Everyone notices the eyes first, languid, those of a somnambulist. Robert Mitchum, calm and observant, is a presence that, through passivity, enamors a viewer. His face is as effulgent as moonlight. The man smolders, with that boozy, baritone voice, seductive and soporific, a cigarette perched between wispy lips below which is a chin cleft like a geological fault. He’s slithery with innuendo. There’s an effortless allure to it all, a mix of malaise and braggadocio, a cocksure machismo and a hint of fragility. He’s ever-cool, a paradox, “radiating heat without warmth,” as Richard Brody said. A poet, a prodigious lover and drinker, a bad boy; his penchant for marijuana landed him in jail, and in the photographs from his two-month stay he looks like a natural fit. He sits, wrapped in denim, legs spread wide, hair shiny and slick, holding a cup of coffee. His mouth is carved into a vague expression of resignation. He had just finished shooting an RKO cheapie, Rachel and the Stranger (1948), rushed into theaters to capitalize on the tabloid headlines. It was their biggest success of the year.
“His curious languor,” wrote James Agee, “suggests Bing Crosby supersaturated on barbiturates.” Agee, of course, would later write the screenplay for Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), the film in which Mitchum is, notably, at his least languid.
Mitchum, whose centenary is being celebrated by the Film Society of Lincoln Center with a 24-film retrospective as part of the 55th New York Film Festival, was one of the 20th century’s ineffable cinematic presences, and one of its most notorious off-screen personalities. In him one feels the emanations of myth. Throughout his 55-year career, Mitchum appeared in over 110 films. From 1942 to 1944 he appeared in at least 21 films, uncredited in most of them. His ascendancy to stardom was sudden. In ’42 he landed a role as a background cowboy after smooth-talking his way on set. In ’44 he played the lead in When Strangers Marry, directed by William Castle, known for his spooky B-movies and gimmickry. A year later, he starred in William A. Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe, for which he earned his first, and only, Oscar nomination. He was 28 years old.
From his earliest roles—anonymous gunners, unnamed cowboys, a scorched and mangled soldier uttering “I’m alright” before dying in a woman’s arms—Mitchum possesses an ineradicable but understated presence. Like John Wayne, with whom he was compared (to his vexation), Mitchum captures a viewer’s attention just by being in the frame. As barflies, gadflies, gumshoes, or has-beens, he steals scenes doing almost nothing. His plaintive acting was, and still is, in stark contrast to the fulsome style that draws attention and hyperbole. Mitchum himself lauded Robert Ryan, who plays an amoral soldier, with bravado and bombast, in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947), for going all-out as a seething, animalistic villain. He respected Ryan’s refusal to compromise in his furious performance. (Mitchum would similarly let loose and embrace the melodrama of villainy some years later.) Contemporaneous critics sometimes lambasted him for doing nothing, for sleepwalking through roles. His laodicean attitude towards interviews, which he loathed, didn’t help; he would say of his vocation, “It beats working for a living.”
Swagger and moxie are palpable when he saunters on screen. He has a torpid kind of aplomb. His best performances are stoical and placid, his face as cool as Hemingway's iceberg. Mitchum, an emissary of lost and reproachful beauty, eschews the volatility of James Cagney, the romantic indignation of Bogart, the pitiable gullibility that made Edward G. Robinson noir’s great patsy. In Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), the film that certified his stardom, his indelible melancholy feels less like the product of a cruel and unfair world than of his own willing self-destruction. As Jeff Bailey, née Jeff Markham, a good detective with lousy taste in women, Mitchum exudes a crestfallen obstinacy. He takes a gig working for a mendacious businessman named Whit (Kirk Douglas, also in possession of a magnificent chin), who has Jeff tail his former squeeze, Kathie Moffitt (Jane Greer). She put a few bullets in Whit’s gut and made off with $40,000, and he wants her—and the money—back. Jeff and Kathie meet in an Acapulco bar, where Jeff is drinking beer and polishing the gestures of contempt. From a sea of white light she enters, carrying with her an inveigling air. She's an irresistible Circe, sultry and louche, and she’ll be the death of him. Even after she betrays him, sets him up and leaves him for dead, Jeff can’t quit her. It’s love as self-harm. Jeff perpetuates his own vicious cycle. The tragedy of the film is watching him do it, feeling as if you're watching a friend drive their car towards a tree. It’s not just what Mitchum does with the role, tapping into the desperation and self-loathing that skulks deep down in the heart of noir, but what he doesn’t do. He delivers the line “Baby, I don't care” without indulgence or relish, doesn't chew it over the way you’d expect with a line so juicy it later served as the title of his definitive biography. He really sounds like he doesn't care.
As his celebrity rose, Mitchum established himself as Hollywood’s first dreamy Bad Boy, a man whose life reflected the melodramatic endeavors of his films. During the first week of Out of the Past’s production, a four-seat plane, in the front of which sat Mitchum, suffered break failure during landing and crashed into an outhouse. Mitchum, unflapped, climbed out of the crumpled wreckage, dusted himself off, and hitched a ride into town. The other passengers were knocked unconscious. Some weeks later, the hard-drinking actor tore into Virginia Huston’s room, shirtless and irate, and caused $135 of damage to the walls with his fist. Huston found it exciting.
“From hobo to Hollywood,” proclaims a blurb on the front cover of Lee Server’s Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don’t Care. This economic ascendancy became part of his legend. The way actors who went off to war brought back with them an aura of desolation, Mitchum brought with him the accumulated experience of penury and struggle. Before he acted, he lived. As a young man, Mitchum road the jails with gregarious hobos in the backs of freight trains, smoking pot and telling stories with the skills of a griot. Bob le flaneur. With these disenfranchised denizens, men crippled by the Depression and left without work or homes, he found like-minded company, drinking buddies. He was arrested for vagrancy, he chased girls, he became a beach rat. He fell in love. The raconteur and sometimes writer traversed the country, accruing tales he would rehash and rewrite over the years, with varying fabulations, differing details. He liked to say he fell into acting accidentally, or was lured into it for the money, to appease his in-laws, to pay for a marriage. Like Orson Welles, he lied his way into jobs, claiming once that he was an expert horseman; when a pony repeatedly threw him off, he allegedly cocked his right fist and punched that horse in the mouth, telling it, “I need this job.”
In the nascent years of his career, Mitchum was a cut-up, feeding journalists lies, spinning outlandish yarns, sneaking into the dressing rooms of actresses to shoot them with a BB-gun. He lived with his wife and daughter in a small apartment overhanging a highway, from which the toxic effluvia rose and suffused their home. He called it “Monoxide Alley.” He wasn't sybaritic, preferring instead pleasures more prevalent among the working class—a bowdy night at a cheap bar, an up-till-dawn fling with a young assistant, a bit of fisticuffs. He considered himself a working stiff, and he wasn't stupid, but also found the communist sympathies of his peers to be trendy chicanery. Filming the left-leaning Crossfire, whose anti-bigotry themes landed its director in front of the HUAC, Mitchum expressed sympathy for the working class, while still mocking lefties like Dmytryk for reading the Daily Worker and reveling in the chic concern for the common man. To Mitchum, money seemed like a fugazi: He was known for his willingness to hand out a buck to any open hand, often to his dispossessed drinking pals, and he signed over his finances to a friend, a swindler who promised to make Mitchum a millionaire, and who subsequently took off with the money, leaving the actor broke. A psychiatrist told Mitchum he was too amiable and had to learn how to say “No.” Mitchum interpreted this as: “Go shit in a hat.”
The fluent minimalism of Mitchum’s acting style brings to mind the writing of James Salter, whose debut novel, The Hunters, was adapted into a Dick Powell film starring Mitchum in 1958. A Korean war fighter pilot, trapped within the hermetic confines of a cockpit, ruminates on the emotional and moral conflicts aroused by war. Influenced by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Salter, who was a West Point grad and a professional Army pilot while writing the novel, instills a sense of fatalism, of life approaching its inevitable end, in his 31-year-old surrogate. It’s lyrical, concise, honest. The film expunges much of the sex and lacks the unsheathed emotions, as well as the anguish, but it retains the obsessive nature of a man who can’t quit his vocation. Salter wrote with a diaphanous precision, his laconic, sensual prose flowing across a page. He used short sentences comprising mostly short (but not necessarily simple) words, each sentence coalescing into a sinuous, rhythmic work; Mitchum’s minute gestures and ostensible simplicity achieve a similar effect. There’s a tenderness veiled by all that macho posturing, a vulnerability. His manly visage and unique lassitude made him a fascinating tough guy. He spent the first decade of his career mainly playing cowboys and detectives (or accidental sleuths). In Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947) and Robert Wise’s Blood on the Moon (1948), westerns with the brooding chiaroscuro and moral opacity of noir, he found the emotional tethers between the two.
Mitchum possessed the rare gift of listening. Watching him share scenes with other actors, he seems not to be waiting for his chance to speak, but actively observing and responding, not acting as much as he is simply existing. This heedful prowess is most notable in Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952). Here, he plumbs the depths of masculine ego as a veteran rodeo competitor who takes under his wing a young aspiring rider (Arthur Kennedy). His protégé displays a preternatural skill riding bareback, as well as a preternatural taste for reckless gambles and carousel, which begins to unravel his already frayed marriage and ostracize his disenchanted wife (Susan Hayward). The chemistry between Mitchum and Hayward, the way their innocuous patter gives way slowly to flirtatious banter, hints at an inevitable romance. When she tells Mitchum, his eyes uncharacteristically agape, that she’s true to her philandering husband, that male ego kicks in, forcing him to prove his masculinity. That ego cajoles him back into the rodeo, to his death. The marriage is saved.
William A. Wellman’s Track of the Cat (1954), shot in CinemaScope with a color-sapped palette (Wellman famously called it a black-and-white film in color), brought out Mitchum’s more boorish side. Here, he listens to no one, and his inveterate passivity gives way to slow-mounting hysteria. As his family falls apart, his abusive and quarrelsome Curt embarks on a dogged excursion, across the snowy mountains of Northern California, in pursuit of a mythic panther that threatens what little stability the family has left. Curt’s peregrination, and the unseen panther, become lingering metaphors for the familial dissolution that Curt has caused, a manifestation of his inner unrest. The performance, which percolates and steams like a kettle left on the stove for too long, foreshadows the manic desperation of Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter.
Powell is Mitchum’s most famous role, and his most stagy. Laughton conjures up a bucolic-gothic world of sable shadows and crooked walls, a world in which God is absent but his word, refracted through the mouth of a Janus-faced votary, has dominion over the impressionable minds of West Virginia’s small-town believers. Of Helen Levitt’s black-and-white 1940s photography, which captures the blurry shapes of children romping around the city, screenwriter Agee said, “There seems to be much about modern cities which of itself arouses in artists a sensitiveness, in particular, to the tensions and desolations of creatures in naked space.” This remarkable turn of phrase also describes Laughton’s film, which renders reality fantastical, a vision that, in its exaggerations, feels disquietingly familiar, a dream deferred. Powell, a psycho-preacher and killer of women, is imprisoned for driving a stolen car. He learns that his cellmate, Ben Harper, who is sentenced to die, has left $10,000 with his family. After being freed, Powell visits the family, claiming he helped Harper spiritually in his final moments. He seduces the townspeople with vituperative sermonizing, marries Harper’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters), then kills her and terrorizes the children, chasing them across oneiric backgrounds culled from the nastiest of fairy tales. The way Mitchum once traveled the country as a young, curious itinerant, the Harper kids take off on their journey, away from the pious stalker, across a countryside rife with dangers. It's a hard world for little things.
Powell’s theatrics don't fool everyone—skeptics in particular seem immune to his charm. The judge knows Powell is no man of God, as does Harper, as does Harper’s son John. But the local Bible-thumping, querulous old woman Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden), who possess great power over her henpecked husband Walt while preaching woman’s innate place as a homemaker and servant to man (she describes the notion of a happy life as a “pipe dream”), thinks Powell, dreamy man of God, is exactly what Willa Harper needs: “A woman can’t take care of children by herself, it’s not what the Lord intended.” The preacher preaches, Icey Spoon swoons, and Willa is sentenced to death by marriage. When Powell is caught and sentenced, the Spoons will be at the front of the torch-wielding mob demanding his head.
There’s a crooning quality to Mitchum’s voice, a sing-song menace that soothes as it seethes (he had a side career as a singer; in 1958 he performed the title song for Thunder Road). The bone-chilling coo of “Chil-dren!” has the honeyed eeriness of a lullaby. Festooned across his fingers are the words “LOVE” and “HATE.” It’s a Biblical-plague performance—the way he laces his fingers together, wrestling himself, flailing his features in recital and dissimulating his savagery with a tale of Good prevailing over evil; raises an arm, his fingers stiff and clawed, towards the window like an antenna receiving signals from God; and tilts his face as his eyes teem with misogynistic vehemence. Mitchum is as convincing and conspiratorial as a well-rehearsed charlatan. His sanguine voice, laced with venom, permeates the film as God remains silent. He seduces not with his usual bad-boy urbanity but with the word of the Lord.
