With the possible exception of Errol Flynn, he was probably the most badass of Hollywood’s great badasses. At least that was his reputation. Unlike Flynn, who died at 50, washed up and wasted, this hell-raiser lived to the ripe age of 79 … his credits nearly double those of Flynn, despite drinking bouts and bedroom conquests nearly as legendary.
Robert Mitchum was one of a kind. Baby, I Don’t Care, a line from his first major film, was the subtitle of his biography, but he was a committed professional—nearly all the directors and actors with whom he worked thought so.
This August, Sun-Ray Cinema hosts a Robert Mitchum retrospective, showing five of his best films, each of them quite different, showcasing his enormous range and appeal. The films will be shown in chronological order, starting with 1947 and ending with 1973.
Though a handful of films might make a legitimate claim to be the essential film noir, Out of the Past (1947) is surely one of the top nominees. Mitchum had received his only Oscar nod with The Story of G.I. Joe in 1945, but it’s in Out of the Past that he truly stepped effortlessly into real stardom. Everything works brilliantly in this tale of deception, romance, treachery and betrayal.
Director Jacques Tourneur fashions a textbook of noir tropes with Mitchum’s trench coat and dangling cigarette, Janet Greer’s ruthless femme fatale, and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca’s stunning black-and-white photography. To quote the venerable Roger Ebert, Out of the Past is not only “one of the greatest of all film noirs … [but also] the greatest cigarette-smoking movie of all time.”
The Lusty Men (directed by Nicholas Ray, ’55) put Mitchum in a completely different role, playing a worn-out rodeo star trying to rediscover his past but in the process becoming involved—as a kind of mentor—with an aspiring bronco competitor (Arthur Kennedy) and his wife (Susan Hayward). Perhaps the least known of Mitchum’s better films, The Lusty Men is a rich character study, as much of the rodeo community itself as of the curious triangle of three stars.
The Night of the Hunter (’55), voted by Cahiers du Cinema (the prestigious French journal) in 2008 as the second-best film of all time (gotta love those French!), was not too well-received on its initial release. The only film Charles Laughton directed, it’s about a maniacal con-man-tuned-preacher (Mitchum) who marries and kills a widow (Shelley Winters) in search of lost money that has been hidden in an ex-cellmate’s house.
It might be an apocryphal story, but when the actor was actively seeking the role, he was told by Laughton that the character he would be playing was “a diabolical shit.” Replied Mitchum, without batting an eye: “Present!” He got the role.
As Max Cady in ’62’s Cape Fear, Mitchum played one of the most terrifying villains in American film. Mitchum’s sadistic, vengeful rapist is after Sam’s (Gregory Peck) wife and daughter. Beefy and brutal, this version of Max is the stuff of nightmares. His is a much better performance than Robert De Niro’s 1991 Martin Scorsese remake, because Mitchum is so much more realistic. De Niro, by contrast, is a Freddy Krueger.
Sun-Ray concludes its series with The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), in which Mitchum was an aging two-bit hood trying to save his family and stay out of prison by ratting out his “friends.” Directed by Peter Yates, Eddie Coyle was described by one reviewer as Mitchum’s King Lear.
Robert Mitchum is incredible in the role, but he still had many years and good films (like Farewell, My Lovely, The Yakuza and That Championship Season) ahead. In the 1980s, there was TV and The Winds of War. And he was boss to TV wunderkind Frank Cross (Bill Murray) in ’88’s Scrooged, all suave, craggy class.
They truly broke the mold after they made Robert Mitchum.