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26 June 2017

Robert Mitchum

At Il Cinema Ritrovato, Robert Mitchum (1917–1997) is the subject of the section Two Faces of Robert Mitchum. The American actor is one of the icons of Hollywood thanks to his roles as tough guys, loners and drifters in many War films, Westerns and such classic Film Noirs as Out of the Past (1947) and His Kind of Woman (1952). His facade of cool, sleepy-eyed indifference proved highly attractive to both men and women. Mitchum portrayed two of the scariest screen villains ever: the psychotic evangelist Reverend Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter (1955) and cruel rapist Max Cady in the original Cape Fear (1962). During his notable 55-year acting career, he appeared in more than 125 films.

Robert Mitchum
Belgian collectors card by Kwatta, Bois d'Haine, no. C 215. Photo: M.G.M. Publicity still for Desire Me (George Cukor, Jack Conway, 1947).

The Night of the Hunter
Italian programme card for Il Cinema Ritrovata 2003. Photo: publicity still for The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955).

A trouble-making, wayward boy


Robert Charles Durman Mitchum was born in 1917 in Bridgeport, Connecticut into a Methodist family. His parents were James Mitchum, a railroad worker of Irish descent, and Anne Mitchum, the daughter of a Norwegian ship captain. He had an elder sister, Annette (known as actress Julie Mitchum).

In 1919, James Mitchum was crushed to death in a railyard accident, when his son was less than two years old. Anne remarried to a former Royal Naval Reserve officer, Major Hugh Cunningham Morris. Robert grew up as a trouble-making, wayward boy and was sent to live with his grandparents when he was 12 years old. There he was expelled from his middle school for scuffling with a principal.

A year later, in 1930, he moved in with his older sister, in New York's Hell's Kitchen. After being expelled from Haaren High School, he left his sister and travelled throughout the country on railroad cars, taking a number of jobs including professional boxing. At age 14 in Savannah, Georgia, he was arrested for vagrancy and put on a local chain gang. By Mitchum's own account, he escaped and returned to his family in Delaware.

During this time, while recovering from injuries that nearly cost him a leg, he met the girl he would marry, Dorothy Spence. In 1936, he went back on the road, eventually riding the rails to California. In Long Beach, he worked as a ghost-writer for astrologer Carroll Righter.

His sister Julie convinced him to join the local theatre guild with her. In his years with the Players Guild of Long Beach, he made a living as a stagehand and occasional bit-player in company productions. He also wrote several short pieces which were performed by the guild. In 1940, he returned East to marry Dorothy Spence, taking her back to California. He remained a footloose character until the birth of their first child, James, nicknamed Josh (two more children followed, Chris and Petrine).

Mitchum then got a steady job as a machine operator with the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. A nervous breakdown (which resulted in temporary blindness), apparently from job-related stress, led Mitchum to look for work as an actor or extra in films. An agent got him an interview with the producer of the series of B-Westerns starring William Boyd as flawless good guy Hopalong Cassidy. Mitchum's broad build, deep voice and insolent expression made him a perfect villain in several films in the series during 1942 and 1943.

He found further work as an extra and supporting actor in numerous productions for various studios. After playing a heroic co-pilot in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (Mervyn LeRoy 1943), Mitchum signed a seven-year contract with RKO Radio Pictures. He found himself groomed for B-Western stardom in a series of Zane Grey adaptations.

Robert Mitchum
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. W 758. Photo: R.K.O. Radio.

Robert Mitchum
Italian postcard by Rotalfoto, Milano, no. 386.

Unique blend of strength, slow-burning sexuality and devil-may-care attitude


Following the moderately successful Western Nevada (Edward Killy, 1944), Robert Mitchum was lent from RKO to United Artists for The Story of G.I. Joe (William Wellman, 1945). In the film, he portrayed war-weary officer Bill Walker, who remains resolute despite the troubles he faces. The film, which followed the life of an ordinary soldier through the eyes of journalist Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith), became an instant critical and commercial success.

Shortly after making the film, Mitchum was drafted into the United States Army, serving at Fort MacArthur, California. At the 1946 Academy Awards, The Story of G.I. Joe was nominated for four Oscars, including Mitchum's only nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He finished the year off with the Western West of the Pecos (Edward Killy, 1945) and a story of returning Marine veterans, Till the End of Time (Edward Dmytryk, 1946).

