Robert Mitchum Centennial

6 Aug

Robert Mitchum was born on August 6th, 1917, 100 years ago today. (My father was born less than two months later.) I was born on August 6th also, on Mitchum’s 36th birthday. Mitchum died on July 1, 1997, a little over a month shy of his 80th birthday. He happens to be my favorite movie star. I wrote about him here three times already, covering his debut film, BORDER PATROL (1943); his 1949 film, HOLIDAY AFFAIR; and in a piece about Sam Fuller’s THE BIG RED ONE, his appearance in THE LONGEST DAY (1962), where he played the general leading the attack on Omaha Beach, site of the bloodiest fighting on D-Day.

I was drawn to Mitchum because he looked and behaved so differently from other movie stars. With rare exceptions, he didn’t put on a “mask” to play a part. He had a way of talking and moving that showed he was quite comfortable in his own skin and with his own thoughts. He carried himself in a way that indicated he could take care of himself no matter what. He moved through whatever worlds he found himself in with confidence, ease and the ability to negotiate with whomever he encountered. He was his own man wherever he went. He mocked authority and pomposity and resisted corruption and power plays. He treated workers and everyday people with respect. He didn’t take himself too seriously. And by all reports, this seemed to be true both onscreen and off.

Mitchum’s screen persona was bolstered by his off-camera irreverence and self-deprecating humor. He regularly toyed with the press, alternately telling them tall tales, insulting them, or making outrageous statements that were often misinterpreted. He drank a lot and smoked pot and often behaved in ways that gave his publicists ulcers. He was arrested for marijuana use after arriving at a Hollywood party in 1948 and even served time for it. His “bad boy” image didn’t suffer at all and the first movie of his to be released after his arrest had long lines when it opened.

Yet those who got to know him well encountered a well-read man of deep sensitivity who recited letter-perfect Shakespeare off the cuff and wrote poetry that few people ever saw. He had an array of talents that weren’t often on display in his films. He could sing well, in a variety of styles, and even released a couple of albums. He was an excellent mimic and could do all manner of accents and, in interviews and appearances on awards shows, he did impressions of many people he worked with, including John Huston, Charles Laughton and David Lean.

There’s way too much to write about him in a mere blog entry. I urge fans of his to read the biography, Robert Mitchum: “Baby I Don’t Care,” by Lee Server, the best book there is about Mitchum. There are tons of great stories in it, some of which I’ll include here.

OUT OF THE PAST (1947)

The place to start with Mitchum is the film noir classic, OUT OF THE PAST, one of his first starring roles and the first film to outline the Mitchum persona that his fans embraced. As private eye Jeff Markham (aka Jeff Bailey), he held his own—for the most part–against any and all opponents, including a formidable antagonist played by Kirk Douglas (in only his third film) and a femme fatale, played by Jane Greer, who’s determined to survive and will say or do anything to do so.

Dressed in trench coat and fedora, Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey, younger, less earnest and more flexible than Humphrey Bogart’s iconic private eye portrayals, Sam Spade (THE MALTESE FALCON) or Philip Marlowe (THE BIG SLEEP), has a quip for every situation and tickles the audience with his sardonic responses. When Greer, having spun one of the many lies that make up her web, asks him in an Acapulco beachside love scene, “Don’t you believe me?,” he responds, before kissing her, “Baby, I don’t care.” (Hence the title of Server’s bio.)

A couple of lines delivered by Whit Sterling (Douglas), the gambler who hires Jeff to find Kathie (Greer) after she’d shot and robbed him, sum up Mitchum’s character in this. “You just sit and stay inside yourself. You wait for me to talk. I like that.” To which Jeff responds, “I never found out much listening to myself.” When Jeff asks, “Why me?,” Whit responds, “Well, I know a lot of smart guys and a few honest ones and you’re both.”