As convicted rapist Max Cady, in J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear (1962), Mitchum again torments a family. The role is, along with Powell, one that has defined Mitchum’s legacy for modern audiences, and has seeped into public consciousness. (Both landed on AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Villains list.) With a white Panama hat and a striped shirt, a cockeyed grin from which a nub of a cigar hangs, Cady resembles a villain on vacation, a man who, in between trips to the movies and the beach, terrorizes Gregory Peck’s children. 30 years later, Mitchum’s role as the unctuous, conniving Cady was reimagined as a swampy, tattoo-varnished sociopath, exhaling Biblical verse like cigar smoke, by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s remake. Mitchum plays a police lieutenant who finds no evidence of a crime, to the chagrin of Nick Nolte’s terrorized lawyer. In these two films one finds the spectrum of villainous acting, from Mitchum’s unruffled menace to De Niro’s methodical affectations. (Both films were lampooned in one of The Simpsons’ best episodes, “Cape Feare,” with Kelsey Grammer providing the oktavist voice of Sideshow Bob.)
In 1970 Mitchum was still suave, still libidinous, graying and softer, sure, but still able, with apparent ease, to sweep women off their feet (on-screen and off, as always). He seemed venerable and virile, aging like the wine he loved to drink. In David Lean’s otherwise flaccid epic Ryan’s Daughter, Mitchum seduces Sarah Miles, two decades his junior, evincing that enviable sexuality; three years later, in Peter Yates’s low-key and loquacious The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Mitchum seems suddenly old, defeated. “I'm old,” he laments more than once in the film. By Farewell, My Lovely (1975), a film elegiac for the days of pre-revisionist noir, he’s swaddled in a funereal air, playing the hardboiled effigy Philip Marlowe like a debt-addled Sisyphus, another sad sack of bones. His is a Los Angeles of neon lights pooling on rain-slicked streets. He asks the right questions and wears a hat. Compare Mitchum’s Marlowe to Elliott Gould’s, in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). Gould, cheap tie dangling from his neck like an ill-fitting noose, mumbles his way through a sunbaked Los Angeles rife with corruption and perfidy. The incongruous Marlowe is a man torn from his epoch. “Business isn't as good as it used to be.” He gets embroiled in a mystery he isn't meant to solve, and all he wants is to find his cat.
Off-screen, Mitchum was still a man who, according to Grover Lewis’s lauded Rolling Stone profile, would pull a pair of Buds from the fridge and, with a beckoning finger, corral and control a room like a conductor, bend it to his whim, even with an unsteady gait and slurred speech dribbling past the Pall Mall dangling from his mouth. His interviews grew increasingly problematic, his sense of humor not aging very well and his politics veering further right, like a driver sleepy behind the wheel.
A decade earlier, as the toothsome Max Cady, Mitchum scorched the screen with an intensity he saved for villainous roles. Eddie Coyle is a man so pitiable, so bibulous, even his final moments are brief and indistinct in the haze of too many beers. He slouches, he lurches, he slurs his words and falls asleep. He ends up alone in a parking lot like an abandoned shopping cart. Here, at his quietest, Mitchum maintains the same unornamented empathy. In a world that flickers with irrationality, it makes sense that Eddie would fail with such banality. His eyes look like slits in a leathery face, but now age, that daunting inevitability, weighs him down, tincturing his languor with an existential agony. He's as unhurried as ever, going nowhere fast. The way Salter could, when he wanted, break your heart with a single sentence, Mitchum could break your heart with a single, unembellished look. “I'm old.” Sonorous and slowly, the words escape. Time fades. Eddie, a lowly grunt who got pinched driving a truck stocked with stolen goods, is about to go to jail. He gets no sympathy from anyone. He takes as many tiny jobs as he can, trying to get cash to sustain his family, but it won't be enough. Nothing is ever enough when you're running out of time. For years, Yates’s neo-noir tragedy had a chambré reputation that reflects a general apathy towards non-auteur filmmakers, but, unlike Eddie, it has aged impeccably. Inducted into the Criterion canon, Eddie Coyle the film, an epochal yet timeless evocation of desperation among criminals, is now revered in a way Eddie Coyle the guy, a useless antiquity, never could have been. He has a face as old as Punch’s, a haircut seemingly hewn by a lawnmower, his skin and coat saggy and gray. He’s only 55 in the film, the same age as Tom Cruise in 2017 and just a year older than Brad Pitt, but he looks as weathered as a cathedral. You can hear it, in the tranquility of that Beantown timbre, laced slightly with malice, the voice of a man who drinks too much and earns too little, his sad, sunken eyes, his mounting debt, his indolent panache burning like a paraffin wax candle. He has the reticent pain of seclusion. “One of the last great realizations,” Salter wrote in Light Years, “is that life won't be what you dreamed.” Eddie dies in his sleep, and one hopes he was at least having a pleasant dream.