The Review/ Feature/

The A-Z of Robert Mitchum

Learn the lexicon of that laconic, lazy-eyed epitome of old-school cool

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by James Quandt
Jan 30, 2018

The TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Out of the Past: The Films of Robert Mitchum runs from February 1 to March 4.

We mark the recent centenary of that epitome of cool and axiom of noir, the actor whose descriptors require a thesaurus with hundreds of synonyms for “laconic.” With the invaluable aid of Lee Server’s biography Robert Mitchum:“Baby, I Don’t Care”, we offer below an alphabetical annotation of Mitchum’s life and career, the latter of which spanned six decades and yielded somewhere in the neighbourhood of 150 credits on films and television series.

AUTEURS Though Mitchum exerted far less control over his career than many Hollywood stars and was seemingly unconcerned about taking on what he called “gorilla pictures,” he nonetheless ended up working with some of Hollywood’s greatest auteurs, including Otto Preminger, Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur, Vincente Minnelli, John Huston, Nicholas Ray, and Raoul Walsh. (His two chances to work with Sam Peckinpah did not pan out, alas.)

BOOZE The formidably bibulous Mitchum topped the long list of tipplers in hard-drinking Hollywood, tailoring his taste to each film’s shooting locale (French wine, Irish whiskey, mescal, slivovitz, etc.), and declaring himself unusable on set after 5:00pm — a deadline that crept ever earlier in the day as his career (and his intake) burgeoned. A raucous brawler in his cups, Mitchum increasingly became a nasty and abusive drunk, and his sole stint in rehab concluded with his stopping at a bar for a double.

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Mitchum in Cape Fear

CADY, MAX Sweet-talkin’ evil in a trilby, Mitchum’s malevolent portrayal of the crafty villain in Cape Fear all but matches his turn as psychotic preacher Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter. “It’s Bob’s picture,” co-star Gregory Peck generously averred, “Best performance he ever gave.” (Martin Scorsese paired Peck and Mitchum in cameos in his remake of the film.)

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Mitchum paying his debt to society, 1949

DRUGS A connoisseur of cannabis, Mitchum was introduced to the solace of marijuana when he was an adolescent hobo who lit out from his Norwegian Methodist home back east to ride the rails during the Depression, and he continued to indulge in dope and opiates throughout his life. His enthusiasm for the demon weed notoriously landed him on a prison farm in 1948, after a police sting caught him smoking a spliff in an L.A. bungalow.

EYES Mitchum’s trademark gaze — an “opiated, heavy-lidded look,” as Lee Server wonderfully describes it — seemed cultivated to appear blasé or impervious.

FAULKNER, WILLIAM “I really like the way that boy talks,” the Southern novelist proclaimed in delight after having long conversations with Mitchum about Howard Hughes (for whom they both worked) and other matters at a Hollywood dinner party.

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Lillian Gish gets the drop on Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter

GISH, LILLIAN Researching D. W. Griffith silents for his directorial debut The Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton was inspired to cast Griffith’s great star Lillian Gish as the film’s seraphic, shotgun-slinging saviour opposite Mitchum’s demonic preacher. Much as Shelley Winters’ histrionics and Mitchum’s drinking caused tensions on set, Gish would later write: “I have to go back to D. W. Griffith to find a set so infused with purpose and harmony.”

HUSTON, JOHN Initially wary of each other when they began shooting Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, the taciturn Mitchum and crusty director Huston came to recognize a strong kinship in their shared restlessness, status as supreme raconteurs, and alarming capacity for alcohol consumption. Huston later praised Mitchum as “one of the finest actors I’ve ever had anything to do with.”

INTELLECTUAL Shy, reserved, and bookish despite his wild-man reputation, Mitchum read and wrote poetry from an early age (he liked to refer to himself as “the poet with an ax”), mastered any number of topics from nuclear physics to Roman history, and had musical tastes that ranged from jazz, country, and calypso to classical and opera.

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Mitchum in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man

JARMUSCH, JIM A great fan of Mitchum, whose cool reserve was ideally suited to the director’s deadpan universe, Jarmusch convinced the actor to take the role of the mad Mr. Dickinson in his mystical western Dead Man.

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Mitchum and Deborah Kerr in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

KERR, DEBORAH One imagines the crisply refined, dignified, and articulate Scottish actress as Mitchum’s opposite, which perhaps explains how the two became not only a great acting team in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, but also mutual admirers and enduring friends. “Deborah became Bob’s great platonic love,” writes Lee Server. “He would speak of her ever after as his all-time favourite actress, and ‘the only leading lady I didn’t go to bed with.’”

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Charles Laughton and Mitchum in rehearsals for The Night of the Hunter

LAUGHTON, CHARLES Mitchum’s contrary (especially as Mitchum mocked gay men at every opportunity), but the duo became fast friends while working on The Night of the Hunter. Server: “According to Laughton’s wife Elsa Lanchester, the two were a natural team: ‘They were kindred spirits, both what you would call rebels, with no respect for formal religion or Hollywood society.’”

