What Made Them Great: Robert Mitchum

Annex - Mitchum, Robert (Out of the Past)_03

If the year is 2013 (and it is) and I was born in 1977 (which I was) and I have a decent enough memory to remember watching films from about the age of 3 (which I do), this means I have been watching films for 33 years.
33 years of Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Action and Thrillers, Romantic Comedies, Animations, Drama, Melodrama and Horror. I watch European, Asian and South American and have even been known to watch the odd British production but probably much like you, the main part of my education in cinema comes from the big ‘H’, ‘La-la Land’, ‘The Dream Factory’…Hollywood.

On the whole Hollywood produces derivative, uninspired rubbish but if you are looking for convention defying, ground breaking music you don’t go looking for it in the Top Forty. Hollywood is there for big budget escapism and spectacle but really what Hollywood really gives the world is Film Stars.

Thanks to TV and video the early part of my 33 years watching the flickering lights was not limited to the cheesy films of my childhood and teens. I was in fact brought up on the films and stars of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s.
Classic Westerns, Thrillers and Noirs full where real men like Kirk Douglas and Humphrey Bogart manned about, saying manly phrases like ‘damn it’ and doing manly things such as drinking neat liquor, rescuing dames and sticking to their principles.

During this weirdly masculine period in the history of acting, there was one man who was even manlier than the rest, whose being was powered by some kind of super testosterone made unavailable after August 6th 1917. He wasn’t just rougher and tougher than his Hollywood contemporaries; he was rougher and tougher than anyone. His name was Robert Mitchum.

Mitchum lived through the great depression of the 30’s where like so many, he rode the railroads and drifted from town to town looking for work. At the age of 14 he was arrested for vagrancy and spent 90 days in a chain gang doing hard labour…I don’t know what you were like when you were 14 but personally the idea of drifting and chain ganging would have seriously got in the way of my girl chasing and weed smoking career and would have no doubt killed me.
Eventually falling into acting and finding himself in Hollywood, Mitchum found some success playing villains in B-movie westerns films and TV slowly building enough attention to be cast as a lead in the genre that would make him an icon, Film Noir.

It was the 1947 Noir ‘Out of the Past’ (known sometimes in the UK as ‘Build My Gallows High’) that really cemented his place in the firmament. Here Mitchum played a gas attendant on the run from his past and the despicable femme fatale who betrayed him. He is of course pulled back into his old life of smoke filled rooms, thuggery and complex plotting and once again he hooks up with the succubus who caused all the problems in the first place.

Mitchum plays the role of Jeff Bailey with a phlegmatic cool and wry humour, that is perfectly apt for a character that is knowingly and willingly manipulated into doing the dirty work of others. So while we question his actions we can’t help but like the guy, thus setting the mold for the anti-hero archetype.

Then in the final scenes, where Bailey is given an easy choice of starting a new life with his sweet new gal or hooking up with the woman who has consistently betrayed him and has organised his murder, we suddenly see into the soul of the man.

Bailey obviously choses the latter; he knows it’s a trap, he knows he is being lied to, hell he has known all along and has never believed a word she says but he goes anyway. Not because he is naïve or a fool, but because he knows himself better than you or me. Bailey walks into that room with his eyes wide open but with a heart full of hope that there is the slimmest of slim chances that he is wrong this time, even though he knows there isn’t.

It’s a beautiful, sad moment and one of my favourite scenes in any film. The acceptance by Bailey that he can’t bear to live without the love of his life even if she is a clearly appalling (though undeniably hot) woman is heart breaking. But by the time the credits roll we know that it couldn’t have been any other way and while we silently plead with Bailey to stop being such a damn fool, we also applaud and admire him.

That scene neatly sums up the appeal of Mitchum. Not only was he the toughest, tough guy in almost any room (stories abound of his legendary brawling, once even knocking out a former world champion boxer) but also as an actor able to convey the emotional struggles that fuel our actions for good and bad.

I like our modern stars well enough, I am not insensitive to the charm of Depp or Clooney and I love a bit of Willis, who I can imagine if he had been born at the right time could have been a real tough guy but that’s the thing, he wasn’t.

The old stars, even when born into privilege like Bogart or Marvin, they had also experienced the Depression or the World Wars so they didn’t have to act tough, by virtue of the society they grew up in they just were.
The action stars of today have had to learn how to appear like tough guys. They have done all the boot camps and special forces training money can buy. They have sculpted each and every muscle into sinewy vascular perfection, just to make sure you really understand how hard they are.

Really though, they’re just a bunch of pussies who couldn’t brawl their way out of a nursery school class playing ‘sleeping lions’, let alone stand up to Bob Mitchum. Oi, Statham! I’m talking to you!