Night and Day

Tony Pipolo on Robert Mitchum at the 55th New York Film Festival

Jacques Tourneur, Out of the Past, 1947, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 97 minutes. Ann and Jeff (Virginia Huston and Robert Mitchum).

THIS YEAR’S NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL pays tribute to actor Robert Mitchum, whose career began in Hollywood’s golden age, weathered the demise of the studio system, and continued with the rise of television and the birth of the miniseries—125 movies in all between 1943 and 1983. Known primarily as the quintessential noir tough guy with the moony countenance in the genre of the 1940s, he was a bit player in many B movies before his breakthrough performance in William Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe (1943), the only film to earn him an Oscar nomination. G.I. Joe kicks off the retrospective, followed by a sampling from the ’40s and ’50s with such rarities as Till the End of Time (1946), Blood on the Moon (1948), and Track of the Cat (1954), and some later films, such as Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995).

Like many of Hollywood’s “naturals,” Mitchum was so comfortable in his own skin that his acting was often invisible: Directors thought he was doing nothing until they saw the rushes. But while some of his best directors and fellow actors admired his professionalism, he was often underappreciated or misunderstood by critics. In his dismissive review of the now-classic noir Out of the Past (1948), for example, James Agee said of its male lead: “When he performs with other men (most memorably in The Story of G. I. Joe), Robert Mitchum is a believable actor. But . . . in love scenes his curious languor, which suggests Bing Crosby supersaturated with barbiturates, becomes a brand of sexual complacency.” Of course, one man’s—or woman’s—languor is another’s allure. Since the twisty plot and twisted psychology of Out of the Past apparently eluded Agee, it’s no surprise he failed to intuit Mitchum’s peculiar mojo—that sleepy listlessness masking an unsettling reserve, discernible in the tension between his direct body language and muted affect. It’s what kept viewers edgy and what many considered his strength.

Mitchum’s homme fatale was distinct, “oddly subversive,” as the more appreciative Andrew Sarris put it. In Out of the Past, he no sooner enters a room charged with tension, when, without breaking his stride, his fist flies out, flooring a mouthy wannabe heavy. The impulse is rote, but behind it is a gut-tested ethos: lightning appraisal of who’s in the way and what they’re made of, triggering decisive action. Life is too short for jerks who occupy an existential vacuum. While the gesture is pure noir, Mitchum lends it a soulful mien. The same keenness laced with self-disgust provokes the deadly finale with femme fatale Jane Greer, and infuses Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1953), an equally perverse gem, in which the fatal attraction between Mitchum and Jean Simmons drives them into another death machine.

At its best, the Mitchum persona brooked no bullshit—neither a spoiled woman’s temper tantrum nor the overreach of a thug. But under contract at RKO, he frequently landed in inferior films when it was hard to tell who or what was the real target. At one point in the utterly forgettable My Forbidden Past (1951), the temptress played by Ava Gardner threatens to scream when he leaves her on the dance floor. “Go ahead and scream,” he says, with that familiar offhand bluntness, fit for the occasion but perhaps equally directed at the mediocrity of the material. Every verbal barb, raised eyebrow, or hunch of his shoulders read, “Grow up, get real, or get lost.” Sometimes it didn’t work, as in His Kind of Woman (1951), a Howard Hughes train wreck that not even the chemistry between Mitchum and lifelong buddy Jane Russell could save.

Robert Wise, Blood on the Moon, 1948, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 88 minutes. Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum).

Key to Mitchum’s mystique was that his impressive physique—a chesty bulk that moved with animal grace, somewhere between sleek panther and imposing stag—framed an enigmatic core. Yet directors said he was anything but detached, that they could actually see him thinking, so attuned to everyone else’s lines that he never missed a beat. To register surprise, his eyebrows lift so high they leave room for another pair, while his cleft chin rhymes so neatly with the dimpled philtrum above his lips as to suggest the sculptured bust of a proud but sulky Roman emperor. There’s nothing flabby about Mitchum. As comfortable with physical heft as he was with a cocksure demeanor, he knew when to play what and when to recede.

Biographers love to paint him as an outsider, citing his teenage rite of riding boxcars, the lifelong marriage that survived affairs, endless drinking bouts, indifference to Hollywood society, and his run-ins with the law. Even his being arrested and jailed following a drug bust only enhanced the romantic legend. Yet, there’s another truth. Thunder Road (1958), a story he wrote about moonshiners outwitting cops, with his son costarring as the brother he discourages from taking after him, borders on autobiography. The unrepentant bad boy knew when to capitalize on the image and when to draw the line. Either way, one senses a more remote, reflective Mitchum, apparently out of reach, but seeking a different kind of attention.

