"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Westerns of Robert Mitchum


Don’t tell anybody



From a tenth-billed part as a heavy in Border Patrol, a 60-minute Hopalong Cassidy oater of 1943 to eighth in the cast list as the bad guy in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man fifty-two years later, with 29 Western appearances in between, Robert Mitchum took on the great genre, and won.

Of course he was Bob Mitchum, so a lot of the time he went through the motions, sleep-walking through the Western parts assigned to him. He used to say that they painted eyeballs onto his closed lids. One of his catchphrases (and the title of Lee Server’s entertaining biography of him) was “Baby, I don’t care”. But occasionally he turned in a blindingly good performance. He was right for the genre, being tall, rangy, craggy-faced, tough and taciturn, and he suited the part of lonesome drifter. He’s one of my favorite Western actors.

He started with those small parts in the Hoppy movies, pleased to get them after grueling work in the wartime Lockheed aircraft factory. He was in seven of these pictures in 1943 alone (nearly always as desperado, only in Bar 20 being a clean-shaven good guy). He said he didn’t know the first thing about movie acting but for a hundred bucks a week he’d be quite happy to play a young girl if required. In one of his very few scenes his sixgun fails to fire and he looks down perplexed at it. That would have been “Cut!” and reshoot for anyone but Lesley Selander. As it was, the director let it go, Bob delivered his first ever line of movie dialogue (“Come on, let’s get out of here!”) and, as he later put it, “My fortune was made.”
 
 
Mitchum’s confidence grew and with it his screen ‘presence’. He won more prominence, movie by movie. It was acting school for Mitch. “I was very pleased to work on the Hoppys,” he said. “Supper on the ground, free lunch, a hundred dollars a week, and all the horse manure you could carry home.”

1944 was a big year. He got a Western lead for the first time. B-Western star Tim Holt had gone into the service and RKO needed a replacement. Nevada was very much the Hopalong Cassidy formula. Like Hoppy, Jim Lacy (Mitchum), nicknamed Nevada, rides with two sidekicks, a ‘character’ and a youth. Mitch is tall and handsome and has learned to ride surprisingly well since his first, disastrous attempt on the set of Border Patrol the year before. There was no romance in this demure (not to say juvenile) picture. It’s a lot of fun, though.
 
 
Almost immediately, it was back to the remote and hostile Lone Pine locations for a sequel, West of the Pecos. The crew was much as before. Mitchum was now Pecos Smith. The style of Nevada was a rather straight B-Western one but Pecos is essentially comic in tone and Mitch seems more confident and laid back. He’d moved on from Hopalong to be hip along the trail. There’s less classic cowboy action in this picture and more concentration on the romance.

The studio was happy with both films and wanted Mitchum to continue as lead in B-Westerns but he got arrested for a brawl and had to enlist to avoid jail time. Bob Mitchum would not be the new Tim Holt after all.

But Mitch wasn’t done with oaters. Far from it.

Screenwriter and novelist Niven Busch had found in some El Paso archives the story of a vicious feud in which a young boy had been brought up by the family responsible for wiping out his own, and he persuaded Warners to create a filmed version, Pursued. He added modern Freudian tinges of childhood trauma and repressed memory as well as the obligatory love interest.
 
 
Busch wanted a new, young, strong actor for the male lead, someone not immediately identified by the audience as a goody. Mitchum was tough, Mitchum was powerful but above all, Mitchum was cool. And the picture made Mitchum as a Western star.

Two very good Westerns followed in 1948 (that wondrous Western year), Rachel and the Stranger and Blood on the Moon.

Rachel and the Stranger is not a Western in the sense of sixguns or stage hold-ups or anything. It’s a pre-Civil War pioneer story. Parts of it are sweetly American, bucolic. It had a big name in the lead, Loretta Young, and it had two youngish but up-and-coming stars next-billed in William Holden and Robert Mitchum. And it did healthy business, earning $395,000, quite good box-office for the 1940s and the studio’s biggest hit of ‘48. Mitchum is the dashing, glib (if rather obviously named) Jim Fairways who charms and woos Holden’s bondservant/wife. It is in fact a classic love triangle.
 
 
Mitch has a sparkle in his eye. He sings for the first time on screen. He was proud of his voice and made records (including an EP of Rachel songs) but, well, as a singer I would say he made a good actor. In Rachel he prefigures The Night of the Hunter (a splendid film though not really a Western) as he arrives on horseback, singing.

