ROBERT MITCHUM: A Constant Motion of Escape

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“You just sit there and stay inside yourself,” Kirk Douglas says to Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past. “You sure are a secret man,” his girlfriend observes in the same movie. Then a cab driver tells him that he looks like he’s in trouble, “because you don’t act like it.”

They could be talking about the actor as much as the character he’s playing, and this keeps on happening in Mitchum’s movies. People remark on his inscrutability and lack of ties, calling him “a strange stranger” (The Yakuza) and “a man who’s made it his business all of his life to keep under cover” (His Kind of Woman). Sometimes Mitchum himself seems to speak through his characters, as when he boasts in Thunder Road: “I don’t make no deals with nobody…I don’t buddy up with one living soul.”

Being alone and adrift, always on the move and on the outside, demands monumental self-assurance. Onscreen, Mitchum looks oddly comfortable in his doom-haunted alienation, relaxing into his peculiar blend of lucklessness and invincibility. A guarded enigma, he’s also a rock-solid, radically independent presence. Keely Smith speaks for many when she tells him in Thunder Road, “I just want you altogether, ’cause you’re the only natural man I ever knew.”

***

Robert Mitchum was, both onscreen and off, a mystery. Off-screen, the mystery was whether he really cared as little as he took care to make it seem. Howard Hawks, after working with him on El Dorado, called Mitchum the biggest fraud he’d ever met, confronting him with the fact that, while pretending not to give a damn, he was actually the hardest working actor around. Mitchum’s reply: “Don’t tell anybody.”

It was an odd kind of hypocrisy—if, indeed, Hawks was right: a defensive pose against being taken seriously or held to certain standards. Whenever someone praised him or built him up he undercut them with self-deprecation or mockery. When people spoke of his famous walk he would say, “Hell, I’m just trying to hold in my gut.” When Frank Sinatra declared that Mitchum knew more about music “from Bach to Brubeck” than anyone else he knew, Mitchum shot back, “Just shows how much Sinatra knows about music.” In candid moments, he admitted that he had an “inverted sense of dignity.”

He always purported to be baffled as to why people made a fuss over him, theorizing implausibly that the public liked him because he looked like an average slob. One night when fans gathered outside his hotel room he turned to his wife and asked: “Why do they make such a big deal? You’ve been married to me for years and you’re not impressed.” She wisely told him, “Bob, when you’re up there on screen, they’re smaller than your nostril.”

Though he might not thank anyone for saying so, it seems clear that he suffered from being far too intelligent and skeptical for the world in which he found himself. It “bothered the hell” out of him when a woman who taught blind students told him her pupils believed anything he said was true because his voice had the ring of honesty. In interviews, he smothered any “ring of honesty” in a mesmerizing thicket of one-liners, rambling anecdotes, hipster slang and lyrical free-association. Hilarious and uninhibited, he’s also frequently indecipherable, since he spoke in an oblique, elliptical, sometimes cryptic style. He owned this himself, writing, “Many of my statements have been smokescreen, designed to allow me to follow my own course without exposing it. I learned early in life that by telling a story far more colorful than the truth…one’s truth is let alone. I like to be let alone.”

It’s generally a good rule that if you like to be let alone, you shouldn’t become a movie star. Knowing this probably caused him discomfort, which he dealt with by shunning Hollywood as much as possible (instead of a mansion in Beverly Hills he bought a farm in Maryland where he raised horses); by refusing to give up his rough and rowdy ways; and by cultivating the persona of a lazy bum who was only in the business for the money. He despised actors who worried about how they looked, micromanaged the lighting and camera angles to flatter themselves, tried to hog the lens or steal scenes, made a fuss about getting top billing. He always presented himself as the opposite of stars like Cary Grant, who frankly admitted that he had constructed his idealized persona—that even he wanted to be Cary Grant. Mitchum for his part liked to boast that he hadn’t changed anything since coming to Hollywood except his underwear. He refused to have his name or his nose altered, he didn’t wear lifts or a rug, and he would never admit to striving to be anything better or different than what he was—“the only natural man.”

There were always those who dismissed him as a jaded sleepwalker, but few people disparaged Mitchum’s acting as persistently as Mitchum did himself, with his “just paint the eyes on my eyelids, man,” attitude. Much of this disparagement seems to have been his way of disclaiming responsibility for the bad movies he made—which he insisted that he never watched. In another of those actually not so rare candid moments he confessed, “I always thought I had as much inspiration and as much tenderness as anyone in the business. I always thought I could do better. But you don’t get to do better, you get to do more.”

No one did more by doing less. Someone once said that trying to underplay Mitchum was “like trying to limbo under the carpet.” A confident minimalist, he knew exactly how little he could get away with doing, and knew that by standing absolutely still and letting things move around him he could dominate the action. Less is not always more; you can only hold your power in reserve if you have power to begin with. A young actor once saw Mitchum tagging lines in a script with “NAR,” for “No Acting Required,” yet he accused Steve McQueen—another star celebrated for his minimalist cool—of being monotonous, saying he “doesn’t bring much to the party.”

Richard Fleischer described trying to shoot a reaction shot with Mitchum: he called “Action” and nothing happened. When the director prodded, Mitchum insisted that he was reacting and couldn’t do any better. Fleischer was nonplussed, but when he got around to watching the rushes, he saw that the reaction was there, precisely calculated to be picked up by the camera, but not the naked eye. This anecdote echoes almost identical comments made by Clarence Brown about Greta Garbo, by Byron Haskin about Joel McCrea, and by Orson Welles about Gary Cooper (so recessive that in person he “almost didn’t seem to be there.”) All these anecdotes pinpoint the mystery of pure cinema actors, who look wooden and inert on the set, yet become riveting and expressive on the screen, when you’re smaller than their nostril.

