Robert Mitchum (1917-1997) may have gotten his start in Westerns, but it’s his reputation in the world of noir that became indelible. Other actors had ascended the genre throne before him, but with Out of the Past, “The Soul of Film Noir” stole the crown and never looked back. The following list could have easily been twice as long, but these six are essential to his iconic status.
Out of the Past (1947)
Femme Fatale Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) tells Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), “I didn’t know what I was doing. I, I didn’t know anything except how much I hated him. But I didn’t take anything. I didn’t, Jeff. Don’t you believe me?” His classic reply: “Baby, I don’t care.” Though smitten, the no-bullshit detective calls it the way he sees it.
He’d been hired by gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to bring his girlfriend, Kathie, back for a cool $10,000. She’d left Sterling, absconding with forty grand in total. But guys like Bailey, no matter how hardboiled they appear on the outside, fall for bad girls like Kathie. Before long, with the bodies piling up and the bullets whizzing past, he advises her, “Build my gallows high, baby.”
For many critics and aficionados, Out of the Past is THE noir film to beat the band, and Mitchum’s performance—along with his world-weary eyes and sardonic wit—represents the crème de la crème of the genre. Adding immensely to the atmosphere was the lighting by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who had set the standard with 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor (the set was apparently so dim that Jane Greer quipped, “You didn’t know who else was there half the time.”).
The Big Steal (1949)
A frantic cops-and-robbers tale filmed on location in Mexico by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) again teams Mitchum and Jane Greer—this time as victims of Jim Fiske (Patrick Knowles), who swiped a $300,000 Army payroll from Duke Halliday (Mitchum) and $2,000 from Joan Graham (Greer). Both injured parties chase the thief to and across Mexico. Out to get all of them is Captain Vincent Blake (William Bendix), Halliday’s boss, who wrongly suspects that Fiske and Halliday were in cahoots.
The Big Steal is a 71-minute chase that never lets up on the juice, providing several twists along the way. The fake-looking rear projection car scenes are dated, but the wild pace and crisp direction from Siegel make this one of the premier 1940s noir flicks. Because Mitchum was jailed during production, Siegel altered the script several times to work around the inconvenience, resulting in a very rewarding, frenzied mini-masterpiece.
Trivia: RKO head Howard Hughes had kept former girlfriend Greer from appearing in any films because she’d refused his persistent affections (she married businessman Edward Lasker instead). But after several actresses bowed out of the film—not wanting to appear alongside the tainted Mitch following his marijuana arrest—Greer, having no such reservations, stepped in and cemented another memorable part for herself.
Where Danger Lives (1950)
Dr. Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) is on duty at San Francisco General Hospital when a beautiful woman who'd attempted suicide, Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue), is brought in. He saves her life, and to thank him, she invites the handsome doc over for a house call. Before you can say “Calling Dr. Kildare,” he’s spending the night, forgetting about his loyal lady love, Julie (Maureen O’ Sullivan).
The amorous visit turns to tragedy when Cameron discovers Margo is married to Frederick Lannington (Claude Rains). In a struggle with her husband, Cameron knocks the older man unconscious. Later, when he finds out Frederick has died, Margo and Cameron make a run for the Mexican border where the good doctor learns there are even more disturbing sides to Margo.
After Mitchum’s ’48 bust for marijuana possession and subsequent jail time, he was given a series of low-budget productions to determine whether the bad publicity would blow over. He didn’t miss a beat, elevating bloated, melodramatic scripts like Where Danger Lives into notable noir classics. Observe him acting drunk, which many Hollywood performers of the era would have turned to over-the-top theatrics. Mitchum, however, who claimed to have never been caught acting, plays it subtly to perfection.
His Kind of Woman (1951)
Say what you will about Howard Hughes, he was never boring, and that squirrelly brain put some quirky movies on celluloid—or, rather, others did while he kept tinkering with the script. Known for working on films for so long that they eventually became outdated (Jet Pilot)—or in the case of His Kind of Woman, continually crafting a new climactic sequence whether it made any sense or not—somehow, that becomes its charm.
The wayward plot finds down-on-his-luck Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum) accepting a $50,000 job if he flies to Mexico and awaits further instructions. Unbeknownst, at first, to Milner is that mob boss Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr) plans on having a plastic surgeon turn him into Milner so Ferraro can return to the United States.
Trivia: Howard Hughes forever obsessed with details, especially of the curvy kind. He’d written a memo about star Jane Russell’s outfits: “I want the rest of her wardrobe, wherever possible, to be low-necked (and by that I mean as low as the law allows) so that the customers can get a look at the part of Russell which they pay to see.” [Source: Robert Mitchum: “Baby I Don’t Care” by Lee Server]
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
A gothic, noir masterpiece based on the novel by Davis Grubb. Robert Mitchum plays Reverend Harry Powell, who marries women and kills them for their money. He learns that Willa Harper’s (Shelley Winters) deceased husband had hidden $10,000 on the family property, but only much later does he realize that the couple’s two children are also in the know—though they won’t tell where. Powell kills Willa and then begins hunting down the kids to get them to talk, eventually coming up against Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), an old woman who defends the youngsters against the approaching evil.
Mitchum, who was a drifter during the 1920s, was familiar with the part he played, saying, “I knew the character, fairly well, having grown up and rambled around in that territory, you know, I was a kid. Yeah, I made several trips out here on freight trains, you know, bummed all through that country.”
Trivia: The classic long shot of the boy watching Powell on horseback was not Mitchum but a little person on a miniature horse.
Farewell, My Lovely (1975)
Brilliant casting of Robert Mitchum as Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. A neo-noir set in 1941 with the always cynical Marlowe hired by former convict Moose Malloy (Jack O’ Halloran) to find his ex-girlfriend Velma. He begins connecting Moose’s case with another one he’s investigating—that of murdered client Lindsay Marriott (John O’Leary) and a stolen jade necklace. From the initial shots of the knight errant looking out of a seedy hotel window down to the dirty streets he patrols to the final shot, Mitchum owns every bit of this striking film. Here’s the voiceover opening narration:
“This past spring was the first that I felt tired and realized I was growing old. Maybe it was the rotten weather we'd had in L.A. Maybe it was the rotten cases I'd had. Mostly chasing a few missing husbands and then chasing their wives once I found them, in order to get paid. Or maybe it was just the plain fact that I am tired and growing old.”
So popular upon its release in 1975, a sequel, The Big Sleep, followed in 1978, which uprooted Marlowe to London. Unfortunately, it lacked the charm of Farewell.
Trivia: Hardboiled writer Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280) has a cameo as Judge Grayle, and a young Sylvester Stallone plays a hood.
David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.