MINNELLI, VINCENTE Yet another case of opposites flourishing together (at least artistically), the easygoing and hyper-masculine Mitchum worked perfectly in synch with the fussy, effeminate aesthete Minnelli on Home from the Hill, one of the director’s finest films.

NOIR “Mitchum was film noir” proclaimed Martin Scorsese, and indeed the actor’s imperturbable mien and terse, sardonic way with dialogue was ideally suited to the genre’s shadow lands in such films as Out of the Past and Farewell, My Lovely. (The actor also starred in two of the rare westerns that can also be considered noirs, Raoul Walsh’s Pursued and Robert Wise’s Blood on the Moon.)

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Teresa Wright and Mitchum in Pursued

OUT OF THE PAST Jacques Tourneur’s quintessential noir not only supplied Mitchum’s definitive utterance (“Baby, I don’t care!”, which fairly summed up his blasé demeanour), but also forever confused him in some people’s minds with his co-star, the similarly dimpled Kirk Douglas. Server reports that when Mitchum was in Tokyo decades later to shoot The Yakuza, Japanese schoolgirl fans chanted “Please, Kirk Douglas-san, your autograph!”

POLITICS Initially a populist who hung out with left-leaning pals and championed “the little guy” and minorities, Mitchum became a right-wing apologist for the Vietnam War after taking two tours to the battle zone. In his later years, he espoused conspiracy theories about an international cartel that controlled finance and government, was prone to all manner of racist (especially anti-Semitic) slurs, and narrated the biographical film that apotheosized George H.W. Bush at the 1992 Republican convention.

QUALITY Mitchum’s tendency to take on projects that promised a short, pleasant shoot in an agreeable locale with boozing, likeable co-stars and a decent pay cheque led him to turn down lead roles in Cat Ballou, The Wild Bunch, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Misfits, and Patton in favour of several forgettable quickies — though one prestige project he did reluctantly accept, David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, stretched into an agonizing ten months of brumous shooting on the west coast of Ireland. (The actor joked, after finally heading home, “They’re still back there, Lean and his merry cameramen chasing a parasol down a beach in Ireland somewhere in the pouring rain, David shouting, ‘Oh, bugger!’”)

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The Lusty Men

RODEO Though its title suggests a Colt Studios production rather than the masterpiece it is, Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men gave Mitchum one of his finest and most moving roles as an aging bronco rider trying to find a home in the rootless world of the rodeo circuit.

SECOND SEX, THE Swedish actress and frequent Ingmar Bergman player Ingrid Thulin, who appeared with Mitchum in the 1956 film Foreign Intrigue, was shocked upon first meeting her co-star to find him reading the recently (and poorly) translated tome by the fashionable French feminist Simone de Beauvoir.

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Thunder Road

THUNDER ROAD This Deep South tale of road-running moonshiners was Mitchum’s passion project: in addition to starring, the actor produced, co-wrote, penned (and later recorded) the theme song, and reportedly had a hand in directing the film.

URINE Mitchum pissed not only on script ideas and Kirk Douglas’ reputation, but also on David O. Selznick’s office carpet, a doorway in Paris, the eternal flame in the same city, and in a swimming pool he didn’t intend to enter at the Betty Ford Center, where he had been sent to dry out.

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VOICE Along with Mitchum’s half-mast eyelids and insolent lips, the barrel-chested basso’s bourbon drawl completes the trifecta that made the actor an icon of ironic, affectless masculinity. It is little known that Mitchum also employed his soft-grained baritone to musical ends, recording a calypso LP as well as the theme song for his beloved moonshiner film, “The Ballad of Thunder Road.”

WAYNE, JOHN Paired with the Duke in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo neo-remake El Dorado, Mitchum discovered a kindred flintiness in the legendary star, and took to driving around L.A. and crashing parties with his similarly right-wing, boozing buddy.

X-RAYS revealed first the emphysema that would increasingly invalid Mitchum in his last years, and then the lung cancer that killed him at age 80. Rebel to the end, the actor smoked unfiltered cigarettes between bouts on his oxygen machine.

YOUNGSTEIN, REVA Mitchum’s faithful assistant for over three decades was summarily fired soon after she suffered a debilitating stroke. Mitchum and his wife claimed that Reva had been defrauding them of money; she counter-claimed that they were reneging on their promise to pay her a $150,000 pension plus other funds. While her suit came to naught, Youngstein was later a clear-eyed and remarkably unembittered commentator on her former employer in Lee Server’s Mitchum biography.

ZANUCK, DARRYL F. Though Mitchum complained bitterly about the shooting conditions on mega-producer Zanuck’s prestige D-Day epic The Longest Day, he was the first to jump into the icy waters during the shooting of the Omaha Beach landing after becoming disgusted with the trepidation of the extras accompanying him.