Happy Birthday, Robert Mitchum


Robert Mitchum, Cannes 1954, photograph by Leo Mirkine

Excerpt from Are You Anybody? An Actor’s Life, by Bradford Dillman

For the past fifty years Robert Mitchum has been captivating filmgoers with his sleepy demeanor. He was the first actor to be jailed for marijuana, and it’s no state secret he’s enjoyed a cocktail or two in his time. But his toughness is no pose.

Before beginning a film with him, Henry Hathaway, a director acknowledged as a card-carrying sadist, felt impelled to explain himself.

“Listen, Mitch,” he said. “I got this thing. Sometimes I get a little excited, call actors names and cuss them, but I want you to know it’s nothing personal. It’s just me.”

“I hear you, Henry,” Mitchum replied. “I know how it is. I’ve got this thing, too. See, whenever somebody calls me names or cusses me out, I haul off and bust him in the mouth. Nothing personal. It’s just me.”

Dillman shares another anecdote:

Yet few know what an intelligent, articulate man Mitchum is, how charming he can be. He’s also a prankster. When I worked with him on location in Hong Kong, our director was hearing-impaired. In the briefcase used for transporting his script he carried several hearing aid battery replacements. We’d rehearsed a scene in an office, we were doing Take One, I’d fed Mitch his cue, when he mouthed his response. No sound.

“Cut.” The director was pounding his ear. “Damn,” he said, removing the device, opening his briefcase to install a fresh battery. “Okay, let’s go again.”

Take Two. I give the cue, Mitch mouths his line.

“Cut.” The director pounding his ear anew. “Who makes these things, anyway?”

It took four takes for him to realize he’d been victimized by an imp.

The imp struck again during a scene in the lobby of the Hotel Peninsula, he and I seated at a table. Normally spectators keep a respectful distance as they observe the moviemaking process, but a blonde plumper spilling out of her pink pants suit couldn’t restrain herself. Between takes she rushed over and did a five-minute number on how Robert Mitchum ruled her life, how jealous he made her husband, how her friends teased her about her crush. It went on and on, the actor grunting occasionally before pretending to nod off.

The lady’s moving lips were right in his ear when Mitch jolted awake. Feigning shock, he thundered, “Suck what?”

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Excerpt from Lee Server’s Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don’t Care:

Director and star proved to be ideally matched. In [Robert] Mitchum, [Jacques] Tourneur had found the most expressive embodiment of his own cinematic aesthetic of eloquent, subversive resistance and oneiric sensuality. Tourneur loved Mitchum’s physical grace, the gliding, pantherlike movements, and his underplaying and powerful silences, his expressive quiescence thrilled the director whose films were among the quietest in the history of talking pictures. He savored Mitchum’s ability to listen in a scene. “There are a large number of players who don’t know how to listen,” said Tourneur. “While one of their partners speaks to them, they simply think, I don’t have anything to do during this; let’s try not to let the scene get stolen from me. Mitchum can be silent and listen to a five-minute speech. You’ll never lose sight of him and you’ll understand that he takes in what is said to him, even if he doesn’t do anything. That’s how one judges good actors.”

In Mitchum’s opposite, the sort who tried “not to let the scene get stolen”, Tourneur might possibly have been thinking of Kirk Douglas. With his explosive starring roles – Champion, Ace in the Hole, Detective Story – still a few years off, Douglas was becoming typed for intelligent, urbane characters, supporting parts. As Whit Sterling, certainly among the most well-spoken and civilized of ruthless racketeers, Douglas gave a brilliantly controlled and charismatic performance, but he could not have been thrilled by another second fiddle part – especially second fiddle to Mitchum, who had already taken from him the lead in Pursued. The two got along well enough off the set, but the rivalry would flare as soon as the cameras began to turn. Since Tourneur was not about to accept any obvious histrionics in his diminuendo world, Douglas was left to try and out-underact Mitchum, an exercise in futility, he discovered. He tried adding distracting bits of business during Mitchum’s lines and came up with a coin trick, running it quickly between the tops of his fingers. Bob started staring at the fingers until Kirk started staring at the fingers and dropped the coin on the rug. He put the coin away. In another scene, Douglas brought a gold watch fob out of his coat pocket and twirled it around like a propeller. This time everybody stared.

