Vintage Hunk: Robert Mitchum
Robert Mitchum was a star for almost 50 years. Never accorded the status of such contemporaries as Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, Mitchum gave a number of extraordinary performances. During most of his career he was pretty much taken for granted by the critics, but Mitchum's body of work is the equal of any actor working during Hollywood's golden age.
When I was a kid, I was scared of him. In 5th grade I wandered into The Night of the Hunter and emerged terrified by his scary performance. A few years later in high school, I saw the original Cape Fear and his totally terrifying performance gave me chills. I never thought of Mitchum as sexy. There was too much of him. He was brawny (not fat), and those hooded eyes always seemed to conceal some hidden evil.
Looking at his films years later, I was amazed to realize that he really was totally sexy in a macho, almost overly-masculine way.
Robet Mitchum was born in Connecticut in 1917. His mother was a sea captain's daughter and his father a railroad worker. Mitchum's father was killed in an accident when he was only two years old. For the next 15 years he bounced around, living with grand parents and sisters and getting into all sorts of adolescent trouble that included a stretch on a Georgia chain gang. Moving to Long Beach, CA in 1936, Mitchum lived with his sister who convinced him to join a local theater group. Looking for movie extra work in the early 1940s, Mitchum found some bit roles and finally secured a part in the 1944 hit Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. This led to a seven-year contract with RKO.
Mitchum's first great role was on loan out for The Story of G.I. Joe, released in 1945. Playing a war weary soldier, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. This was the only time in his long and brilliant career that Mitchum was ever nominated for an Academy Award. At RKO, Mitchum starred in a number of great film noirs including one of the best: Out of the Past. This 1947 convoluted drama co-starred gorgeous Jane Greer and a young Kirk Douglas. Regarded as just another B+ film, Out of the Past is now considered one of the great films of all time.
In September 1948, Mitchum's career almost came to an end. He was arrested with a minor starlet for possession of marijuana. The drug bit was bad enough, but as Mitchum had been married since 1940 and was a father, having the starlet added to the mix was devastating. Mitchum was sent to a prison farm for 43 days. Oddly enough for that time period, the public easily "forgave" Mitchum for his transgression and he came back to films an even bigger star. Rachel and The Stranger, in which he co-starred with Loretta Young and William Holden, was released after his arrest and was a big hit. (Legend has it that Loretta Young had a charity "swear box" on her movie sets where you had to give $.25 for each swear word uttered. Mitchum reportedly plunked down $5 and told Saint Loretta to "go fuck yourself.")
Mitchum's final RKO fims included three wonderful noirs. The Big Steal (again with Jane Greer), His Kind of Woman with Jane Russell, and Angel Face with Jean Simmons. Jane Russell was a perfect co-star for Mitchum as they were both busty, ripe and extroverted.
However, the role of Mitchum's career was playing the murderous fake preacher in The Night of the Hunter. This great expressionist film was the only movie Charles Laughton directed. It was a flop upon release but is now considered one of the great American films. Co-starring a luminous Lillian Gish and wonderfully frumpy Shelley Winters, this off-beat story allowed Mitchum to be totally monstrous as the evil Harry Powell, who will do anything to get to Winters' two children. With Love and Hate tattooed on the fingers of each hand, Mitchum gave a performance that caused many a nightmare for viewers then and how.
Mitchum's most perfect co-star was Deborah Kerr, whom he supposedly adored. They made three great films together: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, where he was a soldier and she a nun on a Japanese-held island during the war; The Sundowners, in which he played an Australian itinerant sheep shearer; and the romantic comedy The Grass Is Greener. In each of these films, Mitchum gave brilliantly understated performances. Each of them was worthy of Oscar recognition.
The '60s and '70s saw Mitchum sail through a variety of roles ranging from good (Cape Fear, where he terrorizes Gregory Peck and Polly Bergen) to bad (Rampage) to overblown (Ryan's Daughter, David Lean's ghastly Irish epic). Mitchum even played Philip Marlowe in the remake of The Big Sleep opposite an unbelievable sexy Charlotte Rampling.
Mitchum was known for his outrageous behavior, laconic interviews, and self-effacing comments on his long and varied career. He died in 1997 of lung cancer. He was married for 57 years to Dorothy Mitchum and had three children. There were rumors of many affairs over the years, and Shirley MacLaine confirmed that the two of them had been hot and heavy during the making of Two for the Seasaw.
Regardless, Robert Mitchum was a true original. Whatever he may have said or thought about his long career, he will always be one of the true cinematic greats. If you want to see him at his very best, get the new Criterion DVD of The Night of the Hunter. It is a great film and Robert Mitchum is amazing.