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.”
Mitchum in prison for marijuana possession, 1949
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?”
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?”
Robert Mitchum in 1958’s “Thunder Road,” a Gearhead Heaven type of movie
The duet in The Night of the Hunter is one of the most memorable and frightening scenes in cinema. A standoff between two 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. Until then, they sing.
The hairs on the back of my neck stand up just thinking about this scene.
Mitchum made a big point of never seeming to work. He strolls through movies, smoking, looking around with heavy-lidded eyes, easy, natural, and can be ominous or sexy, sometimes at the same time. He was the ultimate Alpha Male. He could be terrifying (as in Night of the Hunter), or sexy and romantic. He could be a resourceful hero. He could be a sad-sack low-life. He could conduct his own “instrument”, like a Maestro, bringing this or that quality forward, but my analogy makes his work sound deliberate or studied. Nothing he did was ever studied. He was a valid leading man for decades. This cannot be explained. Some things just are.
Mitchum in “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” (1957)
I also love him for personally reaching out to Elvis in 1956, coming to visit the new kid on the block, who was holed up in the Knickerbocker Hotel, filming Love Me Tender. Mitchum was striking out on his own, developing his own projects, and wanted Elvis for an upcoming movie where the two of them would play brothers on a chain gang. (Mitchum, of course, had been on an actual chain gang.) Elvis was so flattered that Mitchum came to see him personally, and also that Mitchum would have thought of him at all. (If you think about their faces, and their eyes and hair, they would be completely believable as brothers.) Elvis wanted to do the movie. BAD. But when he spoke to The Colonel about it, the Colonel was furious that Mitchum went around him and spoke directly to Elvis and the Colonel made it clear to his 21-year-old client that any and all offers had to come to the Colonel FIRST, and Elvis had no business making any deals without the Colonel’s say-so. The image, though, of Elvis and Mitchum, two crazy hep-cats, sitting around in Elvis’ suite in The Knickerbocker, Mitchum “pitching” his project to the young King of Rock ‘n’ Roll …
Well, I guess I just wish I had been there.
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, right in his face, thinking, “Holy shit, he is so good.” Or: he’s not thinking at all. Mitchum is so connected to himself and what he’s saying that Keats is drawn into that reality without having to work at it. You see that’s also the thing with genius actors. Not only do they make it look easy but they HELP everyone else around them to be as good as they are. That’s how much authority they have.
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, in its purest most beautiful form.
To quote David Thomson again on Mitchum: