One of Hollywood's most tantalizing star actors of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Robert Mitchum was a performer who never wanted to be a star but who embodied such seemingly contradictory iconic roles as the intelligent loser, the apathetic rebel and the sexy but fatalistic slob, and who later stood out as one of the last working reminders of Hollywood's golden age.
His early life and famous 1948 conviction for possession of marijuana suggested some of the qualities he would bring to his screen roles as tough and hard-working but restless, alienated and unfocused heroes. His family lived in a number of locales and Mitchum boarded with relatives as well before he ran away from home and was eventually arrested for vagrancy. He worked as a coal miner, boxer and shoe store clerk before he drifted into acting as a career. Heavy-lidded and sleepy-eyed, with a seductive speaking voice, a barrel chest and a prominent cleft in his chin, Mitchum began his film career in 1942 and played a string of heavies in western features before coming to prominence with his role as the heroic Lt. Walker in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945).
Mitchum's deceptively relaxed style and combination of insolence and charm produced many memorable performances, notably in the dark psychological Western Pursued, the definitive film noir Out of the Past (both 1947) and, as Philip Marlowe, in Farewell, My Lovely (1975). Mitchum was a key personification of the noir sensibility, his sluggish, sexy vulnerability making him an ideal dupe for screen femme fatales and translating beautifully into existential angst in Where Danger Lives (1950) and Angel Face (1952). The rough-hewn but often playfully rowdy aspects of his persona also adapted themselves well to the Western, from the noirish Blood on the Moon (1948) to the fine saga of disenchanted rodeo riders, The Lusty Men (1952) to the comic hijinks of his drunken sot in El Dorado (1967).
His quiet brand of artistry also enabled him to shine in roles that could easily have been overplayed; he was truly outstanding, for example, in such psychologically complex roles as the brutal father of Home from the Hill (1960). By the same token, there was often an insinuating trace of flamboyance in Mitchum's performance style, which made all the more striking those parts which he played with all the stops out, as in two justly famous roles in which he came to seem the personification of evil: as a brutal ex-con who seeks to destroy the lawyer responsible for his conviction, in Cape Fear (1962); and, even more memorably, as a murderous itinerant preacher who preys upon two defenseless children, in The Night of the Hunter (1955).
Mitchum's peak period was from the late 40s through the early 60s, and though he made films opposite such completely inappropriate co-stars as Katharine Hepburn (Undercurrent 1946) and Ann Blyth (One Minute to Zero 1952) he also teamed briefly but memorably with two stars who highlighted different aspects of his acting persona. In His Kind of Woman (1951) and Macao (1952), Mitchum's low-key, glumly wisecracking wanderer found a perfect mirror reflection in the sullen, impudent magnetism of Jane Russell as the camera regularly highlighted their equally photogenic chests. Beginning with the touching, two-character WWII story of a nun and a solider, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1956), and peaking with the marvelous study of an Australian sheepherder who can't settle down, The Sundowners (1960), Mitchum found another ideal co-star who brought out his gentler, rough diamond qualities, Deborah Kerr.
One of the most durable of Hollywood leading men and, until fairly recently, one of its more underrated actors, Mitchum has continued to appear in films through the 90s. The mid-60s saw the beginning of a general decline into routine Westerns (Villa Rides 1968), strange melodramas (Secret Ceremony 1968, The Wrath of God 1972) and the occasional modest comedy (Mister Moses 1965, Matilda 1978). Mitchum's subtle work as a schoolteacher, though, was the best thing about David Lean's handsome but vastly overblown quasi-epic, Ryan's Daughter (1970) and he also appeared in such interesting films as the sensitive The Yakuza (1975) and the moody The Big Sleep (1978), where he reprised his Philip Marlowe role.
A versatile performer, Mitchum during the past decade has concentrated on several miniseries (notably The Winds of War 1983 and its sequel War and Remembrance 1988) and other TV work (the misfire sitcom A Family for Joe 1990, with Mitchum as a homeless man adopted as a grandfather; the adventure series African Skies (Family Channel, 1992-95). These relied more on an increasingly stolid stalwartness, only partly due to age but accruing naturally to his legendary status, rather than on the simmering physical dynamism he had embodied for so long. If Mitchum sometimes did seem stiffer and a bit more inert, he lent considerable dignity to his narration for Tombstone (1993) and made a welcome cameo in the remake of Cape Fear (1991). Most importantly, Robert Mitchum proved that the image of the tough but weary ne'er-do-well turned reluctant hero could not only be the stock-in-trade of an often superb actor, but could also prove to be almost inspirational for generations of moviegoers.
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