by Heath Holland
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.
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.”
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.
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.