Of course, once Jeff meets Kathie and falls under her considerable spell, his honesty, at least where Whit is concerned, goes out the window. When the spell is broken about midway through the film, he regains his principles and starts life anew, changing his last name, in a mountain town running a gas station and winning the love of Ann Martin (Virginia Huston), a solid, forthright small-town girl-next-door type, but Whit’s insistence that Jeff owes him for taking what was his (Kathie), albeit temporarily, means embroiling Jeff in a scheme to neutralize a blackmailing accountant and make Jeff the fall guy. As the action shifts to Lake Tahoe and San Francisco, Jeff, ever the shrewd customer, manages to stay one step ahead of Whit and Kathie for much of the rest of the film. When Kathie pleads with him, “I don’t want to die,” Jeff responds, “Neither do I, baby, but if I have to I’m going to die last.” Sadly, she remains more ruthless than he is and he doesn’t get to achieve that ambition.

Mitchum has just one moment of vulnerability in the film, when he falls for Kathie (and who can blame him?), and it seals his fate, as was often the case with film noir. Mitchum was young (29) and handsome when he made the film and his character possesses a keen wit and a high degree of nerve, so one can certainly believe that Kathie was, for a time, in love with him, which makes the short-lived romance which fuels the plot so plausible.

While other movie tough guys of that era barked their lines out (Cagney) or infused them with moral fervor (Bogart), Mitchum insisted on being playful, conscious of his audience, even when he was being defiant or contemptuous. Even facing death, his characters weren’t going to let their antagonists have a visible effect on him. This gave him an air of “cool” that was obvious to hipster elements in the movie audience of 1947, to the point where none of his fans was surprised or even much bothered by his marijuana arrest not long after this film came out. It also made Mitchum and this movie ripe for revival in the 1970s, when his attitude and history appealed to college kids (like me). I remember a packed house at the Carnegie Hall Cinema around 1975 showing great appreciation for Mitchum, laughing at his easy deflection of people trying to manipulate him. The actor was experiencing something of a resurgence in his career about that time, including playing another 1940s-era private eye, Philip Marlowe, in FAREWELL, MY LOVELY that year.

As was evident in his romantic scenes with Greer and Huston in the film, Mitchum had an ease around his women co-stars and a tender touch. This was given full reign two years after OUT OF THE PAST in HOLIDAY AFFAIR, a Christmas romance with Janet Leigh that I wrote about in depth here.

This paragraph from my 2012 piece captures some of Mitchum’s essential appeal as a romantic lead.

Steve Mason, a California-born war veteran who wants to build boats for a living, is one of those Hollywood romantic leads who’s a little too confident and unflappable to be completely believable, yet Mitchum, emerging as a romantic leading man after a marijuana bust and prison term, which wound up only making him more popular, manages to make the character work as only Mitchum could. He clearly takes great interest in Leigh and her son and is at ease around a variety of characters in the course of the action, a quality Mitchum pretty much brought to every setting and group of characters the star found himself in during his roughly 55-year career on screen. There’s an easy chemistry between him and Leigh and between him and Gordon Gebert, who plays Timmy. His character is also painstakingly honest. Mason makes no secret of what he is—a man with a tendency to wander and one with a dream that may or may not pan out and someone who’s obviously considerably more high maintenance than Davis. Connie knows what she’s getting into and is clearly smart enough for most of the movie to resist the notion of leaving Davis for Mason. Davis promises safety and security to a woman who’s had neither. But maybe she wants a little more than that and maybe Mason might offer it. She’s taking a chance and it may turn out differently than what she’s hoping for.

