I’ve been on a B-western kick lately and was happy to learn that BORDER PATROL (1943), one of the Hopalong Cassidy westerns contained on the Cowboy Legends Collector’s Set (from Echo Bridge), was indeed the film debut of my all-time favorite movie star, Robert Mitchum.
I’d long known that he’d gotten his start in the series of Hopalong Cassidy westerns released by United Artists in the 1940s, but I’d never had the opportunity to see any of them.
Mitchum is billed 9th in the opening credits, a pretty good sign of confidence by the producer that he had a promising up-and-comer in his employ.
We first see Mitchum in a couple of long shots in the opening scene, the very first one he shot. He plays Quinn, a bad guy chasing down and shooting at a fleeing Mexican. His gun doesn’t go off and he stares down at it, signaling that he’s run out of bullets and his partner with the rifle has to fire the fatal shot—or signaling a prop malfunction that the director didn’t feel was worthy of a retake. Take your pick.
Mitchum gets one line, “C’mon, let’s get out of here!” uttered after he spots witnesses.
Texas Ranger Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd) and his deputies, California (Andy Clyde) and Johnny (Jay Kirby), reach the fatally wounded Mexican, Ramon, and, to make a long story short, they decide to take on the case of missing Mexican workers who’d crossed the border to work in a silver mine.
The trail of evidence leads them to the town of Silver Bullet, where they are blocked by Quinn and Barton, the same two henchmen from the opening scene. Just before the encounter Hopalong notes the town’s “Keep Out” sign:
and wonders, “The kingdom of Silver Bullet, huh? Well, let’s see if we can get a passport,” only to be interrupted by Mitchum’s second line in the film, “Hold it!” followed by his first (medium) closeup and the line, as he shows his gun, “This is the only kind of passport we issue. Now, turn around and get out!”
Russell Simpson co-stars as Orestes Krebs, the petty tyrant of Silver Bullet, who, upon hearing Hopalong’s assertion of jurisdiction, declares, “I don’t recognize the laws of Texas, Mr. Cassidy. I am the law here.” He promptly takes Hopalong and his deputies captive and places them on “trial” in a Judge Roy Bean-style kangaroo court held in the saloon.
(Simpson was one of John Ford’s repertory company and had played Pa Joad in THE GRAPES OF WRATH three years earlier.)
The trial offers Mitchum’s only other big scene in the film. And it’s interesting to note how he’s often framed apart from the rest of the henchmen, who are all virtually indistinguishable from each other. Whether by design or accident, Mitchum stands out in the shots he’s in. Your eyes are just naturally drawn to him.
Here’s what Lee Server has to say about this scene in his excellent biography of Mitchum, “Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don’t Care” (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001):
“The actor’s celluloid debut contained several moments of awkwardness—a wandering gaze in a group shot, some odd tiptoeing in his wardrobe department cowboy boots—but an undeniable screen presence was visible from the get-go. There, in embryonic form to be sure, was the characteristic Mitchum style, the slow, deliberate motions confidently mapping out his piece of screen space, the precisely judged gesture and body language, the caustic, sardonic attitude projected through the heavy-lidded, sleepily sensual eyes that would soon garner so much attention. Transcending—if just slightly—the underwritten part, he gave to this utility bad guy a distinguishing air of smoldering menace.”
To be honest, it didn’t come off as awkward to me. He looked like he knew what he was doing, although, again, that could just be the result of a happy accident. This was his first time before the camera, after all.
There’s a great bit after the “trial” where Mitchum’s character shoves Hoppy a little too hard and Hoppy reacts in a way that gives Mitchum even more attention. If that wasn’t calculated, it’s still just as effective.
(That’s Claudia Drake in the chair, the “good girl” from Edgar G. Ulmer’s bleak noir, DETOUR. She plays the girlfriend of one of the missing Mexicans.)
Mitchum’s role in the 63-minute film ends at the 53-minute mark when he gets shot by Hoppy in a shootout in town. He even dies in an attention-getting manner:
Which means he doesn’t get to participate in the climactic action at the mine and on the road back when the freed Mexican miners shoot it out with Orestes and his gang. But that’s when George “Superman” Reeves takes center stage as the imprisoned Mexican rancher who was investigating the disappearances when he was captured.
