Jimmy Stewart was earnest. John Wayne was heroic. Gary Cooper was dignified. Henry Fonda was laconic. Burt Lancaster was energetic.
But Robert Mitchum was cool.
It’s true the others were cool sometimes. But Robert Mitchum was cool always. He was a jazz riff, a late night bourbon, a pack of unfiltered cigarettes, a trench coat with the collar upturned, a fedora with the brim downturned, strength without narcissism or vanity. Wherever he was, it was always drizzling, it was always 3 a.m., in the neon night, and he was always as imperturbable as a force of nature.
The hulking star with the once-beautiful, later battered face, the butt hanging at an insolent angle from his passive lips, the smoke getting in but not remotely disturbing those deadpan, flesh-sheathed eyes, died in his sleep Tuesday at 79 at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., of complications from emphysema and lung cancer.
No man ever looked better smoking, even if it killed him in the end, and a subversive might argue: That was cool, too. It certainly seemed to reflect his unstated motto, which was, “I don’t give a (expletive).”
Though a few others remain, with him it nearly perishes: Our last connection to the era when stars were icons, granite faces carved in mountains in close-up, essays in attitude in midshot, creatures who moved with the smooth grace of African predators in long shots.
He was of the American school, a minimalist who knew the power of the muted gesture, the canted glance, the pause, the casual inflection. More, like most great stars, he understood his limits and the vibrations of his persona. Within that persona, he could work miracles of both good and evil.
Whoever has seen the nightmare-clear “The Night of the Hunter” will never forget his mythically slithery lizard of evil, Harry Powell, whose full psychosis was deployed against two children. In the original (and far superior) “Cape Fear,” his mad Max Cady radiates with rage, with a feral creature’s cunning and hardiness, particularly in contrast to Gregory Peck’s square-rigged, pious rectitude.
But he could also play straight-ahead heroics and make you believe them. As Brig. Gen. Norman Cota, a hero of the Normandy beachhead, in Darryl F. Zanuck’s “The Longest Day,” he etched a brief, vivid portrait of a professional military man displaying the highest standards of combat leadership amid the profusion of teen idols that turned that film into the long kitsch goodbye. Even as late as 1982 he could bring forth convincing World War II-generation heroics to anchor the otherwise unwieldy “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” on ABC.
That is appropriate, for he first achieved stardom in 1945, after a dismal apprenticeship in cheapie westerns, in “The Story of G.I. Joe,” based on the writings of Ernie Pyle. It was a late war picture, far removed from the patriotic gore of earlier battle movies, and Mitchum’s tired, decent Lt. Walker was a more approachable hero than the leaders played by the other icon of World War II movies, John Wayne.
But as naturally as heroics came to him, Mitchum was at his best playing morally ambiguous figures of great strength and charisma but subtly flawed, haunted by a mysterious past or a dangerous future. His key early film was the shimmering noir “Out of the Past,” but that was only one of the noirs he made during that classic period of American cinema in the exhausted wake of the war. His presence also lit up “Crossfire,” “The Big Steal,” “Where Danger Lives,” “His Kind of Woman” and “Macao.” These films, with their existential dread and their sense of nihilism lurking behind the typically dazzling night-city photography, really established his sleepy-eyed authority.
He had a great, broad face, a forehead like the polar icecap, a good crop of wavy hair, cheekbones like bed knobs and a piercing chin. But what unified it and made it unforgettable to men and irresistible to women were the eyes. In his case, the eyes truly had it. He ascribed the way his lids hung low, halving his orbs and generating that implacably calm look, to a boxing injury that caused astigmatism in both eyes. And also to chronic insomnia; you had the idea that if he ever got a good night’s sleep, he was washed up.
But clearly he was never one for a good night’s sleep. Typical also of his generation of stars, his was an uneducated, hard-knocks, wandering kind of background. A vagrant youth, he spent seven days on a Georgia chain gang at 16, and his troubles with authority were a perpetual problem throughout his early career, until the culture somewhat reversed itself and things like his 50 days in a prison work camp in late 1948 for marijuana possession could be looked upon as a badge of honor, not shame. Of the experience, he said it was “like Palm Springs, without the riffraff.”
Born in 1917 in Bridgeport, Conn., a high school dropout at 14, he was by 1940 on the line at Lockheed, married and unhappy, seemingly locked into a blue-collar life. But he drifted into the Long Beach Theater, first as a stagehand, then as an actor. By 1943 he was in Hopalong Cassidy films - his first break reportedly came when he could ride a horse that had killed the last actor who tried. By 1945 he was a star, and by 1948, Hollywood’s Bad Boy of the marijuana scandals. That naughty reputation was amplified in the early ‘50s at the Cannes Film Festival, where a female companion went topless with him in front of photographers. Quelle scandale!
After the mid-1950s he moved to big-budget roles in A-pictures like “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison,” in which he played a Marine corporal isolated on an island in the Pacific with a nun (Deborah Kerr) and her child charges; “The Enemy Below,” a heroic commanding officer again, and even the comedy “Two for the Seasaw,” but he never really changed. Always that big face, that sleepy authority, the spring in the heavy body. As late as 1977 he was playing Philip Marlowe in a remake of “The Big Sleep,” in the same trench coat and rumpled fedora, and was just as convincing.
By that time the face looked like a Greek shield after a long day’s work at Marathon, and the body moved slowly, filled with pain and possibly even a tinge of regret. But he kept on moving.
A final story: A colleague reports that in 1965 the big guy landed at Chu Lai, an airfield in Vietnam occupied by American Marines. There, on that hot day in that little green hell, he would not waste time on officers but gave himself entirely to the enlisted men, both Mr. Allison and Bob Mitchum to the last.
And, to the last, probably even until Tuesday in his sleep, very, very cool.
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