterion Collection so if you haven't seen it, you can, and should, remedy that. Preferably immediately). Mitchum had played anti-heroes before but Reverent Powell is an out-and-out villain, the embodiment of evil, in fact. It's a more stylised performance than he usually gave, and all the more frightening for it. No wolf was ever bigger or badder.

Not that Mitchum was all about menace. Like many actors, he dabbled in music, releasing not just one but two albums of Calypso music, with him trying his hand at the popular West Indian style, complete with—oh, dear—an unfortunate accent. No one accused him of “cultural appropriation” back then, but he was accused of making not very good records. Almost as bad was his turn in David Lean's big-budget Irish melodrama Ryan's Daughter which saw him deployed as, incredibly, an introverted cuckold. Mitchum did what he could but it was a calamitous piece of miscasting, not least because Lean had hired—again, incredibly—a non-actor to play the love rival, meaning that one of the most magnetic men ever to grace the screen is shown losing his lover to someone devoid of charisma.

Happily, Mitchum bounced back, giving some of his very best performances in films inspired by those he'd made in the film noir era. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a mob drama which sees him as the guy still standing when the music stops, a role that showed him acknowledging that he wasn't the young buck any more and that his time was passing.

"Mitchum bounced back, giving some of his very best performances in films inspired by those he'd made in the film noir era"

Even better was Farewell My Lovely, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler with Mitchum as an older version of the eternal detective Philip Marlowe. It's an autumnal masterpiece anchored by a weary Mitchum, and one of the great lost masterpieces of the 1970s (he would reprise the role of Marlowe in Michael Winner's remake of The Big Sleep which by contrast is one of the worst films of the 1970s. Or ever).

For himself, he wasn't ready to accept retirement or anything like it: he accepted roles in a couple of TV mini-series The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, and didn't even complain about the punishing schedule. Nor was he averse to a bit of stunt casting: the original Cape Fear had seen Mitchum menace Gregory Peck. For his 1991 remake, Martin Scorsese invited both back to play small roles, this time on the opposite side they were before. Both were fantastic, Peck as a slimeball lawyer, Mitchum as a policeman. His last film, like his first, was a Western, a small role in Dead Man opposite Johnny Depp (a young fellow who has worked very hard to have just a fraction of the cool that came naturally to Mitchum).

But not even Mitchum could outsmart the reaper. In 1997, a few weeks off 80, he died, his memory toasted in bars the world over. Lee Server's outstanding Mitchography Baby I Don't Care (2001) would later take some of the romance out of the legend, with stories of the alcoholism and brawling, the cost of all that hard living early on. But it also shows what a generous, intelligent and (sometimes) decent man he could be. Like most people, he was a mass of contradictions. But unlike most people, he was—and still is—utterly electric on screen.

Night of the Hunter is released on blu-ray by The Criterion Collection

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