Palmer's Pix: Mitchum's Movies
Four Sundays spread over two months, Jim Palmer presents insights and analysis of great movies, this time focusing on an American icon.
Tough, cool, romantic Robert Mitchum (1917-1997) Hollywood rebel and bad boy (he got caught smoking weed), made acting look easy, walking with a sleepy-eyed nonchalance through his many starring roles. When asked about his acting career, he said “It beats working.” In truth, he was a consummate professional who knew his craft and won the admiration of many great directors and fellow actors. Palmer’s Pix foregrounds four of Mitchum’s best roles from 1947-1967 where he displays his considerable range as a bad guy, fall guy, honorable Marine, and drunken sheriff.
Night of the Hunter (Director: Charles Laughton, 1955, 91 minutes)
This fable, nightmare, fairy tale is truly a unique, one-of-a-kind film, and the only film the great Charles Laughton ever directed. Its terrors are wickedly dark, just as its lyricism is poetic, starlit, and redemptive. The plot involves a satanic, greedy preacher (Mitchum in his favorite role), a lonely widow (Shelley Winters), and two spunky children who know where the money is hidden. The horror, beauty, and comedy of the film are captured in the unlikely conflict between the preacher and the Mother Goose protector of lost children (the great Lillian Gish, whose fragile and steely performances earned her the nickname the “iron butterfly”). A classic American-Gothic masterpiece.
Out of the Past (Director: JacquesTourneur, 1947, 96 minutes)
Considered by many critics as the best, most quintessential film noir—for competition think of Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946)—this film features an alluring femme fatale (Jane Greer) and a tough, fatalistic private eye (Mitchum) and the big boss (Kirk Douglas). All the hallmarks of noir are present: a flashback structure; a complicated plot; dark city streets and exotic settings; steamy, subtle eroticism; stunning black and white cinematography; and deaths and double-crosses galore. In this perfectly titled film, the Mitchum character, trying to go straight, is pulled back to his dark and dire past. The late Robert Osborne’s favorite film noir, for good reason.
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (Director: John Huston, 1957, 107 minutes)
If Huston’s The African Queen got more Academy Award nominations (four, with Bogart winning Best Actor), Heaven Knows, made just six years later, is a worthy companion piece, nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Script and Deborah Kerr as Best Actress. Both films throw seemingly incompatible couples together in survival/romance stories set in the closing months of WWII. Mitchum is superb as a leading-man marine who “cares for” (in every sense of the phrase) Sister Angela, Deborah Kerr’s devoted nun, as they negotiate their complex feelings and fixed roles marooned on a Japanese-occupied Pacific island. You will, I think, agree with Huston himself, who said Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison “was one of the best things I ever made.”
El Dorado (Director: Howard Hawks, 1967, 126 minutes)
Howard Hawks, masterful director in nearly every Hollywood genre, made three terrific Westerns—Red River (1948), Rio Bravo (1959), and El Dorado. Perhaps you are among the cinephiles that don’t like Westerns, but this one has much to recommend it. The ensemble cast includes two iconic actors, Robert Mitchum as a drunk sheriff and his long-time chum, John Wayne as they partner to take on the evil Bart Jason (Ed Asner). The young James Caan as “Mississippi,” a gambler and novice cowboy who can’t shoot, completes this trio of good guys. There a showdowns, comedic scenes, and poignant moments of the pain and ageing of our two iconic actors quelling a range war.