In the documentary, “Robert Mitchum: The Reluctant Star” (1991), a glowing portrait of him directed by Gene Feldman and now available on Amazon Prime, several of Mitchum’s co-stars are interviewed. They’re all actresses and they all have high praise for him as an actor and as a man. They include Jane Greer, Jane Russell (HIS KIND OF WOMAN), Deborah Kerr (THE SUNDOWNERS), Polly Bergen (CAPE FEAR), Sarah Miles (RYAN’S DAUGHTER), and Ali McGraw (“The Winds of War”). Bergen even recounts the filming of the rape scene from CAPE FEAR (1962), in which Mitchum played one of his few bad guys. The playing of the scene got so intense that they continued battling after the director yelled “Cut!,” forcing crew members to pull them apart, after which Mitchum hugged Bergen, gently rocking her and whispering, “I’m sorry” over and over. The fact that she could tell this story 30 years after the fact without a trace of ill will or discomfort, but instead with admiration for a moment where Mitchum broke out of his “cool” persona and really became his character reveals the depth of feeling his female co-stars had for him.

Shirley MacLaine devotes a chapter to Mitchum in her memoir, My Lucky Stars: A Hollywood Memoir (1995, Bantam Books). She apparently had a long-running on-and-off affair with him that began when they made TWO FOR THE SEESAW (1962). She shares her observations about his character, his habits, his attitudes and behavior. She saw sides of him few people did and many of them puzzled her. I don’t have the space to include quotes but this chapter is probably as close to an intimate portrait of Mitchum as we’re going to see in print and I recommend it to his fans. (She also devotes considerable space to Dean Martin.)

Another place to get deeper insights into Mitchum’s personality is the interview he did with Dick Cavett on Cavett’s show in 1971, an episode available on YouTube.

I reviewed it on IMDB and would like to share this excerpt:

Mitchum offers an astute assessment of his own talents, “I’m a good, professional actor, there’s no great mystery about that,” and goes on to lament some of his choices: “I should do much better work. I should have always held out for much better work and I’m sorry to say I haven’t always done that.”  He denigrates the quality of the scripts he was given, even early in his career, and the sheer amount of waste by the studios: “Why would they make a film that has so little chance and do it so badly? I always felt that they could do much better.” I just wish Cavett had pressed him for some specific examples.

My favorite Mitchum films remain OUT OF THE PAST, directed by Jacques Tourneur, EL DORADO (1967), directed by Howard Hawks, and THE YAKUZA (1974), directed by Sydney Pollack. THE LONGEST DAY is one of my favorite films, but he is just one member of a star-packed ensemble cast. (John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Rod Steiger, Edmond O’Brien and Sean Connery are among the other stars.) I’ve written about EL DORADO here twice in the past.

EL DORADO (1967)

In EL DORADO, Mitchum plays an upstanding sheriff caught up in a land war between an ambitious cattle baron (Ed Asner) and a small rancher (R.G. Armstrong). When a gunslinger he used to run with is hired by the cattle baron, he anticipates a tough fight and the end of a friendship. Instead, the gunfighter, played by John Wayne, sides with him and the two, aided by a pair of sidekicks (Arthur Hunnicutt, James Caan), take on the cattle baron and his small army of hired guns. Before that all happens, however, Wayne leaves town on another job and when he comes back he finds Mitchum a hopeless drunk, after having fallen for and been dumped by a traveling woman gambler. Wayne has to get him off the booze and into fighting shape before the cattle baron gets the best of them. Once he succeeds, they manage to fend off their opponents, despite various injuries and humiliations, and restore order in the town.

It’s rare to see Mitchum as vulnerable as he is here in his drunk phase and, frankly, I found it a little unsettling to hear how his character wound up that way. We never see the woman responsible, we only hear about it from Maudie (Charlene Holt), the town Madam and good friend of Wayne and Mitchum, so it comes off as a bit of a contrivance. It’s not like Mitchum to fall so far over something like that and I didn’t quite buy it. (The character is a variation on the drunk deputy played by Dean Martin in Hawks’ earlier western, RIO BRAVO, 1959, covered here on June 7th of this year in my Dean Martin Centennial piece.) But I love the film anyway, especially because once Mitchum comes out of it, he’s back to his old self, despite being unshaven and adorned in a torn sleeping shirt, and redeems himself when he takes on the cattle baron’s henchmen.

