by Harlan Kennedy


The chest-first, somnambulist’s walk; the eyelids that drift down like security shutters; the bass voice as voluptuous as a whisky these many years later. It’s the morning after the night before – or is it still the night before? – and I’m with Robert Mitchum in a seaside saloon. Outside, the rattle of California palm trees wrestles with the smack-thud-hiss of long Pacific waves breaking fifty feet away.

Hail the conquering antihero. If Hollywood’s greatest exponent of idle evil hadn’t existed, the Devil would have had to invent him. Indeed we all know He did invent him. In the mid to late Forties the world’s moviegoers, battered by war and disillusioned by the difficulties of picking up the peace, spurned the kiddywink inspirationalism of Good Guys versus Bad and turned to heroes and villains in deglamorized gray. Out went what Mitchum today calls the “flashy-waitressy guys,” the pinups like Tyrone Power. In came the Bogarts and Garfields, the existential misfit-heroes. And Mitchum was Hell’s appointee to the club. No twirling of mustaches, no breathing of brimstone. On screen he was smooth, drawling, nonchalant. As if born on the wrong side of the morality tracks – the 1947 marijuana bust the actor claims was a setup still lent him a lifetime’s supply of notoriety – the Mitchum persona specialized in lofty carelessness. Well-written roles he played with easy relish. Badly written roles he didn’t so much play as suffer. He sent his voice and body in to bat while his ego lolled sardonically on the team bench. Whatever the day’s fixture, he could win it by remote control. Out on the field God’s team of worthy triers would break sweat and achieve next to nothing.

Off screen Mitchum is just as nonchalant, but funny with it. In fact, I wonder if this garrulous Irish-American charmer with the silver-gray hair and blazer is the same bloke at all. After a few station-identification monosyllables, Mitchum can talk the cherries out of your Manhattan. But then again, it’s not Mitchum half the time at all. The Devil gives the gift of disguises and this man is the best mimic since Wagner’s Alberich. Within ten minutes I’ve had free samples of Honest Joe Stern returning from Europe with his newly acquired “Von” and “berg”; Otto Preminger doing his obersturmfuhrer routine on Angel Face (“Don’t you raise your foice to me!”); David Lean being uppercrust and longsuffering on Ryan’s Daughter; and Michael Winner gurgling multidecibel disdain as his cigar sets fire to a Bentley on the set of The Big Sleep.

The Big Sleep: serious contender for the title of Mitchum’s memoirs. Especially since the actor got into movies almost literally with his eyes shut. A factory hand at Lockheed in the early Forties, he was working the graveyard shift and getting four hours’ sleep a week when he went temporarily blind. “I went to a doctor,” he recalls, “and he said, ‘There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you.’ I said, ‘You don’t go blind if there’s nothing wrong with you!’ He said, ‘Well, you know when you wake up that you’ve got to go to work, and you hate the job, you’ve got that figured out, so you simply don’t sleep. I said, ‘What do I do?’ And he said, ‘Quit’ I said, ‘I’ll starve to death!’ He said, ‘Things’ll come to a pretty pass when a big clown like you has to walk out on the streets and starve to death. It’s your choice. Blow the job or blow your mind.’ ”

So Mitchum blew off to Hollywood where he was soon appearing in “about a million Hopalong Cassidy movies.” It was good early training in hysterical turnaround. “On the Hoppies we’d do two pictures in 21 days: five days in the studio on the first picture, then out to do the location shooting for both, then back to the studio [to finish] the second film:”

He landed supporting parts in a few war movies (Corvette K-225, Gung Ho!, 30 Seconds over Tokyo) and the home-front classic The Human Comedy, and an ambiguous lead in William Castle’s A+ B-movie When Strangers Marry (aka Betrayed). Thus it was that when RKO started looking for a new contract player – “They wanted a journeyman actor” – Mitchum was a contender. All the secretaries had been canvassed about who they’d seen looking male and interesting on the movie screen. Finally, Mitchum got the nod, and a ten-year contract.

Mitchum, who turns self-deprecation into a PR campaign, says he knows what the studio wanted him for: “Dore Schary said to me, ‘You know, Bob, every time we make a deal with Cary Grant or someone, he brings along a script. He sells it to us as part of the package. It’s really horse manure. Every studio has its manure salesman, you know; Paramount has Alan Ladd, Warners has Bogart. They can make something out of nothing. Well, we’ve got to advertise all this stuff, Bob, so you’re our horseshit salesman. I figured that’s fair enough. They pay me, I do it.”

