The Big Stealer

Film still for The Big Stealer

The Actors/Robert Mitchum: Seen by Howard Hughes as a hunk with charisma and by himself as a lucky working stiff, Robert Mitchum used his innate ability to create the ultimate doomed film noir heroes. By Nick James

To write about Robert Mitchum is to entangle oneself in one of the great bar-room yarns of recent times. Even after several biographies, there's still no telling how much of the 'true story' of the actor's life - especially his early life - bears strict relation to documentary truth. So much of it resembles pure hokum, and since Mitchum himself was a raconteur of the bottle par excellence, doubt hovers over many instances of colourful recall.

This fable-like quality to his background gives a unique grain to Mitchum's movie persona. Few stars have so enriched and embellished the relationship between their on-screen and off-screen selves. In Mitchum's case it's hard to say which is more interesting: the battered cinema hero, so often a soulful observer of his own fate, or the hipster who survived months on the road during the Depression. For instance, as the ex-private detective Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past (1947) Mitchum absconds with Jane Greer's Kathie Moffat, the woman he has tracked down for his criminal client, and lives with her until she leaves him with the corpse of his former partner to bury; then, after trying to make a new undercover life running a gas station and courting a 'decent' girl, he's forced back into the criminal world and Moffat's orbit as a knowing but helpless dupe. Yet these events are hardly more extraordinary than the young Mitchum's own early adventures. The most macho and blarneysome version is probably his brother John's memoir Them Ornery Mitchum Boys, but even Lee Server's excellent Baby, I Don't Care, which looks the most thoroughly researched, uses John Mitchum as a source. Both books read like wild fiction. But just possibly, it's all true.

If so, Robert Mitchum's first incarnation is as a character from a great American novel: the kind of self-possessed young man Hemingway might have thought too fanciful an invention, but Jack London or Steinbeck would have made flesh and blood. He came, supposedly, from fighting stock: a blend of what the Americans call Scots-Irish, Scandinavian mariner, and, it is said, Native American. This genetic combination may account for his extraordinary looks - a ferret-like head resting on a powerful frame and that 'immoral' face which, with its suggestion of gentility, lascivious droopy eyes, non-committal mouth, bent nose and dimple-cleft chin, would become his fortune in the 1940s.

But in the 1930s he was still a scrawny teenage semi-hoodlum runaway, riding out the Depression in boxcars. At the same time he was reputedly an autodidact with a head full of literature-inspired dreams of the road. That he found himself on a chain gang in Savannah, Georgia, serving an open-ended sentence for vagrancy, and had to run for his life, with bullets whizzing past his head, is well documented. (Indeed, when he returned to the state 20-odd years later to make Cape Fear, he could technically have been rearrested.) And there's a quality of permanent insolence about his face that makes his protestations that he was picked on by the cops believable. The chain-gang experience, and the infection he got from the too-tight manacles that nearly caused him to have his leg amputated, were the peak events of years of hoboing and soaking up the terrifying reality of the poverty and starvation of the Depression-era US. Young Mitchum took his infected leg back to his family home in time for it to be saved, but the road experience marked his personality for life.

You know you can't act

A cool, humorous, take-as-you-find view of humanity seems to have been the legacy; somehow part of Mitchum was always outside events, taking a dispassionate view of what was going on around him. This quality was an intrinsic part of what made him such a superb actor. He was neither a theatrical technician nor a Method invoker of ghost emotions, but really did, as he claimed, make it up as he went along, a naturally gifted performer who seemed to know instinctively how to give minimum effort for maximum effect.

Much of effective, poetic screen acting is arguably about minimalism. As William H. Macy is quoted as saying in the Faber & Faber book On Acting: Interviews with Actors: "In film theatricality is not required in great amounts. Film requires realism and smallness because you do not have to play to an audience." Realistic screen acting is mostly about the implication of a look. And Mitchum could get away with seeming to do much less than his contemporaries because his physical and psychological presence was so powerful before he even uttered a word. On set he often appeared not to be acting at all, yet the rushes usually told a different story (usually, rather than always, because, like John Huston, he could "make 'em bad too"). It was this seeming inertia that drove Katharine Hepburn crazy on the set of Vincente Minnelli's noir melodrama Undercurrent (1946) in which Mitchum plays her dream saviour, the mysterious classical-music-loving brother of her disturbed new husband. She told him: "You know you can't act. If you hadn't been good-looking, you would never have gotten a picture."

The irony is that Mitchum's own assessment of movie acting was not dissimilar. He always downplayed it as an easy life, a job like any other, and preferred to kibitz with the technicians than to fuss about his performance. Yet as co-actors confirm, no matter how much the worse for wear he was (and he often was), he always knew his lines. He claimed to have only two styles - "with or without a horse" - and was always eager to self-deprecate. "People say I have an interesting walk," he said. "Hell, I'm just trying to hold my gut in."

