Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Heath Holland On...Robert Mitchum

by Heath Holland
I think Robert Mitchum is totally bitch-um.

A while back I did a comparison of the two film versions of Cape Fear, and I’ve been fascinated with Robert Mitchum since then. His performance of Max Cady was intense and threatening, but also subdued and understated. Mitchum didn’t do a lot of yelling or emoting, he just sort of did nothing…only that’s not entirely true, because you can see the wheels turning and you can feel yourself being manipulated the entire time. The performance gets under your skin and slowly unravels you from within. I’ve spent the last few months catching up on my Mitchum because I hadn’t seen him in all that much. Now, though, he’s quickly becoming one of my favorites.

By watching his films and reading as much as I can get my hands on about the man himself (including the excellent biography Baby, I Don’t Care by Lee Server) I’m fairly convinced that Mitchum is actually a far more interesting human being than any of his characters; this is really saying something, because his characters are almost always deep and fully realized. So to say that the man who brought life to Max Cady in Cape Fear is even more interesting and complex than his characters means that Robert Mitchum himself must have been an uncommonly remarkable man.

By the time Mitchum landed his first starring role in 1945’s The Story of G.I. Joe, he’d already lived two lifetimes. His early life reads like a John Steinbeck story or a Woody Guthrie song: after being expelled from school for fighting his principal, he spent his teen years wandering the country, riding from town to town in the boxcars of trains. He worked odd jobs such as ditch digging, bar bouncer, and fought the occasional boxing match. At 16 he served a week on a chain gang in Georgia on the charge of vagrancy (later bragging that he’d escaped) and eventually found himself in California and on the cast list for a few B-westerns. He literally just wandered into acting.
Those early years made him tough as nails. There’ve been a lot of tough guys in Hollywood, going back to Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart, but I’m inclined to think that Mitchum might be the toughest of all. There’s a story, corroborated by multiple sources, about an incident that occurred in a Colorado Springs bar back in 1951. The actor was on a break from filming the war movie One Minute to Zero and ended up in an altercation with Bernie Reynolds, a heavyweight boxer who had 19 knock-outs to his name. The reason for the dust-up varies, depending on the source, but what they all agree on is that Reynolds took a swing at Mitchum, Mitchum ducked the blow and sent back his own uppercut, rammed Reynolds’ face into a table, and then kicked him in the head. Mitchum ended up putting the guy in the hospital.

Robert Mitchum also hung with other tough guys. You know Bugsy Siegel, the guy who made Las Vegas what it is? Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn played Cohen in Gangster Squad) was Bugsy’s partner in the ‘40s, and the two had a huge hand in organizing the mob in Hollywood. When Bugsy got killed in 1947, it was Mickey Cohen who became the big fish in Los Angeles organized crime. Robert Mitchum was just one of several celebrities who made time with Cohen and were considered to be on friendly terms with the gangster. Mitchum also went to weekly boxing matches with a guy named Anthony “The Animal” Fiato, who eventually turned informant against almost 70 of his fellow criminals.

All of this led to some brushes with the law for Robert Mitchum. In a 1948 police raid of a party at a Laurel Canyon home, the actor was busted for marijuana and spent almost two months in jail. When he got out, he told the waiting press “I’ve been happy in jail.” He went on to explain that in jail no one had been jealous of him or his life, and that it was “like Palm Springs without the riff raff.” A testament to his wide appeal, the actor’s next movie wasn’t hurt by his sentence at all; the western, Rachel and the Stranger went on to be the most successful film RKO released that year. Some time later in an interview, Mitchum said “the only difference between me and my fellow actors is that I’ve spent more time in jail.”
If it sounds like I’m worshipping a hero, I apologize. That’s not my intention and I don’t THINK that I consider Mitchum to be a role model. His path and experiences are simply fascinating to me; I do admire how he took his background and spun that into a remarkable adaptability and savoir-faire, both on the screen as well as off. It makes for an extremely magnetic personality, and that’s what attracts me to the heady days of classic Hollywood. Stars were truly larger than life, and I don’t think you can get much bigger than Mitchum. Also, both he and I have resting bitch face.

The benefit of all that experience and his minimalistic acting style was that he could play just about anything. His droopy eyelids could be interpreted as apathetic or weary in one role, yet totally menacing in another. It’s so interesting how the same face could convey such different expressions without really changing. I’ve already mentioned his turn in the original Cape Fear, but I also was absolutely floored by The Night of the Hunter. That movie stuns me, and I still can’t quite wrap my arms around it. Do you ever watch a movie and think to yourself “there’s a lot more going on here than I am picking up on” and know that some of it is just out of reach? That’s my experience with The Night of the Hunter. The 1955 film is the only one that Charles Laughton ever directed, which is a real tragedy. Mitchum plays a murderous preacher, and the tone of the performance veers from totally black to comedic, sometimes turning on a dime. The movie is amazing in every sense of the word, and I can’t imagine it being what it is with another actor in that role.

