Happy Birthday, Robert Mitchum

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.”

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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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 frightening scenes in cinema. A moral standoff, a standoff of dueling brands of Christianity, one that honors compassion and one that honors judgment. Who will back down? Who will win? Because one side has to win. The sides cannot coexist. This is a battle still raging in our culture today, and the duet in Night of the Hunter is the most chilling evocation of that battle I can think of. Whistler’s Mother with a shotgun vs. The Man Out There In the Dark. A recognition of the mettle of the foe from both sides. Believers, both of them, they are ready to break a Commandment, one of the most important Commandments of all. In the meantime, they sing a duet.

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

A.O. Scott reviews Friends of Eddie Coyle, a bleak 1973 crime drama (which is really more of a thoughtful character study than anything else). The details in this film are exquisite: the cars, the sklyines, the empty bars, the Bruins game, the slush, the damp pavement. You can almost smell Boston in this picture.

Eddie Coyle is from Quincy, Massachusetts, a place I know well, just south of Boston (famous, naturally, for being where John and Abigail Adams lived). Robert Mitchum, in one of his best performances (he’s so weary, and yet still desperate to get out, like an animal), nails that Quincy accent, which I suppose is also a Boston accent, but there’s a lilt to it, a softness, that I recognize from my aunt/uncle/cousins who live in Quincy. Mitchum gets it just right. Peter Boyle is great as the sleazy bartender (what miserable humorless eyes he has in this film), and Richard Jordan makes a big impact as the federal agent who has made contacts in the Boston crime world.

But Mitchum is the heart of it. I love the one scene in the morning with his Irish wife Sheila (played by Irene Carroll). They wash dishes and talk about what’s going on. He has a hearing coming up for one of his crimes, and doesn’t want to do any more time. His kids are almost teenagers. He’s 51. He can’t afford to do even more 2 years in jail. But I love how his wife deals with him, trying to get him to eat, which could be a Wife Cliche, but it isn’t. She’s in a pink checkered housedress, it’s morning, and she wants her husband to eat. This is how marriage works. There’s a familiarity between the two of them, and yet their lives hang in the balance. Mitchum takes hold of her to give her a kiss, and the kiss gets passionate (perhaps he realizes he doesn’t have that much time left), and she starts laughing, protesting against him, “It’s morning!!” Peter Yates then cuts to the next scene. I love that glimpse. Irene Carroll is not in the film much, but her presence is important.

Watching Robert Mitchum do anything is a master class in how to … well, act. He doesn’t appear, ever, to be doing anything. This was true from the get-go with him, and 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 could be either. Many actors don’t have that versatility. Or, their “sexuality” comes off as “ominous”, and therefore they cannot be believable as a regular romantic leading man. Mitchum wasn’t like that. He could be terrifying (as in Night of the Hunter), or sexy and romantic. He could conduct himself, bringing this or that quality forward, but my analogy makes it seem deliberate or studied. Nothing he does is ever studied. This is a man who 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. He was the ultimate Alpha Male.

David Thomson wrote:

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.

And here, as the sincerely tired and beaten-down Eddie Coyle, Mitchum has never been better.

His monologue in the bowling alley is a pure example of why Mitchum is so great. Done mainly in one shot, with only a couple of reaction shots.

And here, 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. No tricks.

Ross Freedman, one of my Facebook friends, said recently that he felt actors were “boring and interchangeable”.

I could not disagree more strongly.

To quote David Thomson again on Mitchum:

Untouchable.

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9 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.”

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