Robert Mitchum

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Last update: 17/08/16

He was admired, even feared in some quarters, but he was never a beloved character. The day after Robert Mitchum succumbed to lung cancer, the actor James Stewart died, diverting all the press attention that was gearing up for him. So it had been for much of his career, a lack of respect for authority perhaps, and certainly an imposing physical presence, he was never good ‘ol Bob, not the sort of person to accord over familiarity with.

In 1958 he produced Thunder Road, writing the story and the anthemic rock ’n’ roll title song. For the high-speed saga of bootleg liquor-smuggling down South, Mitchum wanted no less than Elvis Presley to play his younger brother and so the pair met, Presley bringing along his ‘Memphis Mafia,’ Mitchum arriving with a bottle of scotch. “Here’s the fuckin’ script,” he said. “Let’s get together and do it.” Elvis replied that he couldn’t do the picture without manager Colonel Tom Parker’s permission. “Fuck the Colonel. I’m talking to you!” bellowed Mitchum.

On set, Mitchum was always the model professional, though his finest performances were perhaps reserved for those directors he held in the highest esteem. Once completed though, he would remain somewhat indifferent to the finished product. The film critic Roger Ebert, in his memoir ‘Life itself’, recalls observing Mitchum being asked how he would compare his work in the 1962 version of ‘Cape Fear’ with Robert De Niro’s performance in the same role in Martin Scorses’s 1991 remake.

‘I’ve never seen it’ came the reply.

‘The Scorses version?’

‘Neither one , as a matter of fact.’

Lee Server’s definitive biography, ‘Baby I Don’t Care,’ more than hints at the combustible elements to his character – booze and boredom especially – that could erupt suddenly into acts of violence. His biographer writes:

Colorado Springs, 7 November 1951. RKO studios star Robert Mitchum is enduring the final days of shooting dreary Korean War picture One Minute To Zero’. With hailstorms and snow delaying filming, he’s spending most nights in the Alamo Hotel’s Red Fox Lounge, picking up women along with his drinks. At 5,800 feet above sea level, Mitchum has joyfully discovered one drink has the power of two. So, he’s at the bar, chatting with a co-star and a lieutenant colonel, when Private Bernard Reynolds walks in. The colonel tells Reynolds to button his jacket. Reynolds tells the colonel to button his lip. Mitchum grabs Reynolds by the collar. Reynolds tries to hit him. Ducking the punch, Mitchum seizes the uppity soldier and slams his head against a table, before delivering a conclusive kick to the face. The fight made national headlines – mostly because the hospitalised Reynolds was, it turned out, a heavyweight boxer with 19 knockouts to his name and ranked 10th in the world. “It wasn’t the Marquess of Queensberry rules,” Mitchum admitted years later. “I brushed my foot across his head to say, ‘See, fucker! See what I could do to you?’ When you fuck with an ape, be ready to go the whole route.”

It makes for entertaining reading, and despite the obvious hyperbole that laces many a Hollywood biography, there’s more than enough unsettling aspects to Mitchum’s on screen persona, to suggest incidences like this were never understated in the press.

In his personal life, Bob was also a conundrum. He could drink like a fish, and he occasionally turned violent or unexpectedly and confusedly enraged when under the influence, yet he would walk on the sound stage the next day, no worse for the wear, as if newly refreshed from twelve hours of beauty sleep. He was a brilliant conversationalist and orator, but he had few friends and even fewer in the entertainment business. He was able to strike up camaraderies with guys like John Wayne or Frank Sinatra, but his most enduring friendships were with women of class, substance, and intelligence like Jane Russell and Deborah Kerr. He was very protective of women who were fragile, such as Marilyn Monroe or Rita Hayworth, whom he never approached in a romantic fashion but watched over like a brother.

Some of his co-stars simply bored him, because they were self-absorbed “bimbos,” but he worked well with and respected hard-working, down-to-earth girls who enjoyed his naughty, uncouth sense of humor— like Janet Leigh and Jane Greer, who both adored working with him. That’s not to say Bob always kept things platonic. Inheriting his father’s demons and probably suffering from the lack of a real father figure, Bob would engage in many an irresponsible affair, including one with Ava Gardner and a more infamous relationship with Shirley MacLaine, with whom he fell deeply in love during Two for the Seesaw.’ His long suffering wife Dorothy overlooked the indiscretions time and again, because she knew he would always come back to her with the same old excuse. Bob didn’t seek out these infidelities necessarily; mostly, he just found himself unable to resist when a temptation was so energetically placed before him. Shirley was the only woman who ever accidentally threatened Dorothy’s place as the only real woman in his life. Yet, as always, Bob came back; he and Dorothy remaining married until his death in 1997.

