Sunday 22 April 2018

Mitchum: the star who made it look easy

While surfing channels recently I came across a late-night screening of Martin Scorsese's 1991 thriller Cape Fear. Like most people I'm a huge admirer of Scorsese's films but have always thought this is one of the worst of them -- and as I watched it again my worst suspicions were confirmed.

A master director like Scorsese was well able to keep the tension going, but seemed unable to decide whether the prevailing mood in his remake should be irony or fear. And surprisingly, the film's weakest link is Robert De Niro.

As a result perhaps of his director's uncharacteristic indecision, De Niro's portrayal of cheery southern psychopath Max Cady quickly descends into an overblown caricature, and is about as scary as a trip to Santa's grotto. In fairness, De Niro has hardly ever been bad in anything, before or since, but his performance and Scorsese's film match up very badly against the excellent 1962 original.

Appearing in small parts in Scorsese's remake were the two stars of the first Cape Fear, Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. Peck brought a sort of moral authority to every role, but it was Mitchum's sneering sadist Max Cady that made the original film so memorably disturbing, and perhaps he's the real difference between the two versions.

He and Robert De Niro couldn't have been more different in their approach to acting, and when they first performed together in The Last Tycoon in 1976, 'Mitch' made fun of De Niro's insistence on staying in character between shoots.

Throughout his long career Mitchum made light of his chosen profession and was fond of saying things like, "I got three expressions, looking left, looking right and looking straight ahead". But this bluster may have been a front because behind it all Mitchum seems to have been a dedicated and surprisingly versatile actor.

He died 13 years ago at the ripe old age of 79, a milestone most of his friends and admirers never expected him to reach. Because Mitch liked to live it large, and in his day was a legendary hellraiser.

His early days perhaps account for his unpredictable temperament. Robert Charles Durnham Mitchum was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on July 1, 1917. When Robert was only two his father James was crushed to death in a railyard accident, leaving his mother Ann Harriet to raise him, his sister and brother on her own.

Without a significant male figure to look up to, Robert grew up pretty wild. At school he was constantly in trouble, and by the age of 13 he'd been expelled. Thereafter he and his elder sister Annette rode the box cars across Depression-era America in search of work and excitement.

In 1931, the 14-year-old Mitchum was arrested for vagrancy in Savannah, Georgia, and put to work on a chain gang. He soon escaped. After flirting with grave-digging and professional boxing, Mitchum turned up in California in the mid-1930s and began working as a movie stagehand and occasional extra.

By 1942 he'd landed regular work playing baddies in B-movie westerns. His face was kind of bockety and his famous squint was already in evidence, but the tall and imposing young actor had something a little different, and after impressing director Mervyn LeRoy while playing a small part in the Spencer Tracy war film Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, Mitch was given a seven-year deal with RKO.

It was the film noir genre that made Mitchum a star. As he himself put it: "I came back from the war and ugly heroes were in." By this he meant the ambivalent anti-heroes of the potboiler detective stories adapted from the works of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M Cain and starring the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd and Mitchum himself.

With his lined face and trademark sneer, Mitch was a perfect fit for this edgy new genre. Despite having only three scenes in the 1946 Vincente Minnelli noir thriller, Undercurrent, Mitchum really made them count, and was judged by critics to have outshone his co-stars, Katharine Hepburn and Robert Taylor.

In The Locket (also 1946), Mitchum brought real venom to his portrayal of an embittered artist who has the misfortune to be obsessed with a psychopathic vamp. Undoubtedly his finest film noir, however, was Jacques Tourneur's masterful dark thriller Build My Gallows High, in which Mitchum played a hard-boiled private detective who falls for the femme fatale he's tailing -- with disastrous results for all concerned.

Even as his star was rising, however, Mitch struggled to take the movie world seriously. "I gave up being serious about making pictures," he once said, "around the time I made a film with Greer Garson and she took 125 takes to say no." Over time he developed a certain contempt for the business and during the 1950s appeared in more bad films than good ones.

He also began making the headlines for different reasons. Despite having married his childhood sweetheart Dorothy Spence in 1940 (they stayed married, by the way), gossip column rumours constantly linked Mitchum with his glamorous co-stars. He was a legendary drinker and in September 1948 he and a 20-year-old starlet called Lila Leeds were arrested for possession of marijuana. A jail sentence followed, but Mitch seemed unruffled and later described his time in LA county jail as "like Palm Springs, but without the riff-raff".

For all his tough talking, though, Mitchum had a surprisingly sensitive side. He wrote poetry and even collaborated with Orson Welles on an oratorio that was performed at the Hollywood Bowl. And while he did appear in some very average films, whenever a good script came along he tended to sit up and take notice.

Probably his two finest performances came in J Lee Thompson's Cape Fear and in a strange and wonderful film called Night of the Hunter (1955). The only film that legendary English actor Charles Laughton ever directed, Night of the Hunter was a commercial and critical flop on its release but has since been recognised as a masterpiece. And Mitchum was magnificent as Harry Powell, a demented ex-con who poses as a preacher when he comes looking for the buried fortune of a cellmate who talked in his sleep.

Mitchum should have won an Oscar for that performance, but he didn't. He was overlooked again in 1960 despite a fine turn as an Australian sheep farmer in The Sundowners, and in fact he never won an Academy Award.

He came to Ireland in 1970 for the famously ragged Ryan's Daughter shoot that lasted well over a year, with Mitch living it up on the Dingle Peninsula while David Lean waited for the perfect storm.

In late years he kept on acting, but grew less and less discerning about scripts, and even began appearing in TV mini-series. There were some late highlights, though, including his memorable appearance in Jim Jarmusch's 1995 western, Dead Man.

And to the end he insisted on playing down his supreme skill as a screen actor. "People think I have an interesting walk," he once told an earnest reporter. "Hell, I'm just trying to hold my gut in."

pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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