The genre that came to define Mitchum's career and screen persona was Film Noir. His unique blend of strength, slow-burning sexuality and devil-may-care attitude helped to make him the personification of the Noir hero. His first foray into the genre was a supporting role opposite Kim Hunter in the B-movie When Strangers Marry (William Castle, 1944), as a woman's former lover who may or may not have killed her new husband.

Undercurrent (Vincente Minnelli, 1946) featured him playing against type as a troubled, sensitive man entangled in the affairs of his brother (Robert Taylor) and his brother's suspicious wife (Katharine Hepburn). The Locket (John Brahm, 1946) featured Mitchum as bitter ex-boyfriend to Laraine Day's femme fatale. Pursued (Raoul Walsh, 1947) combined Western and Noir styles, with Mitchum's character attempting to recall his past and find those responsible for killing his family.

Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk, 1947) featured Mitchum as a member of a group of soldiers, one of whom kills a Jewish man in an act of anti-Jewish hatred. It featured themes of anti-Semitism and the failings of military training. The film earned five Academy Award nominations.

Following Crossfire, Mitchum starred in Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947). Mitchum played Jeff Markham, a small-town gas-station owner and former investigator, whose unfinished business with gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) and femme fatale Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer), comes back to haunt him.

In 1948, after a string of successful films for RKO, Mitchum and actress Lila Leeds were arrested for possession of marijuana. The arrest was the result of a sting operation designed to capture other Hollywood partiers, as well, but Mitchum and Leeds did not receive the tip-off. After serving a week at the county jail, Mitchum spent 43 days at a Castaic, California, prison farm, with Life photographers right there taking photos of him mopping up in his prison uniform. The arrest became the inspiration for the exploitation film She Shoulda Said No! (Sam Newfield, 1949), which starred Leeds.

Mitchum claimed he was framed and in 1951 his case was overturned and his record cleared. However, the case enhanced his image as a rebel. The films released immediately after his arrest were box-office hits. The Western Rachel and the Stranger (Norman Foster, 1948) featured Mitchum in a supporting role as a mountain man competing for the hand of Loretta Young, the indentured servant and wife of William Holden, while he appeared in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's novella The Red Pony (Lewis Milestone, 1949) as a trusted cowhand to a ranching family. He returned to true Film Noir in The Big Steal (Don Siegel, 1949), where he again joined Jane Greer.

Robert Mitchum
Italian postcard by Edizioni Beatrice D'Este, no. 20240. Photo: Ernest Bachrach, 1948.

Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum in River of No Return  (1954)
Vintage postcard. Photo: publicity still for River of No Return (Otto Preminger, 1954) with Marilyn Monroe.

The words Love and Hate tattooed on his hands


Robert Mitchum played a doctor who comes between a mentally unbalanced Faith Domergue and cuckolded millionaire Claude Rains in Where Danger Lives (John Farrow, 1950). The Racket (John Cromwell, Nicholas Ray, 1951) was a Noir remake of the early crime drama of the same name and featured Mitchum as a police captain fighting corruption in his precinct.

The Josef von Sternberg film Macao (1952) had Mitchum as a victim of mistaken identity at an exotic resort casino, playing opposite Jane Russell. They co-starred again in the steamy crime comedy-drama His Kind of Woman (John Farrow, 1952). Craig Butler at AllMovie: “Mitchum, by the way, is perfectly cast here, using his laconic, interior style to very good effect. Even Jane Russell, attired in outfits that emphasize her cleavage at every opportunity, turns in a more than decent performance. Woman is weird but wonderful.”

Otto Preminger's Angel Face (1953) was the first of three collaborations between Mitchum and British actress Jean Simmons, in which she plays an insane heiress who plans to use young ambulance driver Mitchum to kill for her. Mitchum was expelled from Blood Alley (1955), purportedly due to his conduct, especially his reportedly having thrown the film's transportation manager into San Francisco Bay. Producer John Wayne took over the role himself.

Following the Marilyn Monroe Western River of No Return (Otto Preminger, 1954), he appeared in Charles Laughton's only film as director, The Night of the Hunter (1955). Adapted by James Agee from a novel by Davis Grubb, the thriller starred Mitchum as a terrifying killer who had the words Love and Hate tattooed on his hands and who poses as a preacher to find money hidden in his cellmate's home. Hal Erickson at AllMovie: “Combining stark realism with Germanic expressionism, the movie is a brilliant good-and-evil parable, with ‘good’ represented by a couple of farm kids and a pious old lady, and ‘evil’ literally in the hands of a posturing psychopath.” Mitchum’s performance as Reverend Harry Powell is considered by many to be one of the best of his career.