We’ve already said that Mitchum could sleepwalk through roles and was in a lot of weak Westerns; it was a job. But every now and then he fired on all cylinders. And when he fired, boy, was he good. In Blood on the Moon he is electrifying as the gun-for-hire who, as his partner says, “always had a conscience breathin’ down your neck.”
 
 
It helped that the writing was superb. Luke Short’s 1941 novel Gunman’s Chance, upon which the movie was based, was a tight, gripping action-Western in the very best tradition. Veteran RKO director Robert Wise scorned horse operas – he only made three and the other two were weak Bs – but he loved noir. He clearly had great talent and he brought it all to bear directing Blood on the Moon.

Then there’s the look of the thing. As befits a noir, Blood is in black & white, many scenes being set in rain, at night or in shadowy interiors, and the high country snow settings are magnificent. Wise went for authentic costumes by poring over old photographs. Mitchum had stubble and greasy hair. Blood on the Moon was a seriously classy Western, one of the best of 1948 and one of the cinematic highlights of the post-War period. It is essential viewing for any serious Western buff, and normal human beings would enjoy it too.

At the end of the 1940s and start of the ‘50s Robert Mitchum did two semi-Westerns, the first, on a loan-out to Republic, a version of John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony in 1949, with Mitch as Billy Buck, and then the rodeo picture The Lusty Men in 1952.

The first was a film which Mitchum was happy to do as a lifelong Steinbeck reader, and the script was by the author himself. The picture had music by Aaron Copland and was in Technicolor (Mitchum’s first color movie), so it was a prestige project.

Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men was altogether different. Hollywood was rather good at rodeo pictures. But tall in the saddle above them all is this last classic picture by RKO, a film with a few flaws but which comes close to being a masterpiece. It is a later page in the history of the Western in the sense that it deals with the sadness of the passing of the old Western ways and the beat-up Westerner with nowhere to go. The title was lurid - courtesy of Howard Hughes. They really should called it The Losers.
 
 
Most of all, of course, there is the performance of Robert Mitchum. He towers over this, literally in the sense that he seems so much taller than anyone else but also in the authority and impressiveness of his portrayal. It was one of his finest roles. Tough, mean, hard as nails, he hints at a heart of marshmallow. He was in some ways the perfect Western hero. You believe totally in every one of his broken bones and erstwhile triumphs. He’s down on his luck, all broke up, an ex-champ with nowhere to go, but he retains one trait in spades, and that is integrity.

River of No Return in 1954 was planned by Fox as a quick low-budget B-movie but it just growed like Topsy. It was Otto Preminger’s only Western and featured Marilyn Monroe with Mitchum.  It had dramatic Canadian Rockies locations in Cinemascope. It should have been a wow, and indeed it did well at the box office. It is in fact quite good, in a way. But quite good doesn’t make great. It’s a raft story, as Bob ‘n’ Marilyn battle rapids, mountain lions, Indians and badmen, sometimes all on the same afternoon, on their way downriver from their cabin burnt by Indians to the safety of Council City.
 
 
Track of the Cat was another semi-Western. Mitchum loved the movie The Ox-Bow Incident (he claimed to watch it every year) and that had been based on a story by Walter Van Tilburg Clark and directed by William Wellman. Now Mitch was loaned out again, to John Wayne’s Batjac company, to make another Wellman/Clark picture, for Warner Bros. Wellman and his talented cinematographer William Clothier made a black & white picture in color: they used color film for a palette of blacks, whites and grays. It was a visual masterpiece (though Jack Warner, who was paying $500,000 extra for color, was furious). Mitchum was again superb. As growling brother Curt Bridges, “a cheap dirtymouth bully”, it was the most unsympathetic role he attempted.

A ‘true’ Western followed in 1955, the town-taming marshal story Man with the Gun (United Artists), Mitch’s first after leaving RKO. The film is pretty much a B-Western, yes, but it’s tightly directed and well put together. The acting is perfectly adequate and there’s a tension throughout. I fear Mitch was back in painted-eyeball sleepwalk mode but just occasionally he turns the autopilot off and comes to life.  When he hears that his daughter is dead, he teeters on the edge of madness, losing his usual icy calm by shooting the owner of the Palace Saloon, then burning it down. But then he regains control (and goes back on auto).
 
 
The print available now is in a curiously washed-out black & white and so everyone is in various tints of gray. This doesn’t help the several times referred-to point that Mitchum dresses all in gray. Well, yes, they all do. Although Mitchum didn’t really give it more than his usual competent professionalism, Man with the Gun is a very watchable Western and is well worth a look.