Why didn’t the couple divorce? Quite simply because neither of them wanted to. Mitchum’s essential problem was a pair of itchy feet. He was a born adventurer with a fear of monotony, traps, or snares – he’d had his share of them with multiple arrests in his life, including one in 1948 for possession of marijuana – and he would never stay anywhere for long. He was a loving father but an unemotional one. He was there when someone needed him, but he was mostly distant and lost in his own thoughts. One of the reasons he liked acting was the ability it gave him to travel; to get going before things went stale. What on earth could have motivated him to engage in matrimony with another woman? Precisely nothing, because he recognised his own demons, the temptations inherent within his chosen profession and his desire to maintain his family unit. Devoid of a prodigious sexual drive, Mitchum would have been content to smoke a joint with a woman, shoot pool with her, tell a few ribald jokes, and send her on her way. Back and forth, here and back, home and far and away, the native blood in him couldn’t stand still. The philosopher in him couldn’t sit idly nor ignorantly. His cross to bear was his need for more – more booze, more nicotine, more broads – and his own secret fear of rejection. Like millions, his own in-built theology resisted the temptation to open up fully or to be truly emotional, What he felt, what he carried within him, he carried alone, wandering, seeking, and solving all of life’s mysteries before his own life was over.

Extramarital affairs are no longer the main reason why couples do split, according to the accountancy firm Grant Thornton’s 2012 annual study of divorce in Britain. As millions of women discover, affairs do not make them stronger, on the contrary the experience is utterly debilitating. Still, by forgiving their husbands, a considerable amount of pain can be ultimately removed. They come to realise that their partner isn’t a horrible person who did a horrible thing, but a good person who did a stupid thing. It seems therefore, that ‘growing apart’ is now cited as the most common motivation.

Mitchum and his wife never grew apart. Dorothy had three children to raise, a charity to run, and an actor husband to accompany on location shoots around the world. She presumably didn’t relish a divorce – Robert was her first love – and she believed in putting the children first, loved her lifestyle, and wasn’t interested in anyone else.

What can traumatise women about infidelity is being the last to know; a form of social humiliation that can engender inner torture. Repetition is even more unpalatable, yet some choose to turn a blind eye. As many will admit: ‘I’ve intimated that as long as he’s discreet and doesn’t fall in love or get his girlfriend pregnant he can do what he likes. Frenchwomen do it, so why not me?’ There was little chance of Mitchum falling in love anyway. Ever the practical married man, he backed off from Ava Gardner when she admitted to double dating with Frank Sinatra. “I was crazy about him,” she said, yet when she told Mitchum that she was also seeing Sinatra, he ended things. “He said, ‘Get into a fight with him, and he won’t stop until one of you is dead,’ ” Gardner recalled years later,__ “He didn’t want to risk it being him.”

Mitchum’s cavalier attitude to life made him ideal fodder for ‘Confidential’ , the infamous US scandal magazine. As for the story about his ‘favourite friend’ and some ketchup, read the link and make your own mind up; I can’t be bothered to assist you, dear reader!
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Recommended viewing

The Night of the hunter (1955)

It was in no small measure to Charles Laughton’s original eye, and a taste for material that stretched the conventions of the movies, that his ‘once only directorial composite’ of risk and horror, would produce a cinematic experience like no other before or since.

Force fed a staple diet of widescreen technicoloured cinemascope epics, the American public and critics remained resolutely baffled by it, yet ‘The Night of the Hunter’ remains a truly compelling, haunting, and frightening classic masterpiece thriller-fantasy.

Enter the love and hate knuckled Robert Mitchum as the serial-killer bogus preacher Harry Powell, a menacing religious misogynist who marries widows for their money and kills them off in the name of the Lord. Jailed for stealing a car, he shares a cell with father-of-two Ben Harper, soon to be hanged for murder and the theft of $10,000. Before his arrest Harper hides the money in a rag doll belonging to his little daughter Pearl, making her and his 10-year-old son John swear never to tell where the money is hidden. Told from a child’s perspective, the plot hinges on Powell’s pursuit of the money, and young John’s determination to protect his sister and escape from a psychopath whom others assume to be virtuous. Hiding his past, Powell courts, and then marries Harper’s widow Willa (Shelley Winters). When she discovers his motives he murders her, and the children escape on a boat down the river. A tense chase ensues.

Laughton frequently hints at Powell’s paedophilia, as he playfully bounces Pearl on his knee to coax out her secrets. In light of several recent high profile child abuse cases, twenty first century viewers will remain distinctly uncomfortable with the movie’s undertones, and the overtly sugar-coated scene where the bogus preacher buys the lovestruck teenager Ruby some ice-cream, is gut wrenching in the extreme.

A uniquely unsettling experience, the movie will forever flirt with widespread public acceptance, without finding its rightful place in cinematic history. No matter, it remains a monochrome masterpiece, and Mitchum’s performance spellbindingly magnificent.