“It was a hoot to watch them go at it,” said Jane Greer. “They were two such different types. Kirk was something of a method actor. And Bob was Bob. You weren’t going to catch him acting. But they both tried to get the advantage. At one point they were actually trying to upstage each other by who could sit the lowest. The one sitting the lowest had the best camera angle, I guess – I don’t know what they were thinking. Bob sat on the couch, so Kirk sat on the table, then one sat on the footstool, and by the end I think they were both on the floor.”

Tourneur, no martinet, liked to give his performers a lot of freedom and waited out the one-upmanship antics with a weary grace. “Quoi qu’il arrive, restez calme,” he liked to say.

Actors were actors. One night he was screening the rushes of a scene with Mitchum and Douglas talking to each other on either side of the frame, and he was startled to see how Paul Valentine – placed in the background and without a line of dialogue – had craftily picked up a magazine and was flipping the pages with an altogether distracting intensity, hijacking the scene.

“Oh, Paul,” he said to the actor, “now I have to keep an eye on you, too?”

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Robert Mitchum in 1958’s “Thunder Road,” a Gearhead Heaven type of movie

From the incomparable Kim Morgan:

A man’s man and a hep cat who projected a natural-born charisma entirely his own, Robert Mitchum was, and still is an American original. There is no actor or man quite like Robert Mitchum. Brimming with understated talent (the kind that’s always underrated), the actor could run the spectrum from gorgeous leading man (Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison) to light comedian (What a Way to Go!) to war hero (The Story of G.I. Joe) to Western existentialist (Pursued) to flawed noir antihero (Out of the Past, Angel Face, Where Danger Lives) to aged gumshoe (Farewell My Lovely) to sexy psycho (Cape Fear) to hillbilly moonshiner (Thunder Road) with nary a trace of effort. Though he was quoted as saying he sleepwalked through many of his roles (and that heavy-lidded, laconic demeanor was a large part of his barrel-chested appeal), he did work at some (or many) of his big-screen characters. Nowhere is this more evident than in one of the actor’s greatest and most terrifying roles — as the demented preacher and scariest stepfather who ever lived, Harry Powell in Charles Laughton’s masterpiece, The Night of the Hunter.

The duet in The Night of the Hunter is one of the most memorable and frightening scenes in cinema. A moral standoff, a standoff of dueling brands of Christianity, one that honors compassion and one that honors judgment. One side has to win. The sides cannot coexist. It is a battle still raging in our culture today, and the duet in Night of the Hunter is a chilling evocation of that battle. Whistler’s Mother with a shotgun vs. The Man Out There In the Dark. Believers, both of them, they are ready to break a Commandment, one of the most important Commandments of all. In the meantime, they sing.

The hairs on the back of my neck stand up just thinking about this scene.

Watching Robert Mitchum do anything is a master class in how to … well, act. He doesn’t appear, ever, to be doing anything. He made a big point of never seeming to work. He strolls through movies, smoking, looking ahead with the heavy-lidded eyes, easy, natural, and is either ominous or sexy, depending on the material. He was the ultimate Alpha Male. He could be terrifying (as in Night of the Hunter), or sexy and romantic. He could conduct himself, like his own Maestro, bringing this or that quality forward, but my analogy makes it seem deliberate or studied. Nothing he does is ever studied. He was a valid leading man for decades. It cannot be explained. All one can say is that Mitchum needed to be at the center. He’s too strong, too good, for anything else.

David Thomson wrote in his The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition:

How can I offer this hunk as one of the best actors in the movies? Start by referring back to that dialogue [in Out of the Past]: it touches the intriguing ambiguity in Mitchum’s work, the idea of a man thinking and feeling beneath a calm exterior that there is no need to put “acting” on the surface. And for a big man, he is immensely agile, capable of unsmiling humor, menace, stoicism, and, above all, of watching other people as though he were waiting to make up his mind. Of course, Mitchum has been in bad films, when he slips into the weariness of someone who has read the script, but hopes it may be rewritten. But since the war, no American actor has made more first-class films, in so many different moods.

Mitchum’s monologue in the bowling alley in the wonderful gritty Friends of Eddie Coyle is a pure example of why Mitchum is so great. Done mainly in one shot, with only a couple of reaction shots.

Watch how Eddie Coyle (Mitchum) puts the arrogant yet stupid gun-runner (Steven Keats) in his place. You can almost see (or at least I can imagine I can see), Keats the actor watching Mitchum the actor, thinking, “Holy shit, he is so good.”

The monologue I’m talking about starts at around the 1 minute mark. It is rare today to let a scene go that long without a million cuts. To let someone just talk in that way. Movies today are poorer for it. This is acting, pure and simple.

