Robert Mitchum – the ‘soul of film noir’ would have been 100 today
The National, by Martin Hannan
Tomorrow is the centenary of the birth of one of the greatest of all Hollywood actors, Robert Mitchum, the man who was once described as the soul of film noir.
One of the biggest stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Mitchum’s onscreen presence in “heavy” roles made him one of the best of all film noir actors, up there with Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Edward G Robinson.
Disgracefully, he never won an acting Oscar, but then neither did Fred Astaire or Cary Grant, or Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland and Ava Gardner.
Mitchum was nominated only once, for his part in The Story of GI Joe in 1946. The actress nominated the most times without winning an Oscar was Scotland’s Deborah Kerr from Helensburgh – she had six nods without winning – and as we shall see, Mitchum and Kerr were great friends and colleagues in memorable movies.
DID HE NOT HAVE HUMBLE BEGINNINGS?
VERY much so. Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on 6 August, 1917, Mitchum was the son of James Thomas Mitchum, a railroad worker of Scots-Irish descent who was crushed to death in work accident before Robert’s second birthday.
His Norwegian-born mother Ann Harriet had to move the family – Mitchum had a sister Julie, an actress, and a brother John – to her father’s farm in Delaware, returning to Bridgeport to marry a British war veteran Major Hugh Morris that Mitchum once described as “full of shrapnel” due to his wounds.
Sent to live with his grandparents back in Delaware, Mitchum distinguished himself by picking a fight at school – with the Principal. He was just 12. Mitchum ended his formal education at 14, living at that time in New York from where he headed south and west.
He had spells as a miner and professional boxer, living as a hobo on the railroads and picking up a jail sentence for vagrancy in Savannah, Georgia.
He was originally charged with burglary but defended himself and won the case by showing that he was being held in jail on remand when the burglary took place. He was put on a chain gang but escaped after a week.
It would not be the last time that Mitchum would see the inside of a prison, infamously picking up a sentence for possession of marijuana in 1948.
He once described acting thus: “They pay me and I have to get up early in the morning to work for them, so it’s all the same to me. The only difference between me and other actors is that I’ve spent more time in jail than any of them.”
HOW GOOD AN ACTOR WAS HE?
AFTER making his way to California to live with his sister Julie, who took in the whole family, Mitchum began taking part in local drama productions and he wrote plays and a musical oratorio – he was a gifted musician and singer and wrote some chart hits later in life.
He got a job at the Lockheed aircraft factory but after a psychosomatic episode of blindness he quit to try his hand at acting.
By then he had married his childhood sweetheart Dorothy, and they would remain married for more than 56 years, despite his rumoured philanderings.
After a spell as a ghostwriter for an astrologer, Mitchum’s breakthrough came after he was spotted playing a villain in B-movie westerns. Director Mervyn LeRoy cast him in the war film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and he was then signed by RKO pictures on a seven-year contract. They loaned him to United Artists for The Story of GI Joe, and then Uncle Sam drafted Mitchum into the army. He was still in training at Fort MacArthur when the war ended and he was demobbed.
WAS HE REALLY THE LAST OF THE GREAT HELLRAISERS?
THE Oscar nomination in 1946 for The Story of GI Joe propelled Mitchum into the upper ranks of actors. Not even the marijuana conviction stopped his upward rise, and his lifelong nonconformity to the necessities of stardom endeared him to movie fans, while his meticulous professionalism earned him the respect of the moviemakers.
The hits just flowed: Crossfire, Build my Gallows High opposite Kirk Douglas, The Big Steal, and several other films noirs and westerns followed until 1955’s Blood Alley when his drinking saw him wreck a set and be thrown off the movie. He sobered up in time to play Night of the Hunter and Not As A Stranger, two contrasting performances that were huge hits and showed that Mitchum really could act.
Throughout the late 50s and 60s, Mitchum continued to show his range, including three films with Deborah Kerr of which the John Huston-directed Heaven Knows Mr Allison and The Sundowners won awards – but not that Oscar. In 1962 he gave a memorable performance as Max Cady in Cape Fear, a role played by Robert De Niro in the 1991 remake – most objective critics prefer Mitchum’s performance in the former, though Mitchum delighted in joining the cast of the remake as a detective.
The Longest Day, Anzio, El Dorado, and a quite brilliant performance in Ryan’s Daughter – he made Ireland his other home after filming there – presaged an important part of Mitchum’s career in which he almost single-handedly revived film noir with remakes of Farewell My Lovely and The Big Sleep.
He had his share of pub fights, losing one to a small Irishman in Dublin, and told interviewers outrageous statements to wind them up, before entering the elder statesman stage of his long career.
Latterly he starred in television’s miniseries The Winds of War, North and South, and War and Remembrance, and his distinctive voice made him a fortune from commercials; while he narrated the Wyatt Earp biopic film Tombstone.
A lifelong smoker, Mitchum died of lung cancer and emphysema in 1997 just short of his 80th birthday. He was mourned by millions as the actor who did it his way.