Arts Extra:Being Robert Mitchum

I remember the first time I saw a picture of Robert Mitchum. I don't know exactly how old I was, but old enough to read, because I was already wasting a lot of time poring over the ads for movies in the local paper. This took a lot longer than it might have, since the medium-size Southern city where I lived had only three movie theaters. But it had at least that many drive-ins, too, and the drive-ins changed their fare a couple of times a week and showed at least two movies every night.

This included a lot of stuff the reputable theaters wouldn't touch--preporn smut like "The Immoral Mr. Teas" and biker flicks and wretched low-budget movie musicals out of Nashville with titles like "The Chartreuse Caboose." Elvis movies looked like O'Neill dramas compared to this stuff. And it was in this context that I first saw Mitchum, wild-eyed and out of control, leaning forward and leering at me in an ad for "Thunder Road."

The ad was as close as I would get to "Thunder Road" until I caught it on the late show as an adult. My parents would never have thought of taking me to see it, or seeing it themselves. This low-budget film about moonshiners was fit only for white trash. (Somebody liked that movie, though, because the drive-ins kept bringing it back, in a sort of permanent floating "Thunder Road" film festival.) Eisenhower was in the White House then, and he wouldn't allow Mitchum movies to be shown there because Mitchum had been arrested for possession of marijuana. The reaction among other middle-class Americans might not have been quite as specific, but generally I think they agreed with the president. Robert Mitchum was not someone you wanted to invite over for dinner. There was something scary about that man. Even his picture in the newspaper scared me.

By the time I ran into him again, I was a teenager watching the late show, and I'd forgotten that image of the wild-eyed man in the ad. I met a different, far more likeable presence in movies like "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" and "The Sundowners." You wouldn't mind having those big, easygoing, backtalking guys for a pal or a dad. Not that you could steal his stuff. I know, because I tried and got laughed at for my trouble. Still, it was good just knowing that here was a guy who could play a soldier, a detective, a private eye or an Australian sheep drover and yet always let you know that not only was he smarter and funnier than everyone else in the room but that he wasn't going to play by anybody's rules but his own.

Mitchum was one of those guys who sat in the back of the class, never said anything, never did his homework and yet you knew that he knew more than the teacher. And the teacher knew it, too. And then one night, up late, by myself, I saw "Cape Fear."

As the raping, murdering, dog-killing ex-con Max Cady, Mitchum was the scariest thing I'd ever seen, and I haven't seen much since to change my mind. Terrorizing goody-goody Gregory Peck's family while Bernard Herrmann's ominous soundtrack throbs in the background, Mitchum, wearing a short-brimmed straw hat and guayabera shirt while smoking a cheap cigar even in the courthouse, turns an ordinary movie into something so frightening that you completely forget he's acting.

Robert De Niro's replay of the role in the 1991 Scorsese remake is a mere cartoon by comparison, not least because you never forget that he is acting. When they made the first version in 1962, they had to cut several of Mitchum's scenes because the censors wouldn't allow the violence. In what we see, though, it's not the violence that's frightening, but what leads up to it.

Taunting Southern lawyer Peck, leering at his daughter, Mitchum lets you know that he'll stop at nothing to punish the man he holds responsible for sending him to prison for assault. And a little thing like his guilt doesn't stop him for a moment. Cady's convinced he's the injured party. No, he's convinced he's the hero. Somehow it didn't surprise me to read in Lee Server's excellent new biography, "Baby, I Don't Care" (St. Martin's), that Mitchum himself saw it this way: "Until things got out of hand at the end, the way he read the script was that Peck was the bad guy."

Mitchum had his dark side. He was a mean drunk. Toward the end of his life, he turned into a crackpot conspiracy theorist (being a loner and a freethinker, no matter how smart you are, has its inevitable drawbacks). And-the oldest story in Hollywood-he had trouble keeping up the pretense of being Robert Mitchum, always staying in character, drinking more, screwing around, acting insolent. But the gap between what Mitchum was and what he pretended to be was not nearly as big as it was for a lot of stars. He was a hardworking actor, sensitive, wrote poetry, knew Shakespeare. But he'd been busted for vagrancy as a kid, did hard time for a dope rap, despised authority and could act both spoiled and bullying when the mood struck him. The key thing was, he somehow managed to convey that sense of complication on screen. You liked him, and he scared you.

He was not a type, certainly not a type anyone had ever seen before on screen. "The big, muscular physique pegged him for tough guys and outdoor parts, cowboys and soldiers," Server notes. "But the attitude (wry, ambivalent), the style (indolent, soft-spoken), had none of the usual vitality and aggression of the standard-issue male star.... He seemed to withdraw from the camera as others would then try to attack it. But maybe this was some kind of trick because you found yourself watching him much more closely, afraid you would miss something, a gesture, a mumbled line, a ruffled eyebrow. His acting belonged to no school, no real tradition."

Hollywood never seemed to know quite what to do with him, Server writes, and as a result, "most of his jobs would be on the cinematic equivalent of the wrong side of the tracks: action movies, movies with fistfights and bullet wounds, movies about disreputable men and sultry, suspect females."

