Robert Mitchum (1917-1997): A Look Back


The only difference between me and my fellow actors is that I’ve spent more time in jail. – Robert Mitchum

Robert Mitchum, one of the greatest movie stars of the twentieth century, was born on this date in 1917. Described by a film critic in 1948 as “an oversized young man… with a corrugated nose, swamp-green eyes, a tight mouth and an elliptical face which sometimes gives him the appearance of Bing Crosby,” Mitchum was nevertheless one of Tinseltown’s most magnetic sex symbols and an unquestionably talented actor, playing heroes and villains with aplomb. He worked in probably every genre under the sun, starting with his uncredited debut in The Human Comedy (1943) and ending with his portrayal of director George Stevens in James Dean: Live Fast, Die Young (1997). To celebrate the centennial of one of Hollywood’s most accomplished actors, let’s take a look at a dozen of Robert Mitchum’s most intriguing performances from a fifty-year career in film and television.

Out of the Past (1947, dir. Jacques Tourneur). The defining performance of Robert Mitchum’s career was also the one that made him a star: as private eye Jeff Bailey, one of the quintessential detective protagonists of the 1940s in the film noir classic Out of the Past. This is the film in which Mitchum spoke the line that would follow him for the rest of his life: “Baby, I don’t care.”

Rachel and the Stranger (1948, dir. Norman Foster). Please revel in the delight of this love triangle: frontiersman William Holden, his wife Loretta Young and Mitchum as an old friend of Holden’s. Hearing Mitchum sing two simple but pretty ditties, “Just Like Me” and “Summer Song,” is a treat.

The Lusty Men (1952, dir. Nicholas Ray). One of Nicholas Ray’s most underrated films is the Western The Lusty Men, in which a rodeo veteran (Mitchum) comes between a cowhand (Arthur Kennedy) and his dissatisfied wife (Susan Hayward). It’s wonderful to watch these fine actors interact, especially since Nick Ray was an expert in the fields of melodrama and complicated romance.

River of No Return (1954, dir. Otto Preminger). River of No Return is one of the first Robert Mitchum movies that I recall seeing. The thrill of seeing him travel treacherous rapids on a raft with Marilyn Monroe and Tommy Rettig seemed really exciting to me when I was a kid; now, of course, I pay closer critical attention to the stock Native American baddies who were “normal” sights in mainstream American cinema from that era, but when focusing primarily on Robert Mitchum’s performance, one has to admit that he did well in the role of a tough and weary (but intrinsically well-meaning) widower and father.

The Night of the Hunter (1955, dir. Charles Laughton). Mitchum took on a career-defining role when he played preacher Harry Powell, who spends part of his time proselytizing and the rest of it victimizing gullible women like widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), as well as her two young children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce). Charles Laughton’s adaptation of Davis Grubb’s novel is a nightmarish vision of Americana, a story with Southern Gothic roots that was made with a decidedly un-Hollywood approach to cinematic narratives.

Foreign Intrigue (1956, dir. Sheldon Reynolds). There is a special place in my heart for the espionage thriller Foreign Intrigue, which borrows most of its continental flair from the earlier spy masterpiece The Third Man (1949). Truth be told, I don’t remember much about the plot, but the film is worth seeing for the always-reliable Robert Mitchum as a journalist-turned-secret agent, beautiful Eastmancolor cinematography by Bertil Palmgren and for the casting of the film’s two leading ladies: Geneviève Page, whom I know best as the elegant madam in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), and Ingrid Thulin, who found her fame in her native Sweden when she took both lead and supporting roles in a number of films directed by Ingmar Bergman, including Wild Strawberries (1957), The Magician (1958), Winter Light (1963), The Silence (1963) and Cries & Whispers (1972).

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957, dir. John Huston). Aside from various American and Japanese extras, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a two-person movie set in 1944, in which a corporal in the U.S. Marines (Mitchum) and an Irish nun who has not yet taken her final vows (Deborah Kerr) are stranded on an island in the South Pacific. The chemistry between the film’s stars is palpable as the characters try to avoid temptation in the midst of wartime peril.

