The American Film Intsitute may put him at # 23 of the top 25 male screen legends of the 20th century but if we’re ranking who is the coolest, toughest, baddest hardcase ever to set foot in front of a camera, well then for my money Robert “Old Rumple Eyes” Mitchum goes right to the top: number 1.
Recently arrived in the library is a 10 movie DVD collection of some of Mitchum’s greatest films which nicely compliment a number of his movies which we already own.
How’s this for a start in life? A natural born trouble maker, he entered a hard-scrabble world in 1917, in an out of trouble early on, he was sent away to live with his grandparents in a (vain) attempt at rehabilitation only to be promptly expelled from school for of all things getting in a fight with the principal. He was then shipped onto Hell’s Kitchen to live with his sister (in hindsight Hell’s Kitchen in the 1930s was probably not the best choice for a kid supposedly trying to keep to the straight and narrow) and wasted no time at all getting kicked out of school…again. He skipped town after that, riding the rails as a young teen, making money digging ditches and doing a little boxing on the side. That came to an end when he was arrested for vagrancy and since this occurred in the state of Georgia, he was sentenced to work on a chain gang (!?!). I guess they figured that’d learn the 14 year old Mitchum.
Long story short: from this unlikely beginning he ended up in the movies…or as he says “I came back from the war and ugly heroes were in.” He made his mark early on in some excellent film noir such as Out of the Past, Angel Face, Crossfire and one of Martin Scorsese’s favourite films, the western noir Pursued. Famously self-effacing and disparaging of the movie business he described his acting style thusly: “Listen. I got three expressions: looking left, looking right and looking straight ahead” which didn’t stop his star from rising.
And then this happened: On Sept 1st, 1948, Mitchum and starlet Lila Leeds were arrested at Leeds’ Hollywood home for smoking marijuana. This well circulated photo captures the instant the sentence comes down; looking not too impressed, that smirk is priceless. Rather than ruin his career, the 60 day sentence was instrumental in forging the Mitchum legend. He described his time in lock up this way “It’s like Palm Springs without the riff-raff .” The man was punk before punk. Unfortunately, Lila Leeds’ career was pretty much ruined. Because of this arrest, Dwight Eisenhower refused to show any of the busted film star’s movies in the White House movie theatre during his presidency. Mitchum however remained unrepentant and word has it he remained an eight joint a day man till the end.
Soon after this he went on to play two of cinema’s most feared villains Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Max Cady in the original Cape Fear (1962). The Love and Hate tattoos he has emblazoned on his fingers in The Night of the Hunter make for a powerful image.
Many other films followed these such as El Dorado (1966) but the one I like the most is the 1973 crime film The Friends of Eddie Coyle which has an on-decline, leathery Mitchum playing the down on his luck title character. Although he lived until 1997, his career was slowing down as was he, although he did manage the lead in the extremely popular mini-series The Winds of War in the 80s and had small parts in the remake of 90s Cape Fear and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man with Johnny Depp.
With a penchant for the quotable (“People think I have an interesting walk. Hell, I’m just trying to hold my gut in”) and responses to a questions such as what does he looks for in a script? (answer: “days off”) I can let it slide that he was a life time Republican who was for the war in Vietnam…I’m less inclined to forgive his long time animosity towards another of my top favourites Charles Bronson ( look for a post here on him someday) but as Old Rumple Eyes himself said “There just isn’t any pleasing some people. The trick is to stop trying”
Whether that’s true or not, you’re guaranteed to be pleased if you borrow some Robert Mitchum movies from your library today.