A silly film fan on Facebook said recently that he felt actors were “boring and interchangeable”. Directors were the thing for this guy, unique and irreplaceable. Actors were a dime a dozen.

I could not disagree more strongly.

To quote David Thomson again on Mitchum:

Untouchable.

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17 Responses to Happy Birthday, Robert Mitchum

  1. Great piece – you do a nice job of trying to identify that Mitchum “x-factor.” It’s hard to define what makes him great, but you feel it and know it when you’re watching him.
    Now I’m thinking of “Home from the Hill” and “The Yakuza.” So many great ones…

  2. sheila says:

    It’s gravitas, it’s truth … easy and unpushed. It can’t be manufactured or imitated. Nobody like him.

    Thanks, Matt. Yes, so many great ones – I haven’t even seen them all.

  3. george says:

    The top photo, Mitchum dancing with the waves, where from?

  4. sheila says:

    George – hmm, not sure if it’s from anything or just a publicity shot. I found it online and immediately fell in love with it – its whimsy and grace – such a big guy tripping along the shore.

  5. Dan says:

    Love Eddie Coyle – I was delighted when it finally hit DVD.

  6. Rob says:

    LOVE him! Possibly the sexiest guy of that time. As far as acting, he was leagues beyond most of his peers (for some reason, I have a feeling he didn’t want people to know how hard he worked at it-maybe it’s a guy thing?), he could do lighter but then again go to some VERY dark places.
    And incidentally, I had no idea Dillman wrote an autobiography. Semi-on-topic: I’d like to see a full-length bio of his wife, Suzy Parker; she fascinates me, how she was able to walk away from it all and live the way she wanted to.

  7. sheila says:

    Rob – The Dillman book is a lot of fun. I bought it at the height of my Dean Stockwell obsession – but there isn’t a lot about Compulsion in it. But the book is full of hilarious show-biz anecdotes.

  8. Bruce Reid says:

    George & Sheila: The photo was taken at Cannes in 1954 by Leo Mirkine; if you visit the photographer’s website (mirkine dot com) it’s one of the first images you see.

    Matt: Home from the Hill was a marvelous discovery for me a few years ago. I’d always read it dismissed as minor Minnelli, but it’s several cuts better than that, the emotional storms and conflicts brilliantly mapped out, the home as much a battlefield as Sirk or Ophuls ever managed. I did consistently recast George Hamilton with Anthony Perkins in my mind, however.

    Another beautiful, voluminous tribute as always, Sheila. To offer an addition don’t forget Howard Hawks’s assessment of Mitchum in his Bogdanovich interview, one master who always cannily rejected the title of artist–and the fatal ponderousness such respect could drag down upon his work–sizing up another:

    He’s great–one of the easiest men to work with–and he makes fun of everything he does. I told him once, “You’re a big phony–you’re one of the hardest-working guys I ever saw.” He said, “Don’t tell anybody.”

  9. sheila says:

    Bruce – Thanks for the photo credit! I just love the incongruity of the image – the lightheartedness, the grace, of this big barrel-chested man (to quote Kim Morgan again).

    I definitely should have included some of Bogdanovichs essay – Note to self for next year!

    Mitchum was an original – and it is almost a strength that he is still so underrated. That means people will still have the chance to discover him, and go, “Oh, so THAT’S why he was such a big star.”

  10. carolyn clarke says:

    Thank you for the write-up on Robert Mitchum. I loved him in “Two for the Seesaw” with Shirley Maclaine though that movie reminds me a lot of “The Apartment”. Also love him in “El Dorado” with John Wayne. And I just rewatched “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison”. I’d forgotten how beautiful that movie is.

    BTW, just got Scott Eyman’s book on Wayne. I’m trying to read it through but I keep getting distracted and flipping back and forth in the book. The stories are great. Thank you for the suggestion.

    • sheila says:

      Heaven Knows Mr. Allison is magical. I love how they are unfailingly polite to one another, no matter how dangerous the situation. “Mr. Allison?” she says as they hide in a cave. “Yes, ma’am?” he asks quietly.

      An entire movie with just the two of them on a desert island? I love that film.

      Two for the Seesaw – yes! I also love his old noir stuff. He practically invented the noir Tough Guy.

      I’m thrilled you picked up the Eyman book!

  11. Maureen says:

    I love this post Sheila! I agree with Rob’s comment above, but would go even further-I think he is one of the sexiest men of ALL times. Wonderful actor who really could do it all-humor, menace, romance.

