Centenary Valentine: Robert Mitchum Vulnerably in Love

| © RKO Radio Pictures

With his barrel chest, subterranean baritone, and “I don’t give a f__k” attitude, the movie star Robert Mitchum personified the ideal of old-fashioned manliness for both and women. Yet on occasion, he was also a tender romantic.

Robert Mitchum—who was born over 100 years ago on August 6—stood 6 ft. 1.5 in. tall (1.86m) and weighed 200 lb. (90.7kg). He didn’t measure up to the behemoth Johnny Cash sings about in Jerry Reed’s song, “A Thing Called Love,” but he was close enough:
“Six-foot-six, he stood on the ground
He weighed two hundred and thirty-five pounds
But I saw that giant of a man brought down to his knees by love.
He was the kind of a man who would gamble on luck
Look you in the eye and never back up
But I saw him cryin’ like a little whipped pup because of love.”
Cash—at 6 ft. 2 in. (1.8m) and 190 lbs. (86.2kg)—may have been singing about himself, but the lines about luck and looking “you in the eye” fit Mitchum to a tee. Where this hunk of beef stood on love is less clear. Was Mitchum ever vulnerable (and if ever he were, what hope would there be for less-formidable specimens of manliness?). As might be expected, there are clues to Mitchum’s romantic sensibility in both his work and what people have said about him.

With Jane Greer in Out of the Past

In public, Mitchum exuded the faintly humorous detachment of a cynic who knows that human nature sooner or later makes everyone untrustworthy. He talked disparagingly about his acting career—often in terms of his paychecks—unwilling to admit that some of his movies were art lest he sound pretentious.

“A poet with an ax”

Mitchum, the sometime-brawler and nihilist who could be coarse and boorish in public, may have been a little abashed by his capacity for tenderness, but it leaks out on screen and in acting contemporaries’ anecdotes about him. Nastassja Kinski, 44 years Mitchum’s junior and then involved with Vincent Spano, recalled him coming to her trailer during the filming of Maria’s Lovers (1984), handing her a small ivory elephant, and walking away. The burden of maintaining a macho image may prompt the release of the closeted romantic.

Married for 57 years to the former Dorothy Spence, Mitchum had dalliances of different intensities, but always returned home. He and Shirley MacLaine fell in love when they made Two for the Seesaw (1962). Mitchum biographer Lee Server reports that Mitchum said he felt “deprived” when MacLaine took a week off in Hawaii during the filming.

With lover Shirley MacLaine in Two for the Seesaw

Mitchum had described himself to MacLaine as “a poet with an ax.” They roved together during their subsequent affair. Drawing on MacLaine’s memories, Server wrote: “Once, in a farmhouse they rented outside Paris, he watched her taking a bath, and tears began welling in his eyes; he told her he was crying because she looked so beautiful.” He wouldn’t leave Dorothy, however, and the relationship with MacLaine ended after she visited him on the Kenya set of Mister Moses in 1964.

Mitchum was famous for his sleepy-eyed nonchalance, sometimes a mask for deep reserves of feeling, sometimes for something else. He could play haunted (Pursued, 1947), quietly authoritative (Crossfire, 1947), likable (Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957). He could be snide and vicious (Track of the Cat, 1954) and brutally personify evil (Night of the Hunter, 1956, and Cape Fear, 1962).

Fatally passive characters

In Ryan’s Daughter (1970), he reticently portrayed a village schoolteacher in 1916 Ireland who takes a young bride (British actress Sarah Miles). He makes love to her mechanically, neglecting her pleasure, so she starts an affair with a young British officer (Christopher Jones). The cuckold tries to ride out the crisis stoically, treating his wife respectfully. In an acoustic ballad, the Liverpool rockers Julian Cope and Ian McCullough wrote about Mitchum, Cope sings, “The part in ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ where you lose your wife/ I’ve never seen a more dignified man in my life.”

At his most virile peak from the mid-1940s through the 1950s, Mitchum sometime played film noir dupes doomed by amour fou. In Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) and Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1952), his fatally passive characters collude in their destruction by seductive psychopaths played by Jane Greer and Jean Simmons respectively. Mitchum’s street-smart ex-race-car driver-turned-chauffeur in the poisonous fairytale Angel Face becomes almost lugubrious when drawn into the force field of Simmons’s matricidal socialite.

Wth Sarah Miles in Ryan’s Daughter

In Nicholas Ray’s elegiac The Lusty Men (1952), Mitchum’s Jeff McCloud, a rootless, fading rodeo star, falls for the wife, Louise (Susan Hayward), of the upstart rider (Arthur Kennedy) he mentors. Though he addresses Louise lasciviously as well as romantically, he yearns for coupledom and a home. In love with a woman who has no intention of leaving her husband, he is forced eventually to make the tragic existential choice of proving his prowess in the arena one time too many.