Famously, when a reporter asked if he followed the Stanislavsky method, Mitchum quipped, “I follow the Smirnoff method.” While he could hold attention without doing much of anything on screen (in Crossfire you can’t take your eyes off him even when he’s just lounging in the background while Robert Young makes speeches), he could unmistakably act when he wanted too. But it’s almost impossible to catch him acting, to pinpoint exactly what he’s doing that has such impact.

He was a keen observer—he described himself in his hobo years as a “traveling witness”—with an eye for colorful characters, a photographic memory, and a gift for mimicry. (In interviews, he does John Huston, David Lean, Charles Laughton.) But apart from the accents he employs in some of his later films—Australian, Irish, Southern and, most astonishingly, Boston mobster—he rarely resorts to any external mannerisms. He uses essentially the same style of movement and repertoire of gestures to play the gentle, upright hero of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and the monstrous Max Cady in Cape Fear. He once expounded on his theory of cinema acting, which revolved around “steal[ing] the reality of the props and set[ting] the pace of the pictures.” If people believe in your physical reality, in what you do, they’ll believe in what you say, so many lines will have “no acting required.”

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Mitchum’s theories about pacing and physicality are quite sophisticated, but he also simply had the best and sexiest walk of any man who ever ambled across a movie screen. I would happily watch a feature film of nothing but Mitchum walking, unhurried, like a big cat; at once relaxed and controlled, holding his arms still at his sides and letting his shoulders absorb the fluid motion of his tread. In later years you often can see him holding in his gut, but when he entered the movies it was with an almost freakish Atlas physique—48-inch chest, 26-inch waist (he claimed), and “shoulders that don’t know where to stop.” Beautiful without being conventionally handsome, he had intriguingly imperfect features: small eyes with a heavy-lidded squint, a mouth that naturally turned down at the corners, a Grecian profile marred by a broken nose, an overbite and an increasingly double chin. That he started to sag in middle age was hardly surprising for a man whose favorite—and perhaps only—exercise was bending the elbow. At least he never lost his magnificently insolent hair—hair that, no matter what he wore or said or did, signaled contempt for authority.

His greatest asset, aside from his walk, was also ageless: the voice that rumbles up from his massive chest as though from the bottom of a coal mine. He could bellow like a drill sergeant, but rarely did; more often he spoke very low, just at the point where breath becomes speech. It was a voice for hymns and ballads and story-telling, as well as for come-backs and put-downs and brush-offs. He referred to his dialogue as “the lyrics” and treated it that way, often delivering lines behind the beat, the way Sinatra sang. He could sing too, of course, and often did; most famously, in Night of the Hunter, he somehow manages, with his molasses-rich baritone, to send shivers up the spine by crooning “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” He recorded two albums, the hear-it-to-believe-it Calypso is Like So, and a Nashville collection that overcomes soupy arrangements with strong, laid-back vocals and some fine songs about weeping in honky-tonks, being hounded by the police, and dying of a cottonmouth bite after pushing a fickle woman into the quicksand. He was no Sinatra, or even Dean Martin, but to hear Mitchum swinging his way through “Rovin’ Gambler” backed by a jazz trio is to hear a perfectly happy man, something you never see when he’s on screen.

What you see is ambivalence, an unwillingness to be pinned down. Sensing this, Hollywood wasn’t sure whether to call him a good guy or a bad guy. He started out as a heavy because his first boss (William Boyd, aka Hopalong Cassidy) thought he looked “mean around the eyes.” The teenage girls who dug him (dubbed “the Droolettes”) told fan magazines he had “sex appeal in an evil sort of way” and “the most immoral face I’ve ever seen.” But he had gentleness and romantic possibilities that were wasted on stubbly bad guys, so RKO tried him out as a B-western hero, dolling him up in a white hat and jaunty neckerchiefs and flimsy shirts that get ripped off in fist fights. He was wasted on these cardboard heroes too, in films that had no use for his undercurrents of melancholy, disaffection, and skeptical intelligence. Then noir came along, its inky stain even spreading to the West, and Mitchum found the nearest thing to a home that a fundamentally homeless man—one who said he had “been in a constant motion of escape my entire life”—could abide.

In the 1940s he drifted through films with a haunted air, rarely cracking a smile. In repose his face, far from mean or immoral, conveys an inchoate sadness through its mask-like stillness, the downward slant of eyebrows and mouth. The older he got, the more amusement showed through the mask of detachment, a wonderful banked-down warmth that now and then glows brighter, like coals stirred by a poker.

The essence of Mitchum lies in those murky hints of menace and compassion and old wounds that are just visible under the surface; possibilities of danger and melancholy, of violence and tenderness. He gets away with being reticent and opaque because you feel he is full, that something is going on behind the stolid façade. But who knows what it is? “Whenever Mitchum is on camera or on tape, in character or in person, in word or deed,” David Hickey wrote, “He always seems to be declaring the primacy of things we do not know about him.”

***

Effortless cool is redundant. If you’re trying, you’re by definition failing. Out of the Past, the quintessential Mitchum movie, expects us to know the difference between a showy, faux-tough wisecrack like “A dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle” and Mitchum’s deadpan response to the same thing—a racketeer’s puzzlement over how his mistress could have missed so many times when she shot him.

“Maybe you were moving,” he shrugs.

Effortless.

by Imogen Smith

NOTES: This is the first part of a thee-part article.

Most quotes in this piece are drawn from the indispensable Mitchum: In His Own Words, a collection of interviews edited by Jerry Roberts. Other sources include David Hickey’s excellent essay “Mitchum Gets Out of Jail,” included in O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors, and Damien Love’s delightful, deeply felt survey Robert Mitchum: Solid, Dad, Crazy.

 

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