In the early Fifties he made two films, back to back, with Otto Preminger: the Godard-beloved film noir Angel Face (‘53) and the CinemaScope (North)western River of No Return (‘54). On the second of these he met an opposite number no less formidable than the Teutonic director, and much more bewildering. Occasionally they clinched in the film, but mostly Marilyn Monroe stood at one end of the newly widened screen and Mitchum stood at the other, a grizzly bear with a sense of humor and a saintly patience. He needed both.

The two stars spent much of the movie dashing in and out of torrents. He found her one day on the riverbank, mouthing a chant as she pondered her next plunge. “She had to walk out into the river and cut the rope on the raft. This is an icy river, comes out of the Columbia glacier, and there are these dangerous slippery stones at the bottom. And Marilyn was standing there murmuring, ‘It is the panic of considered flight, it is the panic of. ...’And I said, ‘Wha-a-?’ She said, ‘It is the panic of ....’ I said, ‘I don’t know about that, but if you run out into that river you’re gonna break a leg: She didn’t believe me. Scene came; Otto called action; camera rolled; she ran into the river and broke her leg.”

Life wasn’t easy. While Marilyn’s infamous drama coach Natasha Lytess was on hand playing show business’s answer to Mrs. Danvers – “People said she should have been photographed holding an emaciated child behind a barbed-wire fence” – the star was a second-Mrs.-DeWinter shyly shocked by the grownup world around her. “I remember one time Big Tim, my stand-in, said to her, ‘Hey, blondie, how about a round robin this afternoon?’ She said [whispery-coy Monroe voice], ‘What’s that?’ ‘What about me and my friend here giving you a little boff?’ She said, ‘What, both at the same time?’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Why’, she said, ‘why, that would kill me’. He said, ‘Well, I never heard of anyone dying from it yet. She said, ‘Oh but I bet they do. Only, they don’t call it that, they call it [pause for wide-eyed Monroe look] natural causes.”

Mitchum and Monroe were perfect movie partners; he was the bull, she was the china shop. Throughout his career Mitchum was best when menacing innocence or human fragility, most memorably in movies like The Night of the Hunter or the original Cape Fear. When cast as Mr. Leading Man, his acting went into autodrive. Even in his best early film, Out of the Past (‘47), he seems underemployed, a human wall for the film noir shadows while Kirk Douglas gets to chew the scenery. In bad movies his heavy-lidded coma victim’s face could be a mirror for the audience’s own narcolepsy.

Put Mitchum on the rampage, though, and his wicked grace is matchless. His own favorite is still The Night of the Hunter (‘55). He wanted to push his child-menacing Southern preacher further towards psychotic evil, but director Charles Laughton said no. “He wanted a fairy-tale approach. He didn’t want women and children stepping out of my way as I came down the street.” So the film developed its playful fabulist tone, all the way to the owls and frogs in the foreground and the barn’s-eye-view of the silhouetted preacher singing “Leaning” as he rides across a sound-stage skyline. (This was achieved, Mitchum revealed, by using a midget actor atop a miniature horse.)

Laughton, claims Mitchum, not only wrote the movie himself, revising and refining the “18-pound” original script by the credited James Agee; he also composed every camera angle and hand-picked the cast. When Mitchum murmured doubts about the stamina of the 60-year-old Lillian Gish, Laughton showed him the shot-for-real ice floe scenes from 1920’s Way Down East. The only casting quarrel Mitchum still thinks well-founded was the choice of Shelley Winters as the mother of the terrorized children. “I wanted to shoot the picture there in West Virginia and Shelley is, you know, anything but a West Virginia smalltown farm girl. I said, ‘Why Shelley Winters?’ They said, ‘We can get her for 25,000: I said, ‘Oh well, by all means. ”

In Cape Fearthe J. Lee Thompson model (‘62), not the Scorsese (‘91) – Mitchum was still in demonic form. Everything physical about this character was lopsided – the Panama hat, the grin, the slouching stance-but the torch of evil inside him burned straight and bright. Yet the star claims he “didn’t want to play Max Cady”:

“I couldn’t suggest anyone else. I thought of [Jack] Palance, but you’d be over the top before you started; Anthony Quinn, but he was into waving his arms about. So I said yes:” Only, he adds, after Gregory Peck had bribed him with a case of Jack Daniel’s. Once filming started, Mitchum realized that Cady was “a beautifully designed nasty piece of work. In the original you never knew that he was guilty of anything. You knew he’d been in jail, but you knew the lawyer had set him up. You don’t know that he poisoned the dog, and he only frightened the child.”

