THE LEADING MAN

Robert Mitchum’s biography was subtitled “Baby, I Don’t Care,” a line from Out of the Past (1946), a film noir classic and one of his own best as well. He served on a chain gang in his teens, spent time in WWII as a medic checking GIs for venereal disease (a “pecker checker” he called himself) and got busted for marijuana in the ’40s. He made a number of unforgettable movies and some less than memorable. Critic Roger Ebert called him one of the greatest American actors ever, but Mitchum often denigrated both himself and his profession, once saying that “I’ve survived because I work cheap and don’t take up too much time.”

But he couldn’t fool his fans or the critics. Robert Mitchum was the real deal – an enduring genuine star with talent, rugged good looks and charm to spare – and two of his more interesting films have just surfaced on Blu-ray.

In 1957, Mitchum teamed up with John Huston (who would become one of his favorite directors) and Deborah Kerr (who would become a close friend) for Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, the story of a U.S. Marine marooned with a nun on a South Pacific island during World War II. A year later, Mitchum produced and starred in Thunder Road, for which he also wrote the story and the title song. The mini-budgeted film would become a cult classic, particularly at drive-in theaters.

Revisiting the same plot and character dynamics that fueled his smash hit The African Queen (1951), Huston (who co-wrote the script for both movies) gets terrific performances again from his apparently mismatched couple in Mr. Allison. Like Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, Mitchum and Kerr play polar opposites who nonetheless connect on multiple levels, both comic and dramatic. The Catholic Legion of Decency was apparently quite nervous about the film, fearing that Huston might exploit the unlikely pairing of a religious woman and a leatherneck in a less than pious manner.

Crafty as ever, however, the writer/director offends no one and delights us all, in the process tossing some real suspense into the situation when the Japanese invade the island. Mitchum is terrific as the earthy, uneducated military man who discovers the least likely of women in his care and charge and affection. Deborah Kerr, who famously made waves of a more provocative sort with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity four years earlier, is equally good in a very different role as the chaste nun who finds herself in perils of all sorts, violent and otherwise.

Thunder Road, filmed in black-and-white with a second-tier supporting cast and a lackluster director, plays better in memory than actual rerun. Mitchum is solidly cool as the moonshine transporter trying to outrun both the feds and the bad guys. His character is a good ol’ mountain boy who came back from the Korean War with allegiance only to his own way of life and the fast cars that get him there. The girls all crave him, the men are all jealous. The movie itself is a bit clunky.

But what might have been! Mitchum wanted Elvis Presley in the supporting role, but Colonel Parker wouldn’t bite – it finally went to Mitchum’s son James. As it is, next to Mitchum and the cool cars, the only characters of interest are Francie, played by singer Keely Smith (Mrs. Louis Prima at the time), and Troy, played by Gene Barry.

Mitchum in his prime was already a legend in his own time.

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october, 2021

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