Mitchum could play anything. He did heroic war movies and dusty westerns, but he also did comedies and romances. He was a key figure in the development of film noir, participating in at least 18 movies that fall under the noir umbrella, and movies like Out of the Past and Thunder Road are required viewing for fans of trench coats and rain-slicked city streets. Yet he was also a family man and father figure. He even starred as “Grandpa Joe” in the thankfully brief ‘90s TV show A Family for Joe. In addition to acting, he released an album of calypso music and a country single. The man was full of contradictions and impossible to pigeonhole.
I’m convinced that it’s his tough background that made him so watchable on the screen. Mitchum was an original hipster, and I mean that in the classic sense of the word. He was experienced, knowing, and had lived enough to breathe truth into his performances. He had been alienated by the system and had grown up outside of society’s rules. He made his own way and carved out his own path. I’m not sure that there’s a better qualification for acting than life experience, and this guy brought that experience to his roles in spades.

Mitchum’s performances are often so subdued and subtle that it seems like he’s not really doing anything. He often downplayed his acting ability, and once said “listen, I’ve got three expressions: looking left, looking right, and looking straight ahead.” It’s probably true that he didn’t really give a damn about his performance or refining his craft; that wasn’t his personality, and he seemed to take his career as seriously as he took everything else—which is not very. The record shows, however, that he was an amazing actor and he made it look so easy because he was really good at it. Some people just have that “it” factor, and make what they do seem effortless. Sometimes it’s luck, yes, but it’s also talent.

I haven’t made much of a dent in Robert Mitchum’s output because there’s just so much of it. He made around a hundred movies between 1943 and 1997 and catching up with all of those is a mammoth task. Not everything the actor appeared in is very good; I’ve watched several that left a bad taste in my mouth, but it’s NEVER Mitchum’s fault. He’s always electric on screen, in his odd, disengaged way. Equal parts puppy dog and loaded gun, Robert Mitchum was one of a kind, and he thankfully left us a fantastic body of work.


  1. Great article, Heath. "Night of the Hunter" is as beautiful as is it terrifying and I still revisit it every once a while. It's actual awesome that you just wrote this cause over the weekend I watched "Final Strike" with Mitchum's son, Christoper. It's friggin' bonkers with one of the best car chase scenes I've ever seen. Definitely worth a Junesploitation watch.

  2. I grew up thinking Mitchum was a crappy actor that showed up in all the bad '80's thrillers. Scrooged made me realize he was pretty cool. Nothing could prepare me for Night Of The Hunter or later, Friends Of Eddie Coyle. Mitchum kicks so much ass!

  3. Great article, Heath.

    Whenever I think of Robert Mitchum, my memory always goes to Larry Grobel talking about walking out on interviewing him because Mitchum was so racist. Such an interesting actor, though.

    1. After you posted this, I was so intrigued that I found Larry Grobel's book The Art of the Interview online (it's on Google Books) and read about the encounter in the author's introduction. 1) Mitchum REALLY didn't want to do that interview. I think the encounter is actually very funny, in an awkward way. Inappropriate, but funny. 2) Grobel went to dinner with Pacino that night and Pacino told him "you're the guy who did Brando, for God's sake, who does he think he is?" Also very funny to me. I fantasize he then performed the "out of order" scene. 3) After recounting the story, Larry Grobel then writes "I never got the chance to probe Robert Mitchum and find out who he was, and I always felt it was his loss."

    2. Not to turn this into the Larry Grobel show, but I've run across two interviews he's done (with Marc Maron and with Elvis Mitchell) and find his anecdotes extremely intriguing. He just had access to people that nobody gets now.

    3. That's cool. Even though I poked fun of the egos of both Mitchum and Grobel, I'm very interested in his particular type of journalism, and he seems to be one of the last of that breed. Most modern interviews are just puff and PR, and the days of unfettered access to A-list celebrities for more than 5 minutes at a press conference are mostly gone. I'll try to get my hands on some more of Grobel's interviews.

  4. If you haven't seen it and can track it down, you gotta see him as Philip Marlowe in "Farewell My Lovely". If nothing else, he gets possibly the best introductory shot of his career. Bonus: a pre-stardom appearance from Sylvester Stallone.

    1. Found it! Thanks, Matt. Can't wait to check it out. The presence of young Stallone makes this essential.

    2. Minus: Sly doesn't have any lines, I think. Plus: I'm about 90% sure we get to see his junk.

  5. Great article - you can't fake that kind of character. Its interesting that there is a connection to Sean Penn in the article as I have always thought he channels mitchum in a lot of his performances (probably why I am a fan of his work as well). I love Mitchum in out of the past - his personality made him great for noir. I have to agree that he is at his best in night of the hunter, but he also had such a great character to work with. I'm also kind of obsessed with the movie. As with Hitchcock's best stuff, every shot is so great you want to frame it and stick it on the wall!