    One of my very favorite movies-His Kind of Woman, with Jane Russell and Vincent Price. Of course Russell and Mitchum are great together, and Price gives such a delicious performance as an actor in swashbucklers, being called upon to be a hero in real life.

    Have you seen the Dick Cavett interview with Mitchum? It was on TCM at one point, and I just happened across it. It was so interesting, you could tell they were both a bit nervous at first-or maybe I should say Mitchum was holding back a bit, then they really started to click, and it was a great interview. One part that is funny, Mitchum said he that when he was young he looked like a ferret. I couldn’t believe that until I got the Lee Server book, saw a picture and lo and behold, he did! Talk about growing into your looks!

    • sheila says:

      // I think he is one of the sexiest men of ALL times. Wonderful actor who really could do it all-humor, menace, romance. //

      I know!! And he did it all without ever ONCE making a big deal out of it. Incredible.

      I adore His Kind of Woman. Price is hilarious – but also tragic. I kind of want to hang out at that resort even though there’s all this murder going on. Mitchum lounging around, having hot sexy flirtaiton with Russell – it’s just great!

      And in re: Dick Cavett – you know I have seen it, years ago – but it just came up again today on Facebook. Someone referenced it! I have got to watch it again. Mitchum was a notoriously tough interview, apparently.

      One of my favorite stories – told in the bio of Mitchum, and elsewhere – that gives me a swoon of “What if?? ” is the story of Mitchum, starting up his own production company in the 1950s – and he was developing a film about brothers on a chain gang. It was the autumn of 1956 – and Love Me Tender had just come out, with Loving You on its heels. It was Elvis Mania time. Elvis was living in the Knickerbocker Hotel in LA, he was under contract to Hal Wallis (who loaned him out to do Love Me Tender) – and was eager and excited about his career. All of which was being orchestrated by the Colonel.

      So Mitchum wanted Elvis to play his younger brother on the chain gang – and instead of going through the proper channels (calling up Hal Wallis, or reaching out to the Colonel) – Mitchum called up Elvis directly. (His first no-no, according to the Colonel. Now I don’t think the Colonel was an evil bogey-man but he definitely kept Elvis on a short leash.) Anyway: Elvis was really interested to talk to Mitchum, he loved Mitchum’s acting – Mitchum came over to the Knickerbocker, they hung out, and Mitchum basically pitched the whole movie to Elvis. He wanted him bad. And Elvis wanted to do it BAD. If he had been a free agent (which no one was in those days) he could have just said “yes, I’ll do it – I don’t care about the price, I don’t care how big my name is in the credits, or if my name comes before the title – I want to be in this movie.” But Elvis was a good boy – so he ran it by the Colonel who said, “Nope.”

      Elvis was going to be the star of any movie he did, and not play second-fiddle to anyone. That was the Colonel’s plan.

      So Elvis had to say No, and Mitchum was bummed. Elvis was bummed too.

      How I would have loved to see the two of them play brothers on a chain gang. Dammit!!

      • Maureen says:

        Oh, I remember that story from the book!! How incredible would it have been if this had happened. They really would have been believable as brothers.

        The Cavett-Mitchum interview-the version I saw Cavett gives a little intro, and he said he was nervous because of what you mentioned, Mitchum had a reputation for being difficult to interview. I think feel a big part of it was he didn’t seem to suffer fools gladly, he didn’t have the patience or time for it. Great interview and I really wish I had saved it on my DVR!

        Count me in for wanting to hang out at that resort-I LOVE that set so much, and with Mitchum, Russell and Price? Along with one of my favorite toughies, Charles McGraw?? Heaven!

        • sheila says:

          I also think Mitchum was one of those guys who wouldn’t be caught DEAD talking about acting in a serious or pretentious way. And so many interviews assume a level of seriousness – it was just against whatever code he had to not make a big deal out of what he did.

          I think the interview is on Youtube – I’ll check later!

  12. Ana Roland says:

    The YOUTUBE Lizabeth Scott interview I posted on #noirsummer has some fun anecdotes about Mitchum. She loved him. She told how he used to play his guitar in between takes with songs he had written the night before or was in the process of writing…You can feel his kiss with Janet Leigh in “Holiday Affair” through the movie screen as well as the kiss with Jane Russell in “His Kind of Woman”. He was my kind of man!

    • sheila says:

      Ana – thanks for the tip about Lizabeth Scott – I will check it out!

      And yes, I agree: what a kisser!!

      A genius of screen acting. He was just THERE. Always.

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