Monday 26 February 2018

Nice and easy: the lazy genius of Bob Mitchum

The Hollywood star's rare talent was often obscured by his own sneering, says our film critic

Lounge lizard: Robert Mitchum was a master of nuance and minimalism on screen
Lounge lizard: Robert Mitchum was a master of nuance and minimalism on screen

Paul Whitington

'Know your lines and don't bump into the furniture." That immortal line has been attributed to loads of actors down the years, and though Spencer Tracy probably said it, Robert Mitchum should have.

Throughout his life he demeaned his profession, and liked to portray himself as a jobbing hack. "I have two acting styles," he used to tell journalists, "with and without a horse", and "three expressions - looking left, looking right and looking straight ahead".

"Movies bore me," he once insisted, "especially my own."

Mitchum was always quotable, and made a very convincing jaded veteran, but his cynicism was at least in part an act. In reality, he was a not just a dedicated actor, but a genuinely great one.

He died 20 years ago today, and remains a fascinating, indefinable, criminally underrated actor. If a script bored him, he would phone it in, and in the 1970s and 80s he sold his soul for a pay-check in rubbishy TV mini-series.

At his best, however, there was no one like Mitchum: his stillness, intensity and less-is-more acting style were perfect for stylish film noirs like Out of the Past, and he played chilling maniacs better perhaps than anyone has before or since in Night of the Hunter, and the original Cape Fear. He never won an Oscar, but that says more about the Academy Awards than it does about him. He was a star, effortlessly, dismissively, and constantly at war with the studio system that had helped create him.

The Mitchum story is full of myths, but the reality of his life is sensational enough to satisfy the most lurid biographer. He was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, almost 100 years ago, on August 6, 1917. His father died in a railway yard accident before he was two, and Robert was raised by his tough but loving Norwegian mother.

Bright but mischievous, he was expelled from several schools. At 13, he used America's railway network to restlessly roam a country in the grip of economic depression. He dug ditches, tried his hand at boxing, and got arrested for vagrancy in Georgia.

Eventually, he washed up in Long Beach, California, where his older sister Julie persuaded him to join the local theatre guild. For a time, he eked out a living as a stagehand and took the odd walk-on part. And in 1940, when he married Dorothy Spence, a level-headed young woman he'd met back east, Mitchum got a steady job as a machine operator at Lockheed.

Despite countless impediments, that marriage would last till Mitchum's death, but his job at Lockheed lasted less than a year. A theatrical agent got him small parts on the Hopalong Cassidy B-western series. That led to a contract at RKO.

His film career was just getting going when he was called up by the US army. He served with distinction through 1945, and returned to Hollywood ready for a big break. "I came back from the war," he said, "and ugly heroes were in."

Mitchum wasn't ugly exactly but had a face hardened by experience, an utterly masculine presence. His tight-lipped, seen-it-all persona chimed perfectly with the mood of returning combatants: men admired him, but so did women - an early Mitchum fan club was called "the droolettes".

He did fine in westerns and war films, but it was in film noir that Mitchum's potential was fully revealed. Like Humphrey Bogart, he had an edgy, street-wise cynicism that was perfect for noir. But while Bogart's screen persona could usually be relied upon to do the right thing, there was a real moral ambivalence to Mitchum: he didn't quite seem like the kind of chap you should be rooting for.

He got himself in a right old mess in Jacques Tourneur's 1947 classic Out of the Past, playing a small-town garage owner who's about to marry a girl-next-door when circumstances force him to reveal a shady history of blackmail, femmes fatales and murder. Mitchum was perfect in the role, which he inhabited with compelling stillness, and grace. Quietly, steadily, he'd been studying and thinking about films for years, and had figured out that ostentatious acting got you nowhere on the big screen, nuance and minimalism were everything.

Out of the Past made him a star, and he stayed one, despite the adverse publicity that engulfed him the following year when he was arrested in an LAPD sting operation and charged with possession of marijuana.

Fans didn't care, and if anything, the incident added to his counter-culture cachet. He was a wild man, a hard-living wooer of women, and his escapades down the years would become legendary: when he came to Kerry to film David Lean's ill-fated epic Ryan's Daughter, he had fancy women and cases of Chivas Regal flown in from London, and grew cannabis in his back garden.

His best work was done in the 1950s and early 60s in films like River of No Return, Thunder Road (a raw 1958 crime film which Mitchum produced, co-wrote and may also have directed), The Sundowners and Heaven Knows, Mr Allison, two moving dramas co-starring his favourite actress, Deborah Kerr.

A comparison of the original 1962 Cape Fear and Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake does the later film no favours, and Robert De Niro's portrayal of psychotic jailbird Max Cady looks like toothless pantomime next to Mitchum's compellingly sinister version.

And then of course there was Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton's B-movie masterpiece, in which Mitchum was truly unforgettable as Harry Powell, a charming and vicious sociopath who's prone to crooning biblical ballads in moments of high tension.

He should have got an Oscar for that, but he didn't, and in the end Mitchum was broken by the studio system he'd railed against. Though there were some high notes in the 1970s, like Paul Schrader's Japanase gangster movie The Yakuza and Dick Richards' neo noir Farewell, My Lovely, overall the quality of Mitchum's output dipped as he grew old. Years of drinking took their toll, and people started to forget just how very good he'd been in his prime.

Even his demise didn't quite get the coverage it deserved, as James Stewart had the bad manners to die just a day later, stealing Bob's thunder.

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