The horse was a crucial accessory to his film apprenticeship as a desperado bit-part player in the Hopalong Cassidy series of B-Westerns. It was easy there to think of himself as an ordinary workman, but these films and some war films eventually won him a couple of lead roles, in Nevada (1944) and West of the Pecos (1945). They in turn got him noticed for his breakthrough picture, the unusually realistic war film G.I. Joe (1945). This grim tale of infantry life at the Italian front, based on the evocative despatches of journalist Ernie Pyle, made Mitchum, who played the conscientious Lieutenant watching his men die around him, a star. It was the only role that gained him an Oscar nomination - and he didn't win it even then. Westerns and war films would figure many times in his career, but neither would be the genre that would establish him in the critical consciousness.

Pulp pleasures

What would make him an iconic figure was film noir, a new hybrid genre he would help define perhaps more than any other actor (though the term itself didn't exist until the publication of Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton's study Panorama du film noir americain in 1955). The tag derives from the série noire French imprint for American crime fiction which included such authors as Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and David Goodis, whose works were often adapted for Hollywood crime movies. According to Borde and Chaumeton, the cycle began with Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) and ended with Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

These dark films, with their shadow-filled expressionist lighting, confessional first-person voiceovers and fatalistic existential plots, chimed with the post-war pessimism felt by many returning servicemen. Such veterans had experienced different lifestyles in a ruined Europe less circumscribed by moral strictures and came home to a world they didn't recognise, where their wives and girlfriends were newly empowered by employment. Mitchum's combination of restrained physical power and seeming vulnerability made him a perfect icon for their disaffection. His long-lashed, half-closed eyes had a near-feminine, dreamily disconnected allure that belied his tremendous physique. He filled out a capacious 1940s suit like no one else, and standing in a wide-angle shot lit by a master such as cinematographer Nick Musuraca, he was a raincoated wall of cynical manhood against which a slender, petite vixen of the genus femme fatale could cling to erotic effect.

The films were framed in a lurid B-movie context. From a PR perspective, Mitchum was essentially a handsome hunk with a more-than-adequate degree of sexual charisma. Since for much of the first decade of his career he was a contract star for RKO, the studio bought by billionaire Howard Hughes, he usually found himself playing opposite one of the boss' many actress protégées. His early noir movies - When Strangers Marry (1944), The Locket (1946), Undercurrent (1946), Crossfire (1947), Out of the Past (1947), The Big Steal (1949), Where Danger Lives (1950), The Racket (1951), His Kind of Woman (1951), Macao (1952) and Angel Face (1952) - were made on a production-line basis, which explains the contempt and slight bewilderment with which Mitchum viewed them as revisionist critics began to write about how marvellous they are. Other film-makers too regarded their work as no more than regular gritty crime films, their aesthetics shaped by a combination of fine craft skills (mostly imported from expressionist-era Europe) and low-budget necessity.

At the time, the apogee of Mitchum's crime films was probably seen not as the classic noirs beloved of critics such as Out of the Past but rather his 'hunk and doll' pairing with Jane Russell in two gaudy pieces of pulp pleasure: His Kind of Woman and Macao. The former was initially shot by Australian hard man John Farrow on an extensive set representing a Mexican casino-hotel. Mitchum plays a gambler out of luck and money who receives a suspicious commission to visit the hideaway casino for a payment of $50,000. En route he meets Russell, a so-called heiress who sings and is the mistress of a movie star played (in deliberately hammy style) by Vincent Price. Knowing that he is somehow the dupe (again), Mitchum is warned by a government agent that he is being set up to have his identity stolen by an Italian gangster.

Ability to terrify

Unfortunately the film Farrow shot did not please Hughes, who ordered endless re-shoots directed by Richard Fleischer. These were mostly designed to beef up a climactic battle scene aboard the gangster's ship in which a stripped-to-the-waist Mitchum is beaten up and eventually threatened with a lethal injection (Mitchum somehow always finds a reason to take his shirt off in films). Hughes was seemingly obsessed with these scenes, and Mitchum found himself having to be 'tortured' realistically over and over again with stomach punches, and then with the needle forever hovering near his skin. In several scenes you can see a weary desperation in his eyes that might be more than acting, for he had begun secreting vodka as he worked. Finally in a fit of rage he trashed the set, though he was utterly contrite next day.

Since Mitchum regularly played the love interest of women Hughes was 'keeping', the psychology of the celebrity recluse's attitude to the actor was as weird as anything else in his life. Arguably his peculiar obsessions influenced the bizarre plotlines and distorted view of the female mind that characterise film noir, and he clearly saw Mitchum as his cinema avatar. That His Kind of Woman doesn't suffer too much from its agonised gestation demonstrates the resilience of the genre. Farrow's elegant tracking shots are followed by Fleischer's fast-cut climax yet both feel part of the same hallucinatory texture. Mitchum and Russell played the cynical banter of Frank Fenton's sardonic script - much of it apparently based on Mitchum's real-life attitudes - with laconic aplomb. Gossip columnist Louella Parsons called them "the hottest combination that ever hit the screen."

Hughes put the two of them together again in Macao. He had recently revived the career of the one-time great director Josef von Sternberg by giving him Janet Leigh to direct in Jet Pilot and now thought von Sternberg's sensual lighting schemes and exotic atmospheres - which had made the career of Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s - could be applied to his new volcanic duo in an eastern setting. Here Mitchum plays drifter-on-the-run Nick Cochran and Russell plays hard-luck story Julie Benson. They arrive at Macao at the same time and Julie gets Nick entangled in a US cop's attempt to beat a local racketeer by lifting his wallet.

