By Alan L. Chrisman
Robert Mitchum was a popular actor in the 1940’s and 50’s, mainly known for his film noir film roles. Mitchum is listed #23 on the greatest male legends of all time by the American Film Institute. He often seemed almost half awake with his laid-back acting, but you couldn’t keep our eyes off him on the big screen. For his nonchalant presence was deceiving. Other actors would try to overact with grand gestures, but Mitchum somehow held our interest with the even the smallest ones. He was able to express the emotion buried just below the surface of a character. And he was ahead of his time, taking on the roles of what would later be called anti-heroes.
Women loved this strong, silent quality in his portrayals and men wished they could be more like him. He often played tough, manly characters, which could throw someone around the room, but at the same time, ones that weren’t afraid to reveal their sensitive sides too.
In 1947’s “western-noir”, Pursued, he plays a man who’d been adopted by a woman who tries to raise him as her own, but he never quite fits in, always wondering where he came from. His half-brother hates him and his half-sister played by Teresa Wright (Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt), can’t help falling in love with him and he with her, even though its forbidden. After he’s reluctantly forced to kill his half-brother and another innocent suitor for her, she finally agrees to marry him, but initially only planning to do so to kill him for the mistaken hurt. It’s almost Shakespearian in scope and its characters, for a western, but Mitchum’s able to capture it.
He would also appear in several more similar roles in this period, including the classic film noir, Out Of the Past, the same year, in which he’s up against a sleazy Kirk Douglas (only Douglas’ 2nd film) and Femme Fatale, Jane Greer. Again Mitchum had to play a wronged man, haunted by his past. And there was always a Fatale to match wits with him.
But just as he was becoming popular with these and other roles, his reputation as a “bad boy” in real life threatened to catch up with him. He was arrested in 1948, for possession of marijuana, considered a dangerous drug at the time. He spent 43 days on a prison farm. Later it was overturned because it was revealed that he had been set up. This could have ended his career, but it only seemed to add to his screen persona and popularity. A lot of Hollywood wouldn’t work with him after that, but his co-star from Out of the Past, Jane Greer, still did in The Big Steal in’49. He’d had a rough childhood and had hitched around the country before he’d drifted into acting. Like the roles he often played, he didn’t fit in. He was a colorful personality in a black and white era.
He went on to make several other film noirs and other well-respected movies, throughout the 50’s and 60’s, such as River of No Return with Marilyn Monroe and Night of the Hunter directed by Charles Laughton, in which he plays a creepy criminal posing as a preacher. In the original Cape Fear in 1962, he’s the vengeful ex-con who stalks lawyer, Gregory Peck’s family (he would have a reverse role as the detective in the Martin Scorsese remake in 1991). He appeared also in several classic war films, such as The Enemy Below (1956) and the epic, The Longest Day (’62). Then almost against type he made softer-character films with British actress, Deborah Kerr, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (’57) and The Sundowners (’60) about Australia. And he played a gentle schoolmaster in David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970).
Besides being an excellent actor, he also was an accomplished singer and songwriter and often sang himself in his films. He even had a top 10 country hit, “Ballad of Thunder Road”, which he co-wrote for his Southern moonshine film and now cult favorite of the same name in 1957.
But it was really his noir films for which he is most remembered. And in the 70’s, he made a remake of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely in England and followed up with a re-doing of the classic, The Big Sleep, even playing an older version of the detective, and manages to pull it off. He would go into the 80’s in a couple of popular TV miniseries, The Winds of War (’83) and War and Remembrance (’88).
He had a reputation on film sets of not taking any guff from anyone, from the directors on down. Supposedly, he threw a crew member into the ocean (after Mitchum had been drinking the night before on one of his early films). His attitude towards Hollywood and acting, was to not take it all too seriously. One of his famous quotes was, “I only made two kinds of pictures, one with a horse and one without”. And that acting consisted of (quoting another great actor, Spencer Tracy, who didn’t take it too seriously either)“ know your lines and show up on time, that’s it”. Of course, Mitchum took his craft for much more than that, but his attitude and skill made it seem almost effortless. It often felt as if it wasn’t acting at all, but real people up on the screen, which is of course, the greatest compliment to an actor. Lee Server wrote a biography of him in 2001 aptly titled, Baby, I Don’t Care. Mitchum was one of a kind- film noir cool!
See below excerpt of Mitchum and Femme Fatale, Jane Greer, in classic film noir, "Out of the Past":
See also Robert Mitchum,The Legend, about his life:
Check out previous article by Alan L. Chrisman also on this site:
"Femme Fatales: Real & Fantasy"