Also, Mitchum gets to be funny in this film, as in the slapstick scenes where sidekick James Caan tries out a unique home-brewed remedy on Mitchum with the aim of getting his system to reject alcohol when he tries to drink again. Director Hawks encouraged this and liked it when he got to inject comedy into the proceedings. He was initially opposed to Mitchum’s casting because of his reputation for on-set drinking, but his associate producer Paul Helmick talked him into it. Helmick was interviewed for Server’s Mitchum biography and told the story of the first day’s shoot:

“You know, it got where I could read what Hawks was thinking,” said Paul Helmick. “And when it came time to turn the camera on Mitchum the first day, he added so much to the scene that when it was over Hawks turned to me and I looked back at him, and he was so happy, like the cat that swallowed the canary. Because he knew damn well now that he had done the right thing in hiring Mitchum.”

Later in the shoot, Hawks and Mitchum had this exchange:

Some weeks into the filming the director cornered Mitchum and told him, “You know, you’re the biggest fraud I’ve ever met in my life.”

Mitchum cocked a grin. “How come?”

Hawks said, “You pretend you don’t care a damn thing…and you’re the hardest-working so-and-so I’ve ever known.”

Mitchum said, “Don’t tell anybody.”

THE YAKUZA (1974)

THE YAKUZA was set and shot in Japan and holds a special place in my pantheon of great Hollywood films because of the way it treats the theme of reconciliation between Japan and the U.S. in the form of a special triangle relationship between a World War II veteran, the Japanese woman he loved and the Japanese soldier he knew as her brother. Mitchum’s character in the film shows respect and love for the country and the people he knew during his time as part of the Occupation army after the war. Since the brother becomes a prominent yakuza (gangster) after the war, the film also draws on the themes and conventions of the yakuza film genre, which was quite popular in Japan but was virtually unknown in the U.S. until this film. I knew about it because I’d read an article about yakuza films in Film Comment by Paul Schrader, who’d seen many of the films at a theater in Los Angeles that catered to a Japanese audience and whose brother, Leonard Schrader, lived in Japan. I’m not sure I’d yet seen any Japanese yakuza films when I saw this movie, but I did shortly after when the Museum of Modern Art ran a series of yakuza films curated by Paul Schrader. The Schrader brothers wrote the initial script for THE YAKUZA, which was then polished by Robert Towne after Sydney Pollack took on the joint roles of producer and director. The Japanese star recruited to play the leading Japanese role in the film, Ken Takakura, was also the leading star of the yakuza genre and had already appeared in a Hollywood film, TOO LATE THE HERO (1969), a World War II adventure directed by Robert Aldrich, who was originally set to direct THE YAKUZA before he was vetoed by Mitchum, who’d worked with him once before (THE ANGRY HILLS).

Mitchum plays Harry Kilmer, a World War II veteran who left behind a woman, Eiko (Keiko Kishi) he loved in Japan after she withdrew from him following the return to Japan of her brother, who’d been hiding in the jungles of the Philippines for six years. The brother, Ken Tanaka (Ken Takakura), feels he owes a debt to Harry for saving his sister’s life in an incident involving American MPs and taking care of her afterwards, but cannot reconcile that debt with the shame of her living with and loving the enemy. 20-odd years later, Harry returns to Japan to do a favor for war buddy George Tanner (Brian Keith) by asking Ken, a former yakuza, to negotiate with the Tono clan for the release of Tanner’s daughter, being held by them until Tanner can make good on a promised delivery of guns. The rather hackneyed gangster plot is just an excuse for some swordplay and shootouts to deliver a suitable action quotient for a film in this genre, but it functions chiefly as background to a replay of the relationships between Harry and Eiko, Eiko and Ken, and Harry and Ken and the playing out of a series of moral obligations and debts, especially after we learn that Ken and Eiko were not actually brother and sister but husband and wife. After the rescue of Tanner’s daughter, which involved the shooting deaths of some of Tono’s men, Harry is free to leave Japan, but when he realizes the burden he’s placed on Ken, who’s now targeted by Tono (Eiji Okada) for helping Harry, he decides to stay, accompanied by a young sidekick, Dusty (Richard Jordan), who’d been assigned to him by Tanner. Various sacrifices are made and Harry ultimately opts to atone for the disruption he initially caused Ken so many years earlier by resorting to a unique but jarring Yakuza tradition. (In the audio commentary on the Warner Archive DVD, director Sydney Pollack discusses how he directed Mitchum in this scene.)

While there are four major action setpieces in the film, enough to satisfy any jaded 1970s action fan, the real strength of the film is in its quieter scenes and its strolls around Tokyo and Kyoto and the moments when the friends and former lovers spend time together, discussing the culture and sharing their love of it as well as the situation they find themselves in, with all its implications. During one dialogue scene between Harry and Ken on a Tokyo street at night, Ken asks, “You have no family?” Harry looks at Ken, pauses, shakes his head, utters, “No,” and keeps looking straight at him, making for quite a loaded moment, given that both men loved the same woman and each was denied a life with her by the presence of the other. Mitchum is allowed to be vulnerable in this film, but it’s very subtly portrayed. All of this gives Pollack the opportunity to give Mitchum lots of great closeups. This may be, in my opinion, the actor’s best performance.

Mitchum had gone through a number of indifferent film roles in the 1950s and 60s, but by the 1970s he found himself in demand for a whole different style of stardom and sought after by younger directors as exemplified by this film, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE and FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, among others. He had a 30-year history of movies behind him, some considerable seasoning and a world-weary demeanor that suited such characters as Harry, Coyle and Philip Marlowe. In THE YAKUZA, he clearly has a lot of emotional investment in the role and his scenes opposite Kishi and Takakura are bristling with care and feeling, understanding and respect.

He’s very tender with Kishi and it’s obvious the love they had after the war is still there, even though circumstances dictate against any rekindling. Ken is harder to read, but the respect the two men feel for each other, especially after their shared experiences in the film, transforms into genuine friendship. (It helped that Mitchum and Takakura had great rapport during Mitchum’s stay in Japan.) Ken realizes how much like himself Harry is. Even the way Harry moves and holds his head around the other characters indicates how much Mitchum understood his character’s position. Harry is not some brash American seeking to assert himself and insert his own values into the proceedings of a foreign country. He is careful to observe protocol when he has to and he stays in Japan after his initial mission is accomplished because he wants to do the right thing. He understands “the burden hardest to bear,” as Ken describes it when defining the concept of “giri” (duty) to Dusty. When it is discovered that Tanner’s betrayal of Tono is at the root of the problem and has led to Tanner’s betrayal of Harry to comply with Tono’s wishes, the two men, Ken and Harry, Joined by Ken’s brother Goro (played by Japanese-American actor James Shigeta), debate whose obligation it is to sort this whole thing out. Ken insists it’s his job to eliminate Tono and Harry insists it’s his job to eliminate Tanner.

Eventually, of course, Harry goes along with Ken for the final showdown with Tono and his men.

Of course, none of this prevented Mitchum from having his usual fun with the press. According to Server’s biography, when Mitchum arrived in Japan for the shoot and met the Japanese press for the first time, the first thing he said to them was, “Remember Pearl Harbor.”

Server has this to say about Mitchum’s work in the film: “Mitchum’s performance was a grand one, a glorious tough/tender characterization, and he looked more purely movie star glamorous—the leonine presence, face of decaying beauty, broad shoulders caped in a camel’s hair overcoat—than he had for years.”

