Of all the movie stars created by the Hollywood studio system whose films continue to be viewed, Robert Mitchum is the one whose artistic legacy is most problematic. Throughout much of his career, he was generally regarded less as an actor than as a personality, one whose hell-raising private life (among other once-scandalous things, he was arrested in 1948 for possession of marijuana) contributed to his reputation as one of the baddest of Hollywood’s bad boys. Many of his best-known films were trivial entertainments in which he played cartoonish heroes.
Starting in the 1970s, his work was reevaluated by a new generation of critics who placed him in the first rank of screen actors, but after 1975 Mitchum made no more feature films of significance, and by the time of his death, in 1997, younger viewers knew him less as the sleepy-eyed matinee idol of the 40s and 50s than as the immobile statue at the center of the Herman Wouk TV miniseries The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988).
One of the reasons so many people found it hard to take Mitchum seriously as an actor was that he was given to making cynical public statements about his work: “The reason I’m in demand is that I work fast and cheap….Like an old whore, you know, I got nothin’ to get ready. Show up and do it.” Nor did many of the hundred-odd films in which he appeared require him to do much more than that.
Yet in the same interviews, Mitchum often spoke with palpable intelligence about the craft of acting. On these occasions, he gave the impression that he was not so much a cynic as an artist so disillusioned with Hollywood and its ways that he could no longer take filmmaking seriously:
I always thought I could do better. But you don’t get to do better. You get to do more….These pictures—I can do them and then walk away from them and forget about them. It’s all finished and I never have to see them—I usually never do see them—and I’m not involved…. The dialogue in most of them is so bad, you have to spit it out like dirt in your teeth.
Whenever Mitchum shook off his torpor and threw himself into a role, as he invariably did when challenged to give of his best, he exuded an unforced authority and subtlety that led John Huston, who directed him twice, to call him “an actor of the caliber of Olivier, Burton and Brando.”
Who, then, was the real Robert Mitchum? Was he a barrel-chested hack or a frustrated artist who, according to no less an expert than Charles Laughton, the director of his greatest film, would make the “best Macbeth of any actor living”?
Born in 1917, Mitchum was one of many film actors with tough-guy personae who in fact had been sensitive, bookish children. His father, a railroad worker, was killed in an accident when Mitchum was two years old, and thereafter his family lived in straitened circumstances. As he grew older, Mitchum became an increasingly unruly adolescent, and in 1932 he left home to ride the rails across Depression-era America. At one point he briefly served on a Georgia chain gang, an experience that turned him into a lifelong rebel who distrusted authority in all its forms.
Mitchum eventually made his way to California, where he worked in an airplane factory, tried without success to become a professional writer, and began dabbling in amateur stage acting. (One of the roles that he played was Duke Mantee, the escaped convict in Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest, the part that had made Humphrey Bogart a star.) In 1942 he landed a job playing bit parts in low-budget westerns, soon working his way up to better roles.
In-house talent scouts saw Mitchum’s potential, and RKO, a once-mighty second-tier studio that came to specialize in action and horror films, signed him to a contract in 1944. He was loaned out to United Artists the following year to make The Story of G.I. Joe, a film based on Ernie Pyle’s war dispatches and one of the first movies about World War II to offer its viewers a largely realistic portrayal of the soldier’s lot. His performance as a fictionalized version of the real-life hero of “The Death of Captain Waskow,” Pyle’s best-remembered column, won Mitchum his only Oscar nomination and put him on the fast track to screen stardom.
Under the studio system, movie stars were created through typecasting. From the beginning of his career, Mitchum was cast as a he-man, but one who, unlike Captain Waskow, was morally equivocal. Rarely did he follow in the footsteps of such unambiguously heroic figures as Gary Cooper and John Wayne, though he shared their commanding physical build (he stood over six feet tall) and casual, unfussy on-screen demeanor. Sometimes he played a film-noir chump who fell victim to the wiles of a scheming woman, sometimes a drifting cowboy with a troubled past, but almost always his characters were born losers who prevailed—if they did—in spite of themselves.
Mitchum’s full-fledged starring role for RKO was in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), an exceptionally well-written film noir in which he plays Jeff Bailey, a private detective who is hired by a gangster (Kirk Douglas) to track down the gangster’s faithless girlfriend (Jane Greer). Once he finds her, Bailey runs off with the girl, thereby triggering a complex series of events that leads to the deaths of all three characters.
What is most striking about this role is the passivity of Mitchum’s character, who senses as soon as he meets Greer that his attraction to her will bring about his doom—but who still shows every sign of accepting both his fate and her utter unscrupulousness. When she protests her innocence, he replies, “Baby, I don’t care,” and though in truth he does, he still succumbs.
That so hapless a creature as Jeff Bailey could be convincingly impersonated by so physically imposing an actor goes to the heart of Mitchum’s screen persona. Though he was a space-filling figure whose rumbling bass-baritone voice and heavy-lidded gaze were part and parcel of his star quality, he was usually at his best playing tainted men who are brought low by their flaws. But such characters, save during the brief vogue of film noir, have never been popular with American moviegoers, and so Mitchum was instead forced to play the hero in a string of action films that he sardonically categorized as “Pounded to Death by Gorillas, followed by a number.” A few, like John Farrow’s His Kind of Woman (1951), made effective use of what Mitchum described to an interviewer as his “inner comedian,” but most were formulaic and forgettable.
