Robert Mitchum’s (1917-1997) first Western film (third film, overall) was Hoppy Serves a Writ (1943), starring William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy, and his last was the idiosyncratic “psychedelic Western” Dead Man (1995), starring Johnny Depp. Unusual bookends for an actor who made some of the finest of the genre in the middle of the 20th century.
[Check out Robert Mitchum's best Western roles!]
Hiding out in New Mexico, Jeb Rand (Mitchum) begins to recollect why he selected an abandoned, crumbling house when Thorley Callum (Teresa Wright)—who has brought him supplies—warns Jeb it’s not safe. In a flashback, we see him as a six-year-old in the same dwelling being rescued by Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson), who takes him to live with her and her children, Thorley and Adam (John Rodney). They continually move about for Jeb’s wellbeing because he is being hunted for the kill by Mrs. Callum’s brother-in-law Grant (Dean Jagger) in retaliation for the murder of Callum’s husband by Jeb’s father.
Innovative Western artfully directed by Raoul Walsh that noir historian Jake Hinkson (The Big Ugly, The Posthumous Man) calls, “… one of the premier examples of Neurosis In The West.” Controversial topics like repressed memory, hallucinations, and a passing hint of incest are broached in this cutting-edge production.
Both Montgomery Cliff and Kirk Douglas were considered and rejected for the role. Mitchum, known as “the soul of film noir” for classics like Out of the Past (1947), took the dark, tortured outsider and easily adapted it to the Old West while hardly missing his fedora and trench coat. Also, not to be overlooked is the magnificent cinematography from James Wong Howe—particularly in his use of shadows—and commanding music by Max Steiner, who had scored mega-hits Gone With the Wind (1939) and Casablanca (1942).
Trivia: This was the film that Jim Morrison of The Doors was watching on the night he died in 1971. [Source: IMDb]
Blood on the Moon (1948)
Based on Luke Short’s “psychological” Western Gunman’s Chance, Blood on the Moon stars Mitchum as Jim Garry, a gunfighter-for-hire beckoned by his friend Tate Riling (Robert Preston) to assist in swindling a cattle owner and some homesteaders in a convoluted scheme. Garry quickly tires of Riling, disgusted by his unprincipled motivations—though the plan would net Garry a cool $10,000. He switches sides and helps the locals, resulting in a violent showdown with Riling.
Atmospheric, brooding, and realistic in depictions of not only 19th-century clothing but structures like the low-ceiling abodes. According to Lee Server’s essential Robert Mitchum: “Baby I Don’t Care”, veteran actor Walter Brennan (and star of numerous Westerns) said of Mitch after seeing him on the set for the first time, “That is the goddamndest realest cowboy I’ve ever seen.” The critics took notice, with the New York Times declaring, “This picture has a sound, sensible story to tell and, besides, it is well acted. Robert Mitchum carries the burden of the film and his acting is superior all the way…”
Trivia: Writer Luke Short was a go-to source for dark-themed Western material. Other noted flicks worth your time include: Ambush, Station West, Ramrod, Vengeance Valley, and Coroner Creek.
The Lusty Men (1952)
Such a godawful title (endorsed by RKO’s Howard Hughes) for such a fine sleeper of movie focusing on desperate, nomadic characters like Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum), a washed-up rodeo star (at one point lamenting, “Hope’s a funny thing. You can have it even when there ain’t no reason for it.”), befriended by Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy), wishing to improve his own rodeo skills. Merritt’s opportunistic wife, Louise (Susan Hayward), who knows her husband’s limitations all too well, is against the idea but travels with them nonetheless as Merritt’s confidence and skills with the bulls improve.
There’s a run-of-the-mill soap opera aspect to the film, especially when McCloud makes a play for Louise that Wes happens upon. Still, those scenes are more than balanced by this vivid account of the 1950s “saddle tramps,” men and women in search of dough, and those few seconds of rush when riding the bulls.
Trivia: The screenplay, mostly written by Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), was significantly expanded to include late comer to the project Hayward in recognition of her star status. [Source: Robert Mitchum: “Baby I Don’t Care”]
Track of the Cat (1954)
The Bridges are a dysfunctional, rotten-to-the-core High Sierras family, living in squalor and confined to one house as a big winter storm approaches. Centered around bigoted middle brother Curt (Robert Mitchum), who squabbles with younger sib Harold (Tab Hunter) for the affections of Gwen (Diana Lynn). Rounding out the brood is sullen eldest brother Arthur (William Hopper) and hostile sister Grace (Teresa Wright), twisted with a religious-bent mother (Beulah Bondi) and a boozing, hapless patriarch (Phillip Tonge).
Circling around the “joyful” lot is Native American Joe Sam (Carl Switzer), who lost his family when a panther struck years before. He alerts the Bridges of a prowling cat in the vicinity, propelling Curt and Arthur out to hunt and resulting in dire consequences.
Director William A. Wellman had adapted another novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). Track of the Cat may not be on the same level as that revered classic, but it still captivates, bringing to the forefront primal human emotions spurred on by raw hatred.
Trivia: Filmed in Mount Rainer, Washington, during harsh elements, Mitchum considered Track of the Cat to be the bottom of the barrel shooting conditions over his career. [Source: Wikipedia]
The Wonderful Country (1959)
Having killed his father’s murderer, Martin Brady (Robert Mitchum) fled to Mexico to hide. Now, many years later and working for wealthy Mexican strongman Governor Castro, Brady travels to the Texas border to broker an arms deal but gets caught up in several complications after he slips over into The Lone Star State. He breaks his leg, the guns are stolen, and most dangerous of all, he falls in love with the very married Helen Colton (Julie London), whose husband is offering Brady a pardon in return for his help. Eventually, Brady ends up back south of the border where he has to deal with Castro, who wants Brady—in payment for the lost weapons—to kill his brother.
Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck had turned down the chance to play Brady. Given the opportunity, Mitchum excelled in another against-the-odds outsider role. He also served as executive producer and, knowing he was footing part of the bill, turns in a nuanced, well-developed character. One of his finest performances.
Trivia: Baseball’s Leroy “Satchel” Paige has a cameo as a cavalry sergeant, and the barber giving Mitchum a shave is none other than The Big Country’s author Tom Lea.
Not in the creative cinematic league with the above films but still of note are: River of No Return (1954), teaming Mitchum with iconic goddess Marilyn Monroe; and El Dorado (1967), featuring Mitchum and John Wayne in a shameless but lively retread of Rio Bravo (1959).
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.