There are plenty of other significant Mitchum films to discuss, including two film noir westerns, Raoul Walsh’s PURSUED (1947) and Robert Wise’s BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948); Don Siegel’s chase thriller, THE BIG STEAL (1949), reteaming him with Jane Greer; John Farrow’s action-noir-comedy, HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951), co-starring Jane Russell; Otto Preminger’s romantic melodrama of crazed love, ANGEL FACE (1952); the Korean War movie, ONE MINUTE TO ZERO (1952), in which he sings a song in Japanese to Ann Blyth and which happens to be the very first Mitchum film I saw as a child; Charles Laughton’s almost experimental thriller, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), in which Mitchum plays a malevolent preacher with the words “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles; the moonshine thriller, THUNDER ROAD (1958), which Mitchum also co-produced and came up with the original story, as well as composing and singing the theme song; the aforementioned CAPE FEAR (1962), in which he plays a rapist newly released from prison and eager to get revenge on the small-town southern attorney whose testimony sent him to jail; David Lean’s RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970), in which he plays an Irish schoolteacher and speaks with an Irish accent; the aforementioned THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1973), in which he plays a career criminal in Boston who faces a life-or-death decision over whether to cooperate with the Feds or not; the aforementioned FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975), based on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novel; and the last starring role of Mitchum’s which I saw upon its original release, the Hong Kong-filmed thriller, THE AMSTERDAM KILL (1978). But all I can do is give them honorable mentions.

I re-watched the three films I cited as his best before doing this piece. The only other Mitchum film I got a chance to see for this was 5 CARD STUD (1968), in which he co-stars with Dean Martin, who had his centennial on June 7. Martin plays a gambler, while Mitchum plays a murderous preacher (shades of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER!) killing off, one by one, the participants in a card game that led to a lynching. Neither actor shines in it, nor did they have much chemistry onscreen or off. (Mitchum reportedly turned down THE WILD BUNCH to make it. His loss, William Holden’s gain.)

Finally, I’d like to share a piece I wrote 20 years ago, in 1997, on the occasion of Mitchum’s death. It’s got a few errors in it, written as it was in the pre-IMDB era, so the films I cite as his first and last are not entirely accurate. Also, I was relying on certain plot points from memory, so I get a key detail from OUT OF THE PAST wrong. It’s also got spoilers for OUT OF THE PAST and THE YAKUZA. I also had a more romantic, hero-worshipping view of some of his films and character portrayals than I do now.

ROBERT MITCHUM:  GREAT WHEN HE WANTED TO BE

Robert Mitchum had one of the most intriguing career arcs of any top star. He began his career in a black-and-white western, Hoppy Serves a Writ (1943), and ended it in a black-and-white western, the arty Dead Man (1996), by New York independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. In between, he appeared in some of the quirkiest of American film classics–The Locket, Out of the Past, Crossfire, Night of the Hunter, Thunder Road, Cape Fear, El Dorado, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Yakuza, Farewell My Lovely–and worked with such directors as Howard Hawks, Josef von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray, Vincente Minnelli, Don Siegel, Otto Preminger, Raoul Walsh, David Lean, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Robert Aldrich, Stanley Kramer, Lewis Milestone, Phil Karlson, Henry Hathaway, and, just six years ago, Martin Scorsese. However, he didn’t always do his best work for these men and the infuriating fact remains that the bulk of the star’s career was given over to indifferent and highly forgettable star vehicles in which the actor did his standard Mitchum routine and took home the paycheck:  Second Chance, Foreign Intrigue, Fire Down Below, The Angry Hills, The Last Time I Saw Archie, Rampage, Man in the Middle, The Way West, Anzio, 5 Card Stud, Young Billy Young, The Good Guys and the Bad Guys, The Wrath of God, The Amsterdam Kill, and, most notoriously, the remake of The Big Sleep.

Mitchum was maddening to those fans who recognized the sheer depth of his talent and intellect and saw how little of it was used in his films. A bright, well-read, self-educated man, blessed with a photographic memory that enabled him to learn his lines on the set, he was reportedly a brilliant writer and poet, according to those few to whom he showed his writings. He wrote songs, he sang in his films, and he recorded an album of calypso songs after a location jaunt in the Caribbean. He could do accents perfectly, although he rarely got the opportunity to do so in his 100+ films (The Sundowners, Ryan’s Daughter and both versions of Cape Fear are the only ones that come to mind). He was a superb impressionist, a talent revealed to the mass audience only at tributes to his co-workers. At different AFI Life Achievement Awards dinners, he did Charles Laughton and John Huston, both flawlessly.

