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The casual brilliance of Robert Mitchum

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Was there ever an actor who seemed to give less of a damn about the business of acting but who was so damned good at his craft than Robert Mitchum?

Grizzled, sleepy-eyed and barrel-chested, Mitchum looked more like a bare-knuckle boxer than a movie icon. He was among the most durable of Hollywood stars, making more than 100 films during a six-decade career, but he was nominated for an Oscar exactly once: as Best Supporting Actor for “The Story of G.I. Joe,” the movie that made his career.

From a public relations perspective, Mitchum did little to enhance his stock among the critical elite. “I have two acting styles,” he was fond of saying. “With and without a horse.” Looking back on his career, he remarked that he made 40 films in the same raincoat.

When he made the news, it was usually bad news, such as his 1948 marijuana bust, or the time he drunkenly threw a basketball in the face of a photographer during a publicity shoot for “That Championship Season.”

Stories of Mitchum lore always have a whiff of the apocryphal. As Lee Server recounts in his biography “Robert Mitchum: ‘Baby, I Don’t Care’” (2001, St. Martin’s Press), quoting an unnamed cast member of the cult classic moonshine picture “Thunder Road,” Mitchum woke up on a Monday morning after a three-day drunk and found himself in bed with a woman, not knowing how he got there. He slipped out the window and made his way to the movie set, only to realize he’d forgotten his watch. He spent the morning in a panic—the watch was a gift from his wife, who was in town visiting. Later that day his wife showed up on the set, watch in hand, and told him he’d left it on the bed stand. Mitchum, too drunk to realize it, had snuck out of his own hotel room.

As a work of journalism, Server’s biography has its questionable moments, such as the posthumous attribution of quotes to its subject from secondary sources and the frequent peppering of its prose with the hard-boiled lingo and cadences of pulp fiction for dramatic effect. But Server knows his film history and Hollywood gossip and has clearly done his research, unearthing a pair of quotes from Charles Laughton and John Huston which go a long way to dispel the self-perpetuated myth that Mitchum was the lazy man’s movie star who considered acting merely a means to chase skirts and pick up a paycheck.

“Bob is one of the best actors in the world … a great talent,” Laughton, who directed Mitchum in “The Night of the Hunter,” told a reporter in 1962. “He’d make the best Macbeth of any actor living.”

The quote from Huston—who helmed 1957’s “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison,” starring Mitchum as a gruff Marine stranded on a Japanese-occupied island alongside Deborah Kerr as an immaculately refined nun—is even more unreserved in its praise.

“He’s one of the finest actors I’ve ever had anything to do with,” Huston said. “His air of casualness, or rather, his lack of pomposity is put down as a lack of seriousness, but when I say he’s a fine actor, I mean an actor of the caliber of Olivier, Burton and Brando. In other words, the very best in the field.”

Mitchum never tried his hand at Shakespeare (whereas Brando acquitted himself admirably as Mark Antony), making it difficult to compare him to Olivier or Burton, but he certainly possessed the lungpower to tackle the Bard if he’d been permitted by RKO to remove his raincoat on occasion. His booming baritone was on full display as psychotic preacher Harry Powell in the terrifyingly baroque “The Night of the Hunter,” but his most Shakespearean role was in the seldom seen “Home from the Hill.”

Partially shot in William Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Miss., “Home from the Hill” is the Faulkneresque story of self-made millionaire and inveterate womanizer Capt. Wade Hunnicutt (Mitchum), a stern-tempered, Lear-like patriarch who refuses to accept his illegitimate but devoted son into his brood, and whose own wife refuses to allow him into their bed. It’s Mitchum’s most complete performance—a firm middle ground between the charismatic virility of his film noir persona and the pure evil he embodied in “The Night of the Hunter” and “Cape Fear.”

Another key film in the Mitchum oeuvre that has been largely forgotten today because of its unavailability on DVD is “The Lusty Men,” with Mitch as an aging rodeo star lusting after the wife of his younger protégé and meal ticket. The shot of Mitchum limping across an abandoned rodeo grounds, a duffel bag containing the sum total of his life slung over his shoulder, the wind whipping dust and trash against his blue jeans, is one of the cinema’s great images of lonely desperation.

Mitchum, like Brando, made his fair share of turkeys, such as the incoherently plotted “The Locket,” the ill-humored noir comedy “His Kind of Woman” and the infamous “Desire Me,” which had no less than four directors—none of whom desired to have his name listed in the credits.

One of the worst Mitchum movies is “Not as a Stranger,” which asks us to accept Mitchum, 37 years old at the time, Frank Sinatra, 39, and Lee Marvin, 31 but looking about a decade older, as ambitious med school students. Those would be good guys to have around if you were accosted by a gang of street toughs or if a fierce bar brawl suddenly broke out, but would you really want Robert Mitchum or Lee Marvin to perform open heart surgery on your mother?

I first encountered Mitchum in high school, when I rented the patriotic World War II flag waver “Gung Ho!” at my local video store. He plays a hard-nosed private called Pig-Iron. The role required little more than to grunt a few words now and then, but his jawline alone steals the movie from star Randolph Scott, the Western stalwart who looked uncomfortable in any role lacking a horse for a co-star. Mitchum received 10th billing in the credits; the currently available DVD edition from Alpha Video lists his name first on the box cover.

Then I discovered “Out of the Past,” the Mitchum movie I’ve returned to most over the years. If forced to choose one scene which typifies the singular mood and ethos of film noir, it would be Mitchum sitting at a bar in Acapulco, sipping beer and waiting for the Grim Reaper to arrive, disguised as Jane Greer in a slinky white dress.

Mitchum died in 1997. He acted until the end, spending the last two decades of his career in the workaday oblivion of made-for-TV movies, with the occasional prestigious miniseries like “The Winds of War” and “North and South” reminding people that he was still alive.

The last great Mitchum performance was a 1995 cameo as the cigar-chewing, shotgun-wielding factory owner in Jim Jarmusch’s postmodern Western “Dead Man.” His once chiseled features hollowed by the ravages of cigarettes and booze, he looks like a shell of his former self, but even weakened by the early stages of lung cancer and emphysema, he’s just as frightening as he was in “The Night of the Hunter,” 40 years earlier.

Still, when I think of the late Robert Mitchum, I prefer to remember his final scene in “The Lusty Men.” After a vicious fall from a bronc, his lung fatally punctured and searching for breath, he still finds the time to make a pass at Susan Hayward. “Guys like me last forever,” he says before drifting away. For a man prone to self-deprecating sarcasm, it might be the truest statement he ever made.

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