Stanley Kramer's melodrama Not as a Stranger (1955), was a box-office hit. The film starred Mitchum against type, as an idealistic young doctor, who marries an older nurse (Olivia de Havilland), only to question his morality many years later. However, the film was not well received, with most critics pointing out that Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, and Lee Marvin were all too old for their characters. Olivia de Havilland received top billing over Mitchum and Sinatra.

In 1955 Mitchum formed DRM (Dorothy and Robert Mitchum) Productions to produce five films for United Artists though only four films were produced. The first film was Bandido (Richard Fleischer, 1956). Following a succession of average Westerns and the poorly received Foreign Intrigue (Sheldon Reynolds, 1956), Mitchum starred in the first of three films with Deborah Kerr. The war drama Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (John Huston, 1957), starred Mitchum as a Marine corporal shipwrecked on a Pacific Island with a nun, Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr), being his sole companion. In this character-study, they struggle to resist the elements and the invading Japanese army. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. For his role, Mitchum was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actor.

In the WW II submarine classic The Enemy Below (Dick Powell, 1957), Mitchum gave a strong performance as U.S. Naval Lieutenant Commander Murrell, the captain of a U.S. Navy destroyer. He matches wits with a German U-boat captain Curd Jürgens, who starred with Mitchum again in The Longest Day (Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, 1962).

Thunder Road (Arthur Ripley, 1958), the second DRM Production, was loosely based on an incident in which a driver transporting moonshine was said to have fatally crashed on Kingston Pike in Knoxville, Tennessee. Mitchum not only starred in the film, but also produced it, co-wrote the screenplay, and allegedly directed much of the film himself. He returned to Mexico for The Wonderful Country (Robert Parrish, 1959) and Ireland for A Terrible Beauty/The Night Fighters (Tay Garnett, 1960) for the last of his DRM Productions.

Robert Mitchum
Italian postcard by Rotalfoto, Milano, no. N. 68.

Robert Mitchum
German postcard by Netter's Starverlag, Berlin. Photo: RKO Radio Film.


Menacingly vengeful rapist


Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr reunited for The Sundowners (Fred Zinnemann, 1960), where they played husband and wife struggling in Depression-era Australia. Opposite Mitchum, Kerr was nominated for yet another Academy Award for Best Actress, while the film was nominated for a total of five Oscars. Robert Mitchum was awarded that year's National Board of Review award for Best Actor for his performance. The award also recognised his superior performance in the Western drama Home from the Hill (Vincente Minnelli, 1960).

He was teamed with former leading ladies Kerr and Simmons, as well as Cary Grant, for the comedy The Grass Is Greener (Stanley Donen, 1960). Mitchum's performance as the menacingly vengeful rapist Max Cady who terrorises lawyer Gregory Peck and his family in Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962) brought him even more attention and furthered his renown for playing cool, predatory characters.

The 1960s were marked by a number of lesser films and missed opportunities. Among the films Mitchum passed on during the decade were John Huston's The Misfits (1961), the Academy Award–winning Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970), and Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971).

The most notable of his films in the decade included the war epics The Longest Day (Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, 1962) and Anzio (Edward Dmytryk, 1968), the Shirley MacLaine comedy-musical What a Way to Go! (J. Lee Thompson, 1964), and the Western El Dorado (Howard Hawks, 1967), a remake of Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959), in which Mitchum took over Dean Martin's role of a drunken sheriff who helps John Wayne defend a town against unscrupulous cattlemen. He then teamed with Martin for the Western 5 Card Stud (Henry Hathaway, 1968), playing a homicidal preacher.

One of the lesser-known aspects of Mitchum's career was his forays into music, both as singer and composer. Mitchum's deep, commanding, yet lively voice was often used instead of that of a professional singer when his character sang in his films. After hearing traditional calypso music and meeting artists such as Mighty Sparrow and Lord Invader while filming Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison in the Caribbean islands of Tobago, he recorded Calypso — is like so ... in March 1957. A year later, he recorded a song he had written for Thunder Road, titled The Ballad of Thunder Road. The country-style song became a modest hit.

Although Mitchum continued to use his singing voice in his film work, he waited until 1967 to record his follow-up record, That Man, Robert Mitchum, Sings. Little Old Wine Drinker Me, the first single, was a top-10 hit at country radio, and crossed over onto mainstream radio, where it peaked at number 96. Its follow-up, You Deserve Each Other, also charted on the Billboard Country Singles chart. He also sang the title song to the Western Young Billy Young (Burt Kennedy, 1969).