Except for Out of the Past, only one of the films that Mitchum made during his decade at RKO showed what he was capable of as an actor. In The Lusty Men (1952), directed by Nicholas Ray, he played a washed-up rodeo rider who has learned from punishingly hard experience that the cowboy’s life is “chicken today, feathers tomorrow.” Ray’s elegiac reconsideration of the heroic myth of the American West gave Mitchum his first opportunity to play a character whose physical injuries foreshadow the diminishment of middle age, and his low-keyed performance is all the more impressive for its unselfconscious understatement.
In 1954, Mitchum left RKO, which by then was on the verge of financial collapse. Putting the soon-to-be-moribund studio system behind him, he simultaneously embarked on an abortive career as head of his own production company and sought to break away from his overly familiar he-man image. It was a short step from film-noir antiheroes to outright villainy, and when Charles Laughton invited him to take that step, he leaped at the chance and accepted the lead role in The Night of the Hunter (1955), Laughton’s screen version of Davis Grubb’s novel about a preacher who marries and murders women to whom he is sexually attracted and who has the words “L-O-V-E” and “H-A-T-E” tattooed on his knuckles.
That so popular an actor as Mitchum should have chosen to play so frankly unattractive a part is an indication of how exasperated he had grown by the trite roles with which he had been saddled. Moreover, Laughton’s debut as a film director, in which he eschewed conventional screen naturalism in favor of an expressionistic style influenced in equal measure by film noir and the silent movies of D.W. Griffith, was as far removed as possible from the plainer styles of the veteran directors with whom Mitchum had previously worked. Yet the actor, challenged by Laughton’s adventurousness, responded by giving a startlingly bold performance that is larger in emotional scale than anything he had previously attempted.
Not surprisingly, The Night of the Hunter failed at the box office, in the process putting an end to Mitchum’s short-lived willingness to defy expectations. Thereafter he mostly chose to make traditional screen entertainments of one kind or another, though a few, including El Dorado, Howard Hawks’s 1966 remake of Rio Bravo, manage to do more than merely suggest the untapped range of his talents. And he remained capable of occasional surprises, as in J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear (1962), in which he played yet another psychotic killer, this time a vengeful ex-con who attempts to rape the daughter of the lawyer who sent him to prison. Though the film is a crude melodrama, Mitchum’s acting is shockingly vivid, an eloquent testament to his grasp of the human capacity for evil.
Vivid in a different way is Mitchum’s world-weary performance in Dick Richards’s film version of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely (1975). Richards and screenwriter David Zelag Goodman had the inspired idea to adapt Chandler’s novel in a way that was faithful to its tone but that departed from the letter of the book in one crucial aspect. Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s hard-boiled yet idealistic private eye, is turned into a middle-aged man well past his prime who senses that he has reached the end of the road (“This past spring was the first that I felt tired and realized I was growing old”).
Mitchum, who was 59 when Farewell, My Lovely was filmed, responded with a performance of unusual sensitivity, even delicacy. Never again, alas, would he work with such worthy material, nor does he seem to have sought it out. The movies and TV series that he made in the 22 years that remained to him were unmemorable almost without exception, and he made no secret of having appeared in them solely for the money.
At the end of his life, Mitchum told a reporter that “my whole acting career adds up to a million dollars’ worth of horses–t.” While there was more to it than that, it seems likely that he will be remembered in the long run for no more than a half-dozen or so films of special distinction, movies in which Mitchum succeeded in doing more than what was expected of him. Otherwise he simply “showed up and did it,” and it is only because of his oft-expressed discontent with the results that we know he wished that he had done more.
Why did he fail to do so? Commercial filmmaking is a business that exists to make money, not art, and movie stars like Robert Mitchum whose screen images were constructed by the studio system were rarely in a position to do much more, creatively speaking, than what they were told to do by the studios for which they worked.
But Mitchum, like many of the stars of the 30s and 40s, outlived the system that made him, and after the demise of RKO in the mid-50s, he was in a position to take charge of the direction and shape of his career. Had he wished to do so, he could have chosen, like James Stewart, to work as often as possible with first-class directors and writers. Or, like other aging stars who have longed for greater challenges, he could have returned to the stage. Instead he kept on doing what he had always done—and complaining about it.
Perhaps the most revealing example of his creative passivity was his decision not to play the title role in Franklin Schaffner’s Patton (1970). Frank McCarthy, the film’s producer, had eagerly sought Mitchum for the role that won George C. Scott a Best Actor Oscar, but Mitchum turned McCarthy down, and his explanation of why he did so is revealing: “I didn’t feel up to that…I went in for wardrobe and I then begged off. I said, ‘Please, I suggest you get somebody who’s really going to fight for the character.’ And I suggested George Scott, and I’m glad I did.”
That a star as famous as Robert Mitchum should have passed up so choice a role is surprising enough (though he also chose not to play Clint Eastwood’s role in Dirty Harry, and Burt Lancaster’s role in Atlantic City). That he claimed to have done so because he felt himself incapable of forcing his cinematic collaborators to make a film worthy of the character he was to play says everything about the stunted shape of his acting career. It was as if he saw himself as the same character he had played in Out of the Past, one who knew himself to be doomed and accepted his fate with as much dignity as he could muster, but who was unwilling to fight against it, even for a cause he thought just.
Judging by the richness and intensity of Mitchum’s best screen performances, Charles Laughton could well have been right when he speculated that the star of The Night of the Hunter might have been worthy of the great classical stage roles. But in Hollywood, serious art is only made by ruthlessly single-minded men who are prepared to go to the wall rather than submit to the pressures of a collaborative process of creation that is founded on compromise—and Robert Mitchum, for all his considerable gifts, was never that kind of man.