In Raoul Walsh’s Freudian western Pursued (1947), he seems out of his element, an odd mix with such gothic archetypes as Judith Anderson and Dean Jagger. Yet the contrast works. As Jeb Brand, a man haunted by a past he doesn’t understand, he evokes the classic outsider of Greek tragedy. But while the plot’s resolution never quite dissolves the Oedipal tensions aroused, Mitchum’s Brand, like Oedipus, remains steadfast in his search for truth, free from the anger, envy, and thirst for revenge that consumes everyone around him. He’s positively mellow in The Wonderful Country (1959), in which his oversize sombrero reflects his general discomfort fending off the law on one side of the Mexican border and revolutionaries on the other. His performance is charming, but the film was so botched in the final editing that whatever chemistry existed between him and Julie London now comes across as artificial icing on a half-baked cake.

Mitchum’s unique blend of primal energy and spooky intelligence lifted him above many genre actors, not only in noir, but in melodramas, westerns, and war films, but even this was not all he could do. Among his unsung virtues was his ability to let another actor steal a scene. Hence, he could be an upright man doing his job, as in Crossfire (1947) and The Racket (1951), in both of which he’s outweirded by Robert Ryan’s psychobullies. Even in a minor war film like The Enemy Below (1957), his moves as the navy captain who outsmarts a German submarine commander are so unforced you’d never know he was the same guy who could play the sociopath in Cape Fear (1962), not to mention the crazed preacher in The Night of the Hunter (1955). If the latter ranks as his broadest, showiest performance, it was no doubt egged on by his director, the brilliant Charles Laughton, who knew a thing or two about the deliciousness of pure ham. His only match in that film is the magnificent black-and-white cinematography of Stanley Cortez.

Otto Preminger, Angel Face, 1953, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 91 minutes. Frank Jessup and Diane Tremayne Jessup (Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons).

In his moving performance in The Lusty Men (1952), one of Nicholas Ray’s most beautiful and underrated films, Mitchum plays a has-been rodeo cowboy who ends up risking his life to save his friend, whose wife he has fallen in love with. His scenes with the fiery Susan Hayward are rich with a quiet yearning which his manner accentuates. An unsuspected grace also marks Heaven Knows, Mr. Alison (1957) and The Sundowners (1957), both featuring Deborah Kerr, who reportedly aroused a tenderness in him, prompting John Huston, director of the former, to remark that Mitchum was as good as Brando and Olivier. Some of us would not have thought it needed saying.

After the tough guy, the cowboy, the good cop, the brave soldier, the psychotic, the loser, the movie tycoon, and the cynic, where does an aging movie star go? He’s a terrible role model in Going Home (1971), where he is first seen descending a staircase, having just murdered his wife, who bleeds to death at the feet of their three-year-old son. Even earlier, in Vincente Minnelli’s Southern family melodrama Home from the Hill (1960), he’s a flawed father battling for one son’s manhood against an unforgiving wife while refusing to acknowledge the illegitimate son who saves his life in the first scene. Despite an overly literal screenplay, Mitchum’s character is commanding and sympathetic, his failings as naked as his unfulfilled needs. And, without a trace of irony he gets to deliver the film’s summary sentiment: “All our children deserve better parents.” It’s not the first time one wonders how many lines were inserted in screenplays over the years precisely because Mitchum would be delivering them.

As the title character in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Mitchum plays what may be his most pathetic character—a middle-aged, overweight ex-con trying to keep a wife and three kids off welfare by selling guns to bank robbers and, to avoid another prison sentence, selling his soul by finking to the cops. In his first scene he’s explaining how he got the extra set of knuckles on each hand (a clear nod to the good and evil contest in Night of the Hunter) from the nuns’ rulers and later from fellow thugs. In the last scene, he is shot point-blank in a drunken stupor by one of his “friends.” With nary a close-up to register the moment, he slumps offscreen. Ever the pro, Mitchum plays it straight, replete with self-effacement and dumpy physique—not a plea for sympathy anywhere in sight.

A retrospective of Robert Mitchum films plays September 29 through October 14 as part of the Fifty-Fifth New York Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.