Cape Fear (1962)

Often compared unfavourably with its 1991 remake, this original psychological thriller is now ripe for critical re-evaluation.

Scorsese’s latter day version has a more contemporary feel; Sam Bowden’s distinct lack of business ethics, his daughter’s precocious demeanour, and her parents’ strained marriage—all these factors serve to dilute our empathy for the family. We may be revulsed by the modern day Cady’s appearance yet the fact remains that Bowden inhabits the same sewer. As a public defender representing the now ex-con fourteen years earlier in a statutory rape case, Bowden believed Cady to be guilty of a particularly vicious crime, and withheld information about the teenage victim’s “promiscuity.” After serving time, Cady now wants revenge. He finds a temporary ally in Bowden’s disbelieving daughter, as precocious and as worldly as any caring father could fear, whilst in the original, Lori Martin projects innocence in its loveliest and purest form, a stark reminder of a time when children remained children for that much longer.

What follows is a two hour rollercoaster ride as the family is terrorised by a seemingly indestructible madman who appears capable of surviving anything, including third degree burns. In the end I was almost routing for Cady, subconsciously willing the Bowdens to capitulate, Who knows, after forcing his nemesis to watch him in flagrante delicto with his wife and daughter, one suspects he might have spared their lives with an arched eyebrow, a playful wink, and a promise of more in the future!

Jessica Lange is mis-cast as Bowden’s wife; her screen persona, indelibly inked into the minds of millions of moviegoers after her table dalliance with bad boy Jack Nicholson in The Postman always rings twice,’ rather suggesting that she’d enjoy every moment with Cady, always providing of course, that her weak philandering husband was compelled to watch. By this stage of the proceedings, I was indifferent to how it might all end.

In the original though, we care about the Bowdens. Cady’s unjustified grievance assaults our sensibilities as this upstanding member of his community and loving husband and father, is compelled to take drastic action in the face of such unprecedented danger.

Mitchum contributes a tour de force performance; his lascivious gaze in the direction of Bowden’s daughter at the boating lake, his improvisional work with eggs during his interlude with Sam’s wife, his stealth like approach to murder, all these ingredients build genuine suspense throughoutb the proceeedings.

Through accident rather than design, I actually saw Martin Scorsese’s colourful remake before Mortimer’s monochrome spine tingler, and whilst I am a great admirer of the Italian-American’s work, my vote goes to the original. The director retains many of the scenes and ideas, including the poisoning of the family dog, the lawyer’s attempt to pay off his harasser, the assault on Cady by three heavies, and a deceptive airplane departure by Bowden in the hope that the ex-con will attack his presumably unprotected wife and daughter at the family’s houseboat, moored on the Cape Fear River, North Carolina. De Niro shows little promise as a drag artist, whilst still contriving to murder the Bowden’s private detective disguised as their housekeeper, a rather far fetched idea and ‘old hat’ to say the least, as any student of the Basil Rathbone-Sherlock Holmes series will testify. His ability to circumvent elaborate home security systems is never satifactorily explained.

In the original movie, Mitchum displayed no such ‘drag’proclivities, being content to sleepwalk through his preamble to harrassment, before ramping up the fear quotient. It’s a chilling exercise in understated malevolance, even the periodic adjustment of his trilby somewhat calculating and scene stealing. Executive producer and co-star Gregory Peck, was aware from the outset where the real meat lay in the film’s respective characterisations, and he was spot on. Despite the superb ensemble performance from all concerned, it remains Mitchum’s movie.

Ryan’s daughter (1970)

Initially reluctant to take the role, Mitchum broke with his tough guy persona to remind us all of his versatility. A rather awkward, middle aged man, he exudes kindness and compassion towards Rose, neither oblivious to her infidelity, nor prepared to do more than admonish her as the townsfolk turn against his young wife.

Recommended reading

Robert Mitchum on the Screen (Alvin H. Marill) 1978

Mitchum was nothing if not prodigious as an actor, and Marill provides an entertaining overview of his ninety five movies.

Hard to find – but not impossible – this is a detailed synopsis of a consummate, if somewhat reluctant actor. Diligent in his approach – he would proffer script re-writes at frequent intervals – Mitchum was always itching to break ranks in favour of some fishing or a game of pool with his pals. Eventually, as his reputation grew, he would be placated with additional money when shooting schedules became overlong.

This volume contains short summaries of each one of his films, and the stars who came out with him. The excellent coverage, including numerous photos of the star and his fellow cast members, is suitably fleshed out with a short biography on his life and family.


Robert Mitchum - The Offficial Website

Well,it’s coming soon – whatever that means, and when it’s here, it won’t have many comparable sites on the star to compete with.

Let’s hope it’s a good one……..