Although he rarely gave his film portrayals even a fraction of the power he had to give, this was often a strength and the source of much of his appeal, since he was such a master at underplaying. A story is told in one of his biographies that Mitchum responded to Kirk Douglas’ scene-stealing in Out of the Past by continuing to lower the volume of his performance and underplaying his underplaying until Douglas realized he was losing the battle. Yet when the role required different layers and suggestions of an inner life, Mitchum often failed to deliver. In even a highly-regarded film such as Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), Mitchum walks through a lightly-written part without giving it a personal touch that might have equaled or at least come close to Bogart’s similar role in The African Queen. The drunk scene, in particular, which is supposed to convey sexual frustration, just doesn’t ring true.

Still, in his best roles, Mitchum created an American original–a man of conscience burdened but never embittered by his cynical awareness of the absurdity of life, the criminal incompetence of authority and the untrustworthiness of people. And he always did the right thing regardless of the consequences, a characteristic evident early on in Out of the Past, when he crashes his car through a police roadblock knowing it will mean certain death for both him and the treacherous Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) whom he has sought unsuccessfully to remove from his life by less forceful means. In such roles as the World War II vet confronting a corrupt war buddy in modern Japan in The Yakuza (1975); as the moonshine runner hampered by IRS agents in Thunder Road (1958), as the American gun runner who sides with Pancho Villa in Villa Rides (1968); and as the jungle guide who stops a greedy Dutch trader from invading tribal territory in White Witch Doctor (1953), Mitchum presented a romantic picture of a loner with a generally unshakeable code of honor. He appealed to those in the audience who understood the nature of code and the concept of being an autonomous man taking a risky moral stand in an unsympathetic and uncaring society.

Mitchum had scores of black and Latino admirers in my old South Bronx neighborhood. My teenhood friend Sammy Ali once tried to articulate what he liked about Mitchum. If I remember his words from  25 years ago correctly, Sammy said, “I like the way he walks. I like the way he moves.” I also remember an older Puerto Rican co-worker thumbing through the paper, noticing an ad for a new Mitchum film and muttering in a heavy accent, to no one in particular, “Mitchum. He’s one of my favorites. The son of a bitch.”

I think Mitchum’s appeal to people of color was that his characters often moved easily through minority cultures. He always carried himself with an air of self-containment and humility, whether on the run in Mexico in The Big Steal (1949), Bandido (1956) and Villa Rides (1968); Africa in White Witch Doctor (1953) and Mister Moses (1965); and Japan in The Yakuza (1975). He wasn’t the arrogant American racist the way Clark Gable and Robert Taylor often were (Too Hot to Handle and Lady of the Tropics, respectively, come to mind). He didn’t slaughter people of color the way Gary Cooper, John Wayne and even Burt Lancaster sometimes did. (An exception is found in One Minute to Zero, where as an army officer, Mitchum orders the shelling of a line of Korean refugees, guessing correctly that North Korean soldiers are using them for cover.) Mitchum had a way of fitting in wherever he was. In The Yakuza, he plays a war vet who returns to Japan to partner with one-time Yakuza Ken Takakura to right a wrong done by Japanese Yakuza working with a corrupt American businessman (Brian Keith, who died the week before Mitchum). In the end, to pay off all debts to Takakura for having lived with the man’s wife after the war, thinking Takakura was her brother, Mitchum’s character submits to the self-induced Yakuza punishment of cutting off one’s pinky finger to atone for a wrong. I cannot imagine any other star up to that time pulling off a gesture like that.