Cape Fear (1962, dir. J. Lee Thompson). One of Mitchum’s most iconic roles was as Max Cady, an unrepentant criminal who makes parole and subsequently targets lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) – the lawyer whom he considers responsible for his conviction/imprisonment – and the rest of the Bowden family. Mitchum’s Cady is a truly terrifying character, one whose limitless menace will sear itself onto your brain for the rest of time.

Maria’s Lovers (1984, dir. Andrei Konchalovsky). I recall thinking that the casting of Robert Mitchum in Maria’s Lovers, a romantic drama set in Pittsburgh in the late 1940s, was surprising; in this scene, he flirts with Maria (Nastassja Kinski), who is about to marry his son Ivan (John Savage), and although the age difference between the actors (44 years) is off-putting, Mitchum imbues the moment with so much melancholy tenderness.

“A Family for Joe” (1990). Were you aware that Robert Mitchum starred as the patriarch on an NBC family sitcom in the early 90s? No, I wasn’t either. Interesting, though, right? A few episodes appear to be available on YouTube, so you can bet that I’m going to investigate further.

IMDb tells us: “The premise was that four cute upper-middle-class kids had been suddenly orphaned. About to be split up and sent to foster homes, they located a cranky old homeless man and offered him food, a home, and a decent life-style if he would live in their nice house and pose as their grandfather (this could only happen in a sitcom!). Of course he took his new responsibilities more seriously than they expected, and amid the quips, little lessons in life were learned by all around the sunny kitchen table. Roger was the helpful next-door neighbor, an air traffic controller turned homemaker.” The show only lasted for nine episodes, but the fact that Mitchum – the premier bedroom-eyed bad boy of the 1940s and 50s – would eventually also portray the septuagenarian father on a laugh-tracked TV comedy speaks volumes to his abilities as a performer.

Cape Fear (1991, dir. Martin Scorsese). Scorsese’s remake of the Mitchum-starring thriller from three decades earlier offers us two delightful role reversals: Gregory Peck plays a zealously religious attorney (he screams scripture in court as though he were presiding over a sermon), while Robert Mitchum plays a by-the-book detective. One of my favorite moments in the film is when an irritated Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) snaps at one of Lieutenant Elgart’s (Mitchum) comments, and Elgart replies with raised-eyebrow amusement, “Well, pardon me all over the place.”

Dead Man (1995, dir. Jim Jarmusch). I didn’t know until just a few years ago that Robert Mitchum worked with Jim Jarmusch. The pairing makes more sense than you might initially think. Yes, Jarmusch is a quirky filmmaker with tendencies toward the off-kilter and absurd, but he also loves stories that observe the rich and strange natures of American life. Robert Mitchum was, above all, an undeniably American breed of actor. Who better to deliver lines of mournful rumination to a stuffed bear, if not this man?


Food for Cinema Thought: Cape Fear

I first saw the original film version of Cape Fear (1962) when I was between the ages of approximately nine and twelve. I thought it was a brilliant and terrifying thriller. Robert Mitchum seemed immensely threatening, especially since I strongly identified with the actress Lori Martin as a fellow tiny girl. I didn’t even mind Gregory Peck, whom I have never particularly cared for. (Peck’s films are practically banned in my household anyway; my mother will probably never forgive him for taking Peter O’Toole’s rightful Lawrence of Arabia Oscar.)

Nearly two weeks ago, I watched Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear. It was on cable between 2:00 and 4:15 am, which is certainly the optimal time for viewing such an unsettling story. Out of love for the original film, I nitpicked and found flaws in Scorsese’s version whenever possible. There are many ridiculous aspects – not the least of which is Robert De Niro’s undeniably weird attempt at a Southern accent – but it’s still an entertaining movie. Seeing Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck and Martin Balsam pop up in supporting roles is a nice way to reference their earlier work.

Last week I caught the original Cape Fear on TCM. I don’t know if my reaction was necessarily the result of having just seen the remake (and perhaps I like the remake better than I allow myself to believe?), but the film was no longer the great and powerful masterpiece that I always considered it. Mitchum is as intense as ever and his various confrontation scenes have not lost their potency, but Peck is much more bland than I had remembered. The camera movement is more annoyingly frenetic; the overall feeling of suspense is less suspenseful.

I will always prefer the first Cape Fear, if only because of Mitchum. It does not, however, hold up as well as I recalled. There are pros and cons, much as there are pros and cons regarding the remake. Which version do you prefer?