Robert Mitchum and Carroll Baker in Mister Moses (1965)
Italian postcard. Photo: DEAR Film. Publicity still for Mister Moses (Ronald Neame, 1965) with Carroll Baker.

Robert Mitchum
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. FK 4568. Photo: Terb-Agency.

A low-rent Boston crook on the wrong end of the mob's attentions


Robert Mitchum seriously considered retiring from acting in 1968 due to concerns over the quality of his recent films. After a year's absence, during which he spent much of the time driving around America visiting old friends and staying in motels, he was lured back to star in Ryan's Daughter (David Lean, 1970). He made a departure from his typical screen persona with his role as Charles Shaughnessy, a mild-mannered schoolmaster in World War I-era Ireland. Though the film was nominated for four Academy Awards (winning two) and Mitchum was much publicised as a contender for a Best Actor nomination, he was not nominated. George C. Scott won the award for his performance in Patton.

The 1970s featured Mitchum in several well-received crime dramas. He was a low-rent Boston crook who finds himself on the wrong end of the mob's attentions in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, 1973). He played a retired detective sent to Japan to rescue a client's daughter from gangsters in The Yakuza (Sydney Pollack, 1974), which transplanted the typical Film Noir story arc to the Japanese underworld.

He also appeared in Midway (Jack Smight, 1976) about an epic 1942 World War II battle, and opposite Robert De Niro in The Last Tycoon (Elia Kazan, 1976). Mitchum's stint as Raymond Chandler's noble private eye Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely (Dick Richards, 1975) was sufficiently well received by audiences and critics for him to reprise the role in The Big Sleep (Michael Winner, 1978).

His last interesting role in this late-career revival came with the film version of Jason Miller's play That Championship Season (Jason Miller, 1982), with Mitchum as the coach of a quartet of former high school basketball teammates who struggle to adjust to middle age and maturity.

He expanded to TV work with the big-budget miniseries The Winds of War (Dan Curtis, 1983) as navy man Victor ‘Pug’ Henry, whose family is deeply involved in the events leading up to America's involvement in the war. He also played George Hazard's father-in-law on the Civil War miniseries North and South (Richard T. Heffron, 1985). He followed it with the sequel War and Remembrance (Dan Curtis, 1988).

Mitchum replaced old friend John Huston in his son Danny's largely ignored comedy Mr. North (Danny Huston, 1988). He also was in Bill Murray's comedy film, Scrooged (Richard Donner, 1988). In 1991, Mitchum was given a lifetime achievement award from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures and the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Golden Globe Awards in 1992.

Mitchum continued to act in films until the mid-1990s. He appeared, in contrast to his role as the antagonist in the original, as a protagonist police detective in Martin Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear (1991). He also gave a lively performance as a robber baron of sorts who drives Johnny Depp's character into the wilderness in Jim Jarmusch's eccentric Western, Dead Man (1995). His last film appearance was a small but pivotal role in the television biopic, James Dean: Race with Destiny (Mardi Rustam, 1997), playing Giant director George Stevens opposite Casper Van Dien as James Dean. His last starring role was in the Norwegian film Pakten/Waiting for Sunset (Leidulv Risan, 1995) with Cliff Robertson and Erland Josephson.

A lifelong heavy smoker, Mitchum died in 1997, in Santa Barbara, California, due to complications of lung cancer and emphysema. Mitchum was 79. He was survived by his wife of 57 years, Dorothy Mitchum and actor sons, James Mitchum, Christopher Mitchum, and writer-daughter, Petrine Day Mitchum. His grandchildren, Bentley Mitchum and Carrie Mitchum, are actors, as was his younger brother, John, who died in 2001. His ashes were scattered by wife Dorothy and longtime friend Jane Russell.


Trailer The Big Steal (1949). Source: Movieclips Trailer Vault (YouTube).


Trailer The Night of the Hunter (1955). Source: Movieclips Trailer Vault (YouTube).


Trailer Cape Fear (1962). Source: Movieclips Trailer Vault (YouTube).


Trailer Farewell, My Lovely (1975). Source: robatsea2009 (YouTube).

Sources: Sandra Brennan (AllMovie), Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Craig Butler (AllMovie), Jim Beaver (IMDb), William Bjornstad (Find A Grave), The New York Times, TCM, Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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