I never get to read as much fiction and poetry as I’d like, because I’m forever obsessed with non-fiction and biographies of long-gone Hollywood legends. Of all those stories I’ve read, which are often colored to some degree with elements of the unbelievable, I don’t think anyone is more inherently impressive than Robert Mitchum. There are dark elements to his long life and career as one of the true “bad boys” of American film.
There is also a man shaped by riding the rails during the Great Depression, escaping from a chain gang outside Savannah (where he went back years later to star in the original Cape Fear), being the first celebrity to get busted for marijuana, and more. He also wrote, traveled extensively, and built an incredible network of experiences and friendships. Just the fact that Mitchum, a Republican for much of his life, actually and frequently hung out in other, far more liberal social circles is interesting to me. Mitchum seemed to delight in confusing people, to the point where there are many, many different interpretations of his opinions and more infamous moments. Everything about the man remains fascinating.
The interest in Mitchum’s life isn’t just because he managed an extraordinary existence from start to finish. It’s just fascinating to bring all of that trivia to a film career that spanned 50 years, included just about every actor/actress/director/writer of note, and inspired numerous generations of men, and even women, who wanted to convey deceptively simple casualness with Mitchum’s trademark, dry cool.
I don’t think any actor from this era was cooler on screen than Robert Mitchum. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor who knew how to play some very specific types of men, but who could also shock you with something you never would have expected from one of those men. His best performances understood these characters deeply. Mitchum was hilariously, legendarily flippant about acting, films, his own work, and even his own success.
Yet, critics like Roger Ebert knew better than that. Mitchum was a noted professional on the set, despite decades of nonchalant alcoholism, and virtually everyone liked working with him. I believe absolutely that he took a working class approach to his career, choosing films because he wanted to make a few bucks while there was an interest in him. At the same time, when you watch the best Robert Mitchum movies, you also see a man who clearly took his craft seriously. His best characters, highlighted here for the latest Make The Case, reveal an intelligent, creative actor who wanted to lull you into a false set of expectations.
1. Out of the Past (1947)
Perhaps most closely identified with noir, Out of the Past is one of Mitchum’s best from that genre, and particularly from this era. At this point, he was two years beyond his one and only Oscar nomination in the Story of GI Joe. He had already appeared in dozens of films, including seven between GI Joe and Out of the Past, and was getting closer to the movie star status he would enjoy and resent from the 1950s on. Out of the Past is perhaps the first Robert Mitchum to qualify for classic status. It has a definitive, truly grim noir storyline, and it features riveting early performances from Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. Jane Greer also establishes herself as one of the great femme fatales of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Every single one of her scenes with Mitchum is memorable.
2. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)
As a leading man for several decades, Mitchum obviously worked with many of the best actresses of his era. The list includes Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Jean Simmons, and Deborah Kerr, who worked with Mitchum on several occasions. A lot of people believe Kerr had the best chemistry with Mitchum of all of them (if so, Jane Russell is a close second), and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is strong evidence to that effect.
Directed by the great John Huston, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a miracle of its era. It pairs Mitchum’s U.S. Marine Corporal with Kerr’s nun, who has not yet taken her vows. The movie toys with the notion of something romantic, but ultimately focuses on developing a charming friendship that gives the movie something unique from many of its contemporaries. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison gives him a familiar tough guy, and then takes it in a direction that can honestly surprise you. The movie itself creates this opportunity for Mitchum, but it is the man himself who makes the most of it. His scenes with Kerr, which make up almost the entire film, are an enduring joy to watch.
3. Cape Fear (1962)
Over the course of a six-decade, 110 film career, Robert Mitchum played a lot of bad guys, and had an eerie talent for turning his laidback appeal into something much darker. Of all the evil men he played, the Reverend Harry Powell in 1957’s Night of the Hunter and Max Cady in 1962’s Cape Fear (later remade by Martin Scorsese in 1991, with a solid supporting role performance by Mitchum) are the two that stand at the top of most lists for most people. In fact, those films are generally regarded as two of the best from Mitchum’s career.
We could feature them both here at Make the Case. However, instead, let’s force a choice, and opt for Cape Fear. As extraordinary and terrifying as Powell remains to this day, Max Cady is perhaps just a bit scarier. It helps that Cady’s vengeful convict has the stern, pragmaticism of Gregory Peck’s Sam Bowden, the lawyer who sent Cady to prison some time earlier. It also helps that Mitchum gets to play someone who is absolutely brilliant, ruthless, and gleefully amoral. Mitchum’s villain is more believable, and therefore arguably scarier, than the showiness Robert De Niro would later bring to the role in the remake. Scorsese tells a better overall version of this story, but Mitchum, and to a lesser extent, Gregory Peck (to the point where Peck was aware that Mitchum would steal the show, and allowed him to do so), lend the original Cape Fear what makes it one of the best thrillers of its day.
4. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)
Eddie “Fingers” Coyle isn’t a romantic portrayal of an aging mafia hood by any means. Mitchum still finds a way to at least make Coyle a sympathetic, unfortunate product of his time and place. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a lot like if The Godfather was almost entirely about Luca Brasi, with nods to the bartender and the guys who kill Brasi. While the story, pacing, direction and atmosphere contribute to much of the film’s reputation for being an underrated character study, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is still most memorable for Mitchum making Coyle’s death something we regret seeing.
5. Farewell, My Lovely (1975)
Several actors have played Raymond Chandler’s most famous creation Phillip Marlowe, one of the most influential fictional characters of the 20th century. Humphrey Bogart is the most famous, and The Big Sleep is one of the best for everyone involved. Mitchum came to the character at a later stage in his career than most. While Mitchum would continue to work steadily into the 80s and early 90s, and keeping in mind that there are several films beyond this one that are worth watching, Farewell, My Lovely is perhaps his last great performance on-screen.
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