The screenplay is by Michael Wilson, who later wrote A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951) before being blacklisted and having to co-write screenplays with “front” names attached to them, including the Oscar-winner for Best Screenplay, THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI and the Oscar nominee for the same category, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Wilson also wrote the screenplay for SALT OF THE EARTH (1954), the celebrated indie production about Mexican-American labor troubles in New Mexico that was put together by blacklisted Hollywood personnel. In fact, BORDER PATROL’s subplot of exploited Mexican workers in a border town clearly looks forward to SALT OF THE EARTH, prompting Server, with tongue in cheek, to describe BORDER PATROL’s plot as “one of those ‘subversive’ plot lines the witch-hunters of the House Un-American Activities Committee later decried, lefty Wilson trying to turn Saturday matinee kids against capitalism…”
In any event, it’s obvious that Mitchum’s work in the Hoppy pictures—seven in all–attracted notice throughout Hollywood and he wound up getting bit parts and supporting roles in 25 subsequent movies in 1943-44, including the war movies, GUNG HO, CORVETTE K-225, CRY HAVOC and THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO, before getting his first starring role in NEVADA (1944) at RKO, another B-western, but a little better-budgeted than most. Luckily, I have a DVD of this film also and can share some screen grabs. Here he appears with his own “Introducing” credit right after the title, despite having done 25 movies which might have already served to “introduce” him.
(As you can see, he’s still billed as Bob Mitchum, although he’d be Robert in his next film and from then on.)
He plays a cowboy who gets mixed up in a gold rush and framed for the murder of a miner whose land includes some of the famous Comstock Lode. The plot gets a bit too complicated and even brings in a geologist to do a chemical examination of the “blue muck” found on the dead man’s property. As usual in so many B-westerns, the chief villain is the town’s leading businessman and landowner, who learns about the silver in the lode before anyone else and tries to keep the secret from getting out to other claimants and small owners.
Mitchum looks good on a horse and in western clothes.
He has an early encounter with the leading lady, Anne Jeffries, and, unlike the typical B-western hero, he has no qualms about showing interest in her, a move that pays key dividends later on.
(Scenes like this sure didn’t hurt him with his growing legions of female fans.)
There’s a good gambling scene where Mitchum, nicknamed “Nevada,” parlays his and his buddies’ cowhand earnings into $7000. As the casino boss is reluctantly counting out the money, Mitchum takes note of the boss’s henchmen preparing to prevent his departure in a nice closeup that shows how Mitchum could convey essential info with simple eye movements.
(Is that a great closeup or what?)
Mitchum made another RKO western, WEST OF THE PECOS, right after this one, but his very next film would get him his first and only Oscar nomination—for Best Supporting Actor–THE STORY OF G.I. JOE (1945). Mitchum could kiss the B-western goodbye and within two years was starring for major directors like Raoul Walsh (PURSUED), Jacques Tourneur (OUT OF THE PAST), Edward Dmytryk (CROSSFIRE) and Robert Wise (BLOOD ON THE MOON). He was now a star. His famed 1948 marijuana bust might have derailed a lesser figure, but the first movie of his to come out after the arrest, RACHEL AND THE STRANGER, had lines around the block. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The first Mitchum movie I ever saw was the Korean War movie, ONE MINUTE TO ZERO (1952), seen on WOR-TV’s Million Dollar Movie when I was a kid. This is the one where he sings a song in Japanese to a young female UN worker he’s courting. The first Mitchum movie I saw on the big screen was THE LONGEST DAY, where he plays General Norman Cota, commander of the troops on the beleaguered and battered Omaha Beach.
This is the scene where he issues the famous rallying call to the troops:
“Only two kinds of people are gonna stay on this beach–those that are already dead and those that are gonna die. Now get off your butts! You guys are the Fightin’ 29th!”
The next one I saw on the big screen was EL DORADO (1967), his memorable team-up with John Wayne for Howard Hawks.
I would eventually catch up with most of Mitchum’s output on TV or in revival theaters, while following his newer work on the big screen in the 1970s: FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, THE YAKUZA, FAREWELL MY LOVELY, THE AMSTERDAM KILL, etc.
And you can see the roots of it all right there in BORDER PATROL.