Robert Mitchum was born in Connecticut one hundred years ago - August 6th 1917 - and had the kind of childhood that gives you plenty to talk about in interviews, although Mitchum rarely did. His father, a railroad worker, was crushed to death before his son's second birthday, and young Bob was eventually sent to live with his grandparents in Delaware. He was expelled from middle school for getting into a fight with the principal. Kicked out of high school, he drifted round the country, hopping freights, sleeping in boxcars, picking up a little dough digging ditches, getting jailed for vagrancy, working on chain-gangs... He found his way to Long Beach, where he ghost-wrote for an astrologer and composed songs for his sister's nightclub act. He was set upon by half-a-dozen sailors from the local base, and was on his way to whippin' all six of 'em when his wife stepped in to break it up because he was enjoying it too much. He got busted for pot, and he had a nervous breakdown that made him temporarily blind.
At which point he decided he was leading too stressful a life, and a little light work as a movie extra seemed comparatively relaxing...
The film that made him a star was as good as anything he did after he became one. Seventy years old this autumn, Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past is a first-rate film wrought from an okayish novel with the rather more lurid title Build My Gallows High. It opens in the town of Mitchum's birth - Bridgeport, but not Bridgeport, Connecticut, only a somewhat improbable Californian namesake in the Sierra Nevada, where, even more improbably, Robert Mitchum is leading the kind of small-town life he rarely enjoyed on or off screen. He has steady work, as the owner of the local gas station, and the love of a good woman, played by Virginia Huston. Everything's so peachy and apple-pie that when trouble shows up Mitchum and his gal are on a picnic by the lake. But out of the past the dark secrets of his life refuse to stay buried: He was hired to do a job for a mobster, and he didn't do it. His sometime employer now requires that he make good on his debt.
The irked racketeer is played by a young Kirk Douglas, who back in 1947 was almost absurdly chiseled and cleft. His first meeting with Mitchum at his swank penthouse is one of those scenes that, before CGI and superheroes, you'd show to a visiting space alien who wanted to know what the point of motion pictures was. Douglas, very pointedly (so to speak), even manages a short disquisition on the other man's acting style: ""You just sit and stay inside yourself," he tells Mitchum. "You wait for me to talk. I like that." The men of film noir are famously laconic, of course, but they nevertheless have energy - as, say, the two most famous Philip Marlowes, Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell, certainly do. Mitchum was different, his sparseness of speech communicating a more general economy. It became his habit, when offered a script, to go through it marking as many of his lines as he could with the acronym "NAR" - "No Action Required".
"Staying inside yourself" is as good a description as any for what Mitchum did in the half-century after Out of the Past. For surface-acting, he was content to leave it to his cigarette. In fact, my late colleague Roger Ebert liked to call Out of the Past the all-time great cigarette movie, thanks mainly to how Jacques Tourneur shot it, lighting the space into which the characters exhale so that the puffs of smoke shift and shimmy and expand and contract like an interior monologue expressed as an interpretative cloud-dance. The Douglas/Mitchum smoke-offs are especially choice.
There is a dame, of course: a femme who almost proved fatale. She shot at Douglas four times, but three missed: Someone says, "A dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle", and they all laugh. The mobster doesn't mind his squeezes firing at him, but he resents her scramming with forty grand of his, and he wants it back. Mitchum finds her in Acapulco: a broad-brimmed white hat with dark-haired Jane Greer underneath and even poutier than usual:
HER: You know, you're a curious man.
HIM: You're gonna make every guy you meet a little bit curious.
HER: That's not what I mean. You don't ask questions. You don't even ask me what my name is.
HIM: All right, what's your name?
HIM: I like it.
HER: Or where I come from?
HIM: I'm thinkin' about where we're going.
She doesn't care where they're going, as long as it's not back to Kirk Douglas. On the beach by moonlight they kiss, and she tells him she hates that guy, but she never took his dough. She leans in and looks into his baby blues: "Don't you believe me?"
And Mitchum delivers the most famous line of his career: "Baby, I don't care."
The scene is beautifully lit, dreamy and rhapsodic. But the players are hard and real: Baby, I don't care. How many editors and headline writers lifted that for their Robert Mitchum profiles over the years? It was a great line in a great movie. There were other great movies across the decades - Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear - but a lot more stinkers to the point where, by the Seventies, it was as if (in David Thomson's words) he had a fruit machine for an agent. He did something neither Humphrey Bogart nor Dick Powell managed: he got to play Philip Marlowe twice - but a quarter-century post-noir and under directors who had no idea how to handle the material. The Big Sleep, directed by Britain's Michael Winner, plays like a clever co-production deal for some arcane tax-break. Mitchum is laconic and sleepy-eyed, but he's now a shamus not in the mean streets of Los Angeles but in the leafy lanes of the English Home Counties, which isn't the same at all. There's Jimmy Stewart in a wheelchair, because someone talked him into agreeing to a couple of scenes as long as they were easy. There's Sarah Miles and Candy Clark as the dippy sisters who seem a bit low-wattage convincingly to pull Mitchum. There's Joan Collins, who, as is her wont, has the measure of the project. And, when they drag the Thames for Jimmy Stewart's Bentley, there's John Mills playing a London detective like an Indian Army colonel.
But baby, he don't care. Mitchum followed it with a risible but lucrative turn as Pug Henry in the Winds of War mini-series and its sequel - after which he didn't care about anything. Emphysema had reduced him to the sunken cheeks and frog eyes of his Loony Tunes caricature, and he retaliated against his own shrunken form by self-sabotaging his own appearances. The genial Robert Osborne was one of the best and most sensitive interviewers of movie stars, but baby, Mitchum didn't care. Chatty and amusing in the wings and commercial breaks, he clammed up once the cameras were rolling, offering only monosyllabic answers.
As for acting, what's the big deal? "Read the lines, kiss the girl, cash the check, and that's it." That wasn't it: He was virile and pliable, dangerous and curiously passive, and his moral ambiguity or at any rate moral inertia foreshadowed the more explicitly anti-social anti-heroes who would come later. On the other hand, he also made a couple of languorous calypso albums - and I don't believe you'd make a second one if you didn't, at some level, care. But Mitchum turned a screenwriter's line into a credo and then a curse: Baby, I don't care. When he died on July 1st 1997, he was careless enough to let Jimmy Stewart die on July 2nd, and thus the bigger, more beloved star consigned Mitchum to the "And also..." category in the news. They were two American archetypes, one boyish and earnest and determined to prove that It's a Wonderful Life, the other lazily shrugging that, well, it's a life, and the best you can expect from it (according to Shirley MacLaine's summation of the Mitchum philosophy) is that the roof doesn't leak. In Wonderful Life, Stewart played George Bailey, who wants to leave town and put his life behind him; in Out of the Past, Mitchum played Jeff Bailey, who did just that - and then finds his past pursues him and consumes his future.
Of that terrific cast, Kirk Douglas is still with us - a stroke-ridden centenarian who still turns out an inspiring self-helpish book once every couple of years. For a while, Douglas fancied himself a novelist, and was mocked for it by the crueler critics. But in the Eighties and Nineties Douglas had more to show for the second and third strings to his bow than Mitchum did for the first. What remains is that first stellar performance in Out of the Past - a noir film with all the trappings (cigarettes, trenchcoats) that transcends them to become the ne plus ultra of the genre, and a true masterpiece.
They remade it in the Eighties as Against All Odds, with Jeff Bridges and a Phil Collins theme song. Jane Greer agreed to the mother role. Robert Mitchum knew better.
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