Robert Mitchum finished the Western 1950s with two Mexican pictures, Bandido (1956) and The Wonderful Country (1959). He always loved Mexico, spoke passable Spanish and was more than happy to make movies there.
 
 
Bandido is a fun, noisy actioner done with gusto. Its limited length helps keep the rhythm pacey and tight: a lot is packed in. Mitchum was not quite so much on autopilot this time. He was, naturally, insouciant and nonchalant (those words were probably invented to describe him) but there was a certain electricity to him too. He was clearly enjoying it.
 
 
Right at the start of the movie, there he is in a white suit, a glass of whisky on the balustrade, lobbing hand-grenades (nonchalantly and with insouciance, obviously) from a hotel balcony down on the troops of the side he didn’t care for (the federals) even though it was the federals that would have paid him more for the arms he could get. Well, of course, Mitchum would be excellent: his character is a hard-drinking, womanizing, contrary outsider.

12 years later Mitch was back in Mexico in Villa Rides! in which he was a gringo gun runner with Pancho Villa but that movie was a dud. It had a ridiculous Yul Brynner in a toupee as Villa. It was a great might-have-been, in fact, because Sam Peckinpah was to have written and directed it but that never happened.

Before then, though, Mitchum was back south of the border to make The Wonderful Country. From one point of view, The Wonderful Country is a slow-paced Western with too little action. And certainly if you are expecting another Mitchum gringo-in-Mexico picture with revolutions and machine-guns you are going to be disappointed.
 
 
But the film is an intelligent, subtle, introspective story about a man in search of himself. On these terms, it is excellent. Henry Fonda and then Gregory Peck were considered for the part, but turned it down. Mitchum was perfect for it. He always thought of himself as a renegade adventurer. He was just right in the role of Martin Brady, an American who fled across the Rio Grande when young and became a Mexican, but who would always be regarded as a gringo there and a Mexican when in the States. It was one of Mitch’s greatest performances.

As for his later Western career, it was slightly less than glorious. Robert Mitchum led or co-starred in seven in the 1960s and early ‘70s, starting with two in 1967, The Way West (which he only took so that he could go fishing on the location), and then El Dorado with John Wayne. Huge, epic, nice to look at, The Way West was nevertheless a bit of a clunker. The movie is (marginally) shorter than the trek down The Oregon Trail would have been and certainly less dangerous, but probably just as dreary.
 

El Dorado was Howard Hawks saying, If all else fails, remake Rio Bravo. Mitchum was professional in it but he thought the movie poor. It is said he had this conversation with Hawks:

“You know you’re the biggest fraud I’ve ever met in my life,” said Hawks.
“How come?”
“You pretend you don’t care a damn thing … and you’re the hardest working so and so I’ve ever known.”
“Don’t tell anybody.”

5 Card Stud in 1968 and two Westerns in ’69, The Good Guys and the Bad Guys and Young Billy Young, had saving graces but they were distinctly average and none of them sparked Mitchum’s interest greatly. Once again, he went through the motions. In The Wrath of God in 1972 Mitchum was again a preacher with a gun but it was junk. Really, The Wonderful Country was the last fine Western that Robert Mitchum led in.

In Tombstone in 1993 Robert Mitchum was to have played Old Man Clanton but tragically was injured and his part written out. He gets to speak the voiceover prologue and epilogue, though. He did that ruthless mine-owner cameo in Dead Man in 1995 and for Westerns, that was all she wrote. He died in 1997.


6 comments:

  1. Thanks for this. I'm really ambivalent on Mitchum -- sometimes I like him a great deal, and sometimes not so much. I think his attitude of I don't care prevents a deeper feeling for him on my part.

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    1. Yes, I can see why you might say that.
      But I thought he was just great!
      Jeff

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  2. Great actor not only in westerns...He always seemed to be underacting but in fact he really got down to his 'role', you know what I mean? It's a bit difficult for me to express myself in English.
    Bart (from Belgium)

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    Replies
    1. Hi Bart
      I think you've put your finger on one of the qualities of great movie actors: underplaying it, hardly 'acting' at all. In Westerns, the masters of this were Glenn Ford, Randolph Scott and, above all, Gary Cooper.
      Best wishes,
      Jeff

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    2. Hi Jeff
      I totally agree with these names, especially in the movies of Daves, Boetticher and Mann.
      Greetings
      Bart

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    3. I meant of course: in the films of Daves, Boetticher and Mann...
      sorry
      Bart

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