He was nasty with Polly Bergen, though? “Even that wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t thought of the egg – crushing it and smearing it on her bosom.” Ah yes. “But that scene was effective because Polly was fighting so much. We had to do it about three times to get the action right – you know, I had to open the hatchway at the same time as grabbing her – and finally we got it right and she collapsed against the bulkhead. After the director had said Cut, I said to her, ‘I’m sorry we had to do it three times. I hope I didn’t hurt you. She dug her fingernails into me and said, ‘I dig that!’ I thought, Now she tells me. This was her last day.”

And Cape Fear, made at the start of the Sixties, was Mitchum’s last knockout role. At the end of the decade, signaling a newer, mellower self, he hired out to David Lean as a gentle Irish schoolmaster in Ryan’s Daughter (‘70). Expectation: rural location idyll in the Dingle Peninsula. Actuality: escalating exasperation as everything that could go wrong on the movie did. Most famously, the weather, but also the casting.

What do you do on a Midas-budget project when the male romantic lead, playing a British officer, can’t make a feint at a British accent? Says Mitchum of the ill-starred Christopher Jones, “How he got the role is, they were casting in London and running one movie after another. They finally got to a picture called The Looking Glass War in which Christopher played a Polish defector using an impeccable British accent with a Polish inflection. And Lean said [uppercrust London accent], ‘What nationality is that young man?’ ‘American.’ ‘R-e-ally?’ And of course the agent jumped in saying he was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

“Well, later I found out he was dubbed by a guy called Tony Walbrook. ‘We couldn’t get a squeak out of him, one of the Ryan’s Daughter crew told me who’d worked on [Looking Glass War], ‘let alone a full bloody sentence!’ ‘Look, I said, ‘we’re working with a genius here-shouldn’t David know about this?’ I told Robert [Bolt, the screenwriter] and Sarah [Miles, the costar] that day. Robert nearly messed his pants. Sarah was furious. Who was gonna tell David? I said I wasn’t going to.

“Anyway, day came when Jones was to speak his first line. And we had a crane we’d hauled all over Ireland, not a prayer of using it till today when Christopher Jones would speak. And they tried to crank the crane and it crapped out right there in the middle of the street. And David raised his eyes and said, ‘Okay, get the hand dolly: And they cranked it up and finally got to Chris Jones, who says, Ah cain’t tawk like that, Ah ain’t that kahnd of a actor. He spoke no known tongue.

“And that was lunch. And I saw David, holding his cigarette the way he does, standing by the edge of the cliff staring out to sea. And I said, ‘I adore you when you’re angry!’”

Jones was finally dubbed for the role by, yes, Tony Walbrook.

As if buffeted long enough by the follies of filmdom, Mitchum eased into cameo roles by the mid Seventies, interspersed with the odd full-length walk-through like Farewell My Lovely or The Big Sleep. Everyone told him he was born to play Philip Marlowe, but Mitchum insists he was born to have an easy life and avoid excessive strain, especially after the early years of doing his own stunt work.

He turned down two roles in Midway that would have required actorly mobility and far-off locations, choosing instead one day on his back in Florida as a bedridden admiral. He turns away any thought of getting behind a camera to direct: “You gotta get there before everyone else in the morning and then stay on at night to see the rushes. Uh-uh [shake of the head].” And he has no regrets about passing the role of Patton to George C. Scott, even though Mitchum himself venerates the World War II general:

“He was a really fabulous character. During combat in Europe he’d say, ‘Right over there is where So-and-So fell’ and they’d dig up the ground and, by God, it was true. He had all these memories of battles; he was a phenomenon.

“And Scott was not an admirer of Patton – in fact, he hated him. But he argued for the character whenever they wanted to turn the film into an artillery parade. One time they were shooting down in Almeria in Spain, not really God’s country, and Scott cranked up the tank and just mowed down all the tents.”

Not the kind of stunt Mitchum would pull, one feels, however much he was pulling for a role and its integrity. But then to be this actor is to have the world in proportion. If Hitchcock hadn’t said it first to Ingrid Bergman, the line would have to be attributed to Mitchum: “It’s only a movie.” Cue ruminative gaze, final Manhattan cocktail, and philosophical wrap-up from the star with the half-closed eyes and the most open mind in Hollywood.

“There are all these drama schools in various degrees of hierarchical majesty. Anybody as long as they can speak – even if they can’t – can get into a drama school. And they will ‘teach’ you to act. Now if you go to Juilliard to study music, if you don’t have an ear you can’t make it. If you’re not a natural musician, they won’t let you in. So there’s no mystery about acting. But you’ve got to have the basics. It’s a matter of timing, talent, mimicry. Some pictures you get to use all these to the full. Others, the best you can do is speak the lines believably. I’ve been accused of ‘coasting’ through movies. But there are some parts you cannot do anything else. There is literally nothing to do but to be there.”







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.