[Sidebar] July 10 - 17, 1997
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Robert Mitchum, 1917-1997

by Steve Vineberg

[Robert Mitchum] Among the more obscure items in my show-music collection are two songs from the 1948 film Rachel and the Stranger recorded by its star, Robert Mitchum, who accompanies himself on guitar. When Mitchum died last week at the age of 79, I dug up the tunes -- a shaggy-dog ballad, "O-He-O-Hi-O-Ho," and a lighthearted love song, "Rachel" -- and played them again so I could hold that pleasing low baritone in my head for a while. Mitchum had a fine singing voice, as anyone will remember who's seen him as the evangelical Bluebeard, Harry Powell, in Charles Laughton's great The Night of the Hunter, where he intones the hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" in counterpoint to Lillian Gish. (The liner notes for the album that contains the songs from Rachel and the Stranger call him "an elongated Bing Crosby.") What struck me as I heard these cuts again were the clarity and depth of his presence and yet its lack of ceremony: he sings as if singing were as easy as breathing, but you can hear, unmistakably, the mark this man made as he strode through the world.

That's what I always loved best about Robert Mitchum -- the oddball combination of charisma and modesty. He was a star for some three and a half decades, beginning around the end of World War II, playing a much wider variety of roles than most Hollywood actors get to, but he was never an icon. His touch was too light for that; his manner indicated that he thought of acting as just a way to while away the time. (His quip about acting, "It sure beats working," was often quoted.) His throwaway style must have convinced a lot of people that he really felt that way, just as his casually profane personal style and his few youthful run-ins with the law cemented his reputation as an unregenerate bad boy. But this rebel married his high-school sweetheart, Dorothy Spence, and stayed married to her for 57 years. And of course you can't give performances like the ones Mitchum turned out in The Story of G.I. Joe, Crossfire, The Sundowners, Cape Fear, Going Home, and especially The Night of the Hunter if you don't care about your craft.

Mitchum appeared in Westerns, war pictures, film noirs -- the genres that honored the kind of dark masculinity he was famous for. And he usually made a strong impression even in bad genre pictures (like Out of the Past and River of No Return) or truly terrible ones (like Undercurrent, where he was bizarrely cast opposite Katharine Hepburn). Few actors ever looked sexier than Mitchum with a butt hanging from their lips, partly, no doubt, because the droop of the cigarette picked up the insomniac droop of the eyes, his most celebrated feature. Mitchum had the look and sound of a cynic, but he could be genuinely heroic on screen, or gentle and compassionate. One of the finest scenes he ever played was in G.I. Joe, William Wellman's dramatization of the columns of the war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who hung out with the men at the front, and one of the most unconventional war pictures ever to come out of Hollywood. Over a bottle of grappa, Mitchum's Captain Walker tells Pyle (Burgess Meredith) what it's like to write letters home to the families of the young men in his platoon who die in battle. Mitchum himself was in his late 20s when he played this role, so when he describes these fallen "kids," the irony breaks your heart. (It's broken again when, inevitably, Walker's body is brought in late in the film.)

Mitchum is best known for the dangerous characters he played in movies like Cape Fear (his performance as the pathologically vengeful Max Cady justifies the existence of this unsavory and vastly overrated thriller) and The Night of the Hunter, and God knows he was terrifying in these parts. But he was equally fine in something like The Sundowners, where he plays an Australian sheepherder who adores his wife (Deborah Kerr) and has to live with the knowledge that he'll never be able to give her the economically stable life she longs for. The Sundowners, a big-boned, richly felt drama, was the only collaboration of Mitchum and director Fred Zinnemann. Zinnemann died in March; the time is ripe for a revival of this picture, which does both men proud.

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