Closer to home, Mitchum went into black neighborhoods without a scent of condescension or disrespect in his film noir masterpiece, Out of the Past and his ‘70s retro-noir Farewell My Lovely. In Out of the Past, he enters an elegant Harlem nightclub, patronized by blacks, where the black manager (Wesley Bly) introduces him as “my friend” to Theresa Harris, who plays the former maid of the woman–Kathie Moffat–private eye Mitchum is seeking. Mitchum questions Harris gently and respectfully until he gets the clue he needs as to Kathie’s unstated destination and thanks Harris by leaving money on the table and motioning to the waiter to bring another round of drinks for Harris and her party. How often in the 1940s did we see a leading man treat blacks as equals?

A year earlier, Mitchum had played a war vet in Till the End of Time who responds when a black veteran is humiliated by a bigot in a pinball arcade by slugging the bigot. His 1948 marijuana bust notwithstanding, Mitchum was hard to pin down politically–he supported the war in Vietnam and more recently narrated George Bush’s convention campaign video in 1992–but on screen he usually represented liberal qualities.

Mitchum outlived many of his contemporaries and maintained his unique image right up to the end. When Vanity Fair did its first annual Special Hollywood Issue in April 1995, it included a two page spread of Mitchum in its centerpiece portfolio of photos by Herb Ritts and Annie Leibovitz. Liebovitz’s photo, titled “The Professional,” showed Mitchum on a Santa Barbara pier in a trenchcoat and smoking a cigarette. His one-time co-star Kirk Douglas had to share a page with his son Michael (“The Dynasty”), while 38 of their contemporaries (including Richard Widmark, Robert Stack, Ernest Borgnine and Tony Curtis) had to share a group photo labeled “The Studio Kids.” You had to open Mitchum’s page to find it.

 

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11 Responses to “Robert Mitchum Centennial”

  1. realthog August 6, 2017 at 7:16 AM #

    Tremendous stuff — many thanks! Might I reblog, please?

    • briandanacamp August 6, 2017 at 7:22 AM #

      Please do. Thank you.

      • realthog August 6, 2017 at 8:08 AM #

        Many thanks for the permission.

  2. realthog August 6, 2017 at 8:31 AM #

    Reblogged this on Noirish and commented:
    **A splendid essay from Brian Camp on the noirish great.

  3. Ted Hicks August 6, 2017 at 12:17 PM #

    Robert Mitchum is one of my favorite film actors, too. He’s great in “The Yakuza.” “Thunder Road” was one of the first films I saw several times during its initial run in a small-town Iowa theater. You mention that he sang the theme song as well as writing it. He didn’t sing the song in the film, but I heard it later on an album called “That Man Mitchum Sings.” I don’t think you give enough weight to “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” which has one of his very best performances, very understated. He played in many film noirs, most notably in “Out of the Past,” one of the best noirs ever. His performance in “Cape Fear” is truly menacing. Thanks for this post, and also for alerting me to the documentary available on Amazon Prime and his interview on the Cavett show.

    • briandanacamp August 6, 2017 at 8:41 PM #

      Thanks, Ted. I’d planned to re-watch THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE for this and devote some space to it, but didn’t get a chance to. And thanks for the correction on Mitchum’s singing of “The Ballad of Thunder Road.”

  4. Judith Trojan August 6, 2017 at 12:24 PM #

    Thanks for keeping Mitchum’s memory alive! These Mitchum blog posts should serve as strong pitches for a full out book project, Brian!

    • briandanacamp August 6, 2017 at 8:42 PM #

      I’ve still got so many films of his to see. I borrowed FIRE DOWN BELOW from the library to watch for this–and still haven’t watched it! That’s the film where he met all the Caribbean musicians (Mighty Sparrow, et al) and got the idea to do the Calypso album.

      • Judith Trojan August 6, 2017 at 8:44 PM #

        I say, put it in your book!

  5. Brandon August 7, 2017 at 2:29 PM #

    This is wonderful, Brian. Added Yakuza to my long list of movies to watch.

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