Tragic triangle

There is a tragic triangle in Out of the Past, too. Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey, a former detective running a lakeside garage in sleepy Bridgeport, Californian, has a last-chance shot at happiness with a local girl, Ann (Virginia Huston), who adores him. Obliged to report to the Lake Tahoe home of the the wealthy, corrupt gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), Jeff confesses to Ann that Sterling had once hired him to find his girl, Kathie Moffat (Greer), who had shot Sterling and absconded with $40,000 of his money.

An extended flashback shows Jeff tracing Kathie to Acapulco, where the inevitable happens. Dressed deceptively in white, Kathie steps out of the sun into a cantina’s darkness where Jeff is waiting for her. Cool, slender, certain of her effect, she lights her cigarette. Jeff, transfixed, approaches her table, and it starts. They meet in other cantinas, spend their evenings together.

One night, they walk along the beach. Fishing nets are hanging out to dry—Kathie’s webs. Jeff kisses her. They slip down beside a boat on the sand, the glint of the moonlit Pacific behind them. Kathie knows Whit has sent Jeff to bring her back. Jeff rebukes her for nearly killing Whit. But a breeze is ruffling her hair close to Jeff’s face—its scent must be intoxicating. Kathie lies about hating Whit and tells Jeff she didn’t steal Whit’s money. “I didn’t, Jeff. Don’t you believe me?” she pleads. moving her mouth close to his. “Baby, I don’t care,” he replies, and kisses her long and hard.

With Jean Simmons in Angel Face

Mitchum’s classic catchphrase

“Baby, I don’t care” has become Mitchum’s equivalent of “Play it again, Sam.” Also included in the title of Server’s Mitchum biography, the line is often invoked to suggest that star’s insouciant disregard for anything that might matter was a philosophical position, which, as Mitchum himself would have argued, is horse shit. When Jeff says those words, he surrenders his male authority as Whit’s emissary and his own integrity. Out of the Past is one of those canonical noirs that feminist film critics have identified as redolent of male sexual paranoia in the fraught post-war era.

Mitchum was never so poetic as when narrating how and why Jeff succumbs to Kathie in language that is hard-boiled, but soft-centered. His words are those of a man sleep-walking through a dream—as directed by Kathie:

“I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where she lived. I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end. Maybe we thought it was a dream and we’d wake up with a hangover in Niagara Falls.

“I wired Whit but I didn’t tell him. ‘I’m in Acapulco,’ I said. ‘I wish you were here.’ And every night I went to meet her. How did I know she’d ever show up? I didn’t. What stopped her from taking a boat to Chile or Guatemala? Nothing. How big a chump can you get to be? I was finding out. And then she’d come along like school was out, and everything else was just a stone which sailed at the sea.”
As Jeff recalls his entrapment to Ann, he implies, but of course can’t spell out to her what happened next, so Tourneur and his cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca depicted it as an idyll. Kathie, smiling, barefoot, trips along to Jeff on the beach. She invites him back to her faux-exotic cottage and they run in to it giggling as the rain crashes down. They briskly dry each other’s hair and she leans back in his arms on a couch. The scene ends after Jeff flings the towel at a lamp, knocking it over, and wind blows the front door open (see clip above). The camera discreetly goes outside and looks at the falling rain.

Jeff flees with Kathie to San Francisco, where they live like fugitives in the shadows. Working again as a detective, Jeff opens an office. It was, he tells Ann, a “Cheap little rathole, which suited the work I did. Shabby jobs for whatever hire. It was the bottom of the barrel, and I scraped it. But I didn’t care. I had her.” Emasculated by love, he abased himself.

Emasculated by love

As indicated by her shooting of Whit and her lighting of her cigarette in the cantina, Kathie usurps phallic power in the film, and she emphasizes it before Jeff by coldly shooting his ex-partner (Steve Brodie) for attempting to blackmail them. Jeff’s struggle to re-invent himself by living independently and anonymously in Bridgeport (also the name of the Connecticut town where Mitchum was born) is foredoomed by his past.

With Susan Hayward in The Lusty Men

Shirley MacLaine reportedly developed a crush on Mitchum when, as a 13-year-old, she saw Out of the Past in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Writing of their affair years later in her book My Lucky Stars, she made Mitchum sound as inert as Jeff Bailey: “He had no desires, not in relation to food, an evening out, or an evening in. His attitude to lovemaking was the same, He never took the initiative. He enjoyed it certainly, he was sweet and tender, but I never really knew what he wanted. Anything was okay.”

In 1991, I interviewed Mitchum at the house of his friend and neighbor Jane Russell in Montecito, California. We didn’t talk about women much, and love not at all. When I told him that Out of the Past is regarded as one of his greatest films and asked him about the rewrites of the script during production, Mitchum said: “The thing that stands out in my mind is flying up to the location in Bridgeport, California, and wrecking the plane on arrival…. I was in the co-pilot’s seat. I had the same chance as the pilot. At the last second, he jammed down and threw the throttle forward and took a right oblique. He took down a couple of fences, jumped a ditch, knocked over an Indian privy…. The two guys in the back fainted. The pilot just turned to me and said, ‘No brakes.’”

The truth about Robert Mitchum? Baby, he didn’t care.

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