Where His Kind of Woman lingers over Mitchum's body, Macao leers at Russell's hard glamour, her figure contoured in metallic sheath dresses. Mitchum and Russell spend much of their time appraising each other sexually and juggling flip, hard-boiled dialogue against a backdrop of chinoiserie and spider's webs of fishing nets (a noir staple). Von Sternberg antagonised Mitchum by telling him Russell had "no more talent than this cigarette case". Still, the director reputedly delivered a film in his old high style, though it didn't please Hughes. Nicholas Ray was brought in for re-shoots and involved Mitchum in rewrites. Noting the odd dislocations, Mitchum said, "There was no way they could glue it together - I kept meeting myself." None the less, Macao has considerable oneiric magic of a kind critics in succeeding decades would increasingly value.

At the time Mitchum was often involved in three films simultaneously, getting out of one costume and straight into another. Though he was often amused by the similarity of the roles he was offered, he also found opportunities to show his versatility. After his RKO career was over he would become recognised as perhaps the best 'heavy' ever - his Max Cady in Cape Fear (1961) outcreeps any of the Hannibal Lecters, and his preacher in The Night of the Hunter (1955) is as mythic a bogeyman as any folkloric creation - but this ability to terrify is already present in the early noir When Strangers Marry, where we discover he is the heroine's vengeful ex-lover. On the other hand his looks were at their most congenial in the mid-1940s, so we also find him playing the gigolo-cum-painter who implausibly commits suicide in The Locket.

Sipped beer

Most of the time, however, Mitchum's persona in the noir films is so consistent that the plots seem interchangeable. I experienced this most profoundly in the early 1980s when I saw an 'All Night Film Noir' programme at the Scala repertory cinema in London's King's Cross. The programme featured Out of the Past, The Big Steal and Where Danger Lives alongside The Maltese Falcon (with Humphrey Bogart in the kind of role Mitchum would later make his own). Falcon screened early, before the effects of tiredness or sipped beer could kick in; Out of the Past was the first of the Mitchums, and the others were watched through the early hours. It was a formative cinematic experience for me, not least because I drifted off occasionally so the three films intermingled to become one unforgettable epic that was like a paradigm for the best of Mitchum's early films and for noir itself.

There are good practical reasons why these movies combined. Where Danger Lives was conceived as an attempt to repeat the success of Out of the Past. Here Mitchum plays Jeff Cameron (he's Jeff Bailey in the first film), a doctor called to the house of Margo - played by Hughes protégée Faith Domergue - who has tried to commit suicide. Jeff falls for her and she tells him that the wealthy older man she lives with, Frederick Lannington, is her father. In fact he's her husband, and he warns Jeff that Margo is mentally unstable. The two men get into a fight in which Lamington is knocked unconscious and Jeff receives a crippling concussion. When Jeff comes round, Margo tells him he has killed Lamington and they flee to the Mexican border. Jeff, his mind reeling and his suspicions growing, cannot tell what really happened. The intricate, nasty script by Charles Bennett calls for several complex flashbacks, as does Out of the Past.

Expressionist angel

Jane Greer, the actress who plays Out of the Past's femme fatale, turns up as a much jollier and more trustworthy heroine in the chaotic road movie The Big Steal, a film that also involves fleeing to Mexico. In all three films Mitchum is a magnificent, haunting figure, lit like an expressionist angel. The Big Steal was set up to try to help him get off dope-smoking charges after he was busted in a police raid in 1948. Most actors could have kissed their careers goodbye, but Mitchum did the time (60 days) and succeeded in enhancing his considerable rebel chic. Meanwhile in Mexico director Don Siegel shot scenes around Mitchum's stand-in; when, sentence served, he turned up, albeit drunk, he was in the best shape he'd been in for years.

Both Mitchum and film noir were at the height of critical fashion at the time of my all-night epiphany in the early 1980s. As I write now, the marketing campaign for Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's noir graphic-novel adaptation Sin City is reaching a frenzied climax and all sorts of other films have been given the Sin City treatment - CG'd into high-contrast noir expressionism - in a trailer for a season on Film Four. These campaigns have brought film noir back to mainstream attention, yet an audience primed to enjoy Rodriguez's grandstanding graphic violence, sick humour and technical excitement is likely to find classic noir's moral parameters too old school and its psychological complexity too strange.

The original noir films offer so much more than Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's grindhouse idea of cheap thrills writ large. Actor Michael Madsen may admire Mitchum (as a TCM 'Off Set' interview reveals) and bemoan the lack of good Mitchum-like roles for an actor like himself, but neither he nor Mickey Rourke (despite all the Method bashing he's received in the boxing ring) have yet made us believe they've shrugged off as much and can take a lot more standing up and looking terrific as Robert Mitchum does.

A selection of Mitchum's films are showing at London's NFT throughout July and August 2005, and on TCM as part of the 'Crime Wave' season.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012