In light of that fact, it is surprising how many first-rate movies he appeared in, more than a few of them first rate because of his work. After starting out as the bad guy in Hopalong Cassidy westerns, he quickly found his footing in what we now call film noir and back then, in the postwar '40s, were simply dark crime and romance B-movies ground out by the second-string studios. (Server takes his biography's title from a line in "Out of the Past," the ultimate noir movie in which nobody, no matter how hard they try, gets the best of Mitchum, not even the implacably evil Jane Greer.) Noir's hallmarks are characters who are never all good or all bad (OK, maybe Jane Greer) and endings that, while they be poetically just, are never happy. For a guy like Mitchum, it was perfect weather.

From the '50s on, he appeared in several A-list pictures ("The Sundowners," "Home From the Hill") and a lot of forgettable fodder where his principal occupation seems to be keeping his dignity intact. He made one bona fide art-house flick, "The Night of the Hunter," directed by Charles Laughton in 1955. Critics, Server among them, adore this contrived, stagy story of a psychopathic preacher with LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, but I can't watch it past the scene where Mitchum kills Shelley Winters. (I never said it lacked all consolation.) Mitchum is engagingly creepy, but his psychokiller act is really just a run-up to Max Cady, and not even he can triumph over the gratingly artsy photography and some of the most pretentious dialogue ever written. But Laughton did give his star a great quote for his resume: "He is a literate, gracious, kind man with wonderful manners and he speaks beautifully-when he wants to.... Bob is one of the best actors in the world ... a great talent. He'd make the best Macbeth of any actor living."

On-screen and off, Mitchum knew how to deliver a line. He may have been Hollywood's wittiest star, certainly its most sardonic. When he got out of jail after doing time for possession of marijuana in 1948, the reporters asked him what it was like. "Just like Palm Springs," he replied, "without the riffraff."

When a director he didn't like stopped a scene and said condescendingly, "Bob, could we see that last little bit again," Mitchum deadpanned, "You mean the little pink part?" And whenever he was asked which of his movies he liked the best, he always said, "They don't pay me to watch 'em." But as Server demonstrates at length, Mitchum did care. No matter how much he drank, caroused and raised hell, he showed up on the set knowing his lines and working hard to make even the most pedestrian movie better.

Server supplies a wonderful encounter with the director Howard Hawks, another one of those Hollywood craftsmen who put in overtime pretending they weren't artists. Several weeks into the filming of shooting "El Dorado," Hawks told Mitchum, "You know, you're the biggest fraud I've ever met in my life."

"How come?" Mitchum asked, grinning.

"You pretend you don't care a damn thing," Hawks told him, "and you're the hardest working so-and-so I've ever known."

"Don't tell anybody," Mitchum said.

Mitchum finished his career doing mostly avuncular bit parts in movies that didn't get great reviews but are always fun to watch when they turn up on television. He has about 10 minutes of screen time in "Mr. North" and "Scrooged" ("... and Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim!"), but even here, in the guttering-volcano stage of his career, he owns every scene he's in. The last really great Mitchum role, though, was his version of Philip Marlowe in the 1975 remake of "Farewell, My Lovely." He was in his late 50s by then, a little old to play Marlowe maybe, but of all the actors who took a swing at the character, including Bogart, Mitchum nailed it the best. He was the only Marlowe who got the sadness, the aloneness of the private eye. Not so much in what he said or did, but just in the shambling, authoritative way he took up space in the film frame, he lets you know that he's too honest to ever be anything but poor, too smart to ever be conned, understanding everything and connecting with nothing and nobody.

His performance in that movie is a one-man valedictory to film noir and the hero who refuses to be soiled by his circumstances. But to say you like Mitchum in that role is the same as saying you like something that is no more-the movie works because it's a period piece, set in the '40s, the period that launched Mitchum's career and just about the last era in which Hollywood still minted larger-than-life movie stars. After that, it was as though the movies and their stars, like the country at large, lost confidence. Post-World War II stars like Paul Newman or Steve McQueen or, lately, Russell Crowe might give us some of the insouciance and rebellion we saw in Mitchum, but it was always a momentary thrill. They lack his gravitas, the moral authority (or was it the amoral authority?) that he brought to the party. And they totally miss the scariness that flickers around him like heat lightning. Because Mitchum was an antihero when that meant something. Whether he was a good guy or a bad guy, he challenged the social order. For good or ill, American bourgeois society does stand as the bulwark it was a half century ago, and the world is not so evenly split between hipsters and squares. You can't rebel against something that doesn't exist.

I think it was the sheer heft of Server's 590-page biography that drove home for me how much times have changed. When I was a kid in the '50s, it would have been unimaginable for anyone to write a serious biography of almost any movie star, much less a miscreant like Mitchum. Now nobody bats an eye. To Noah Cross's observation in "Chinatown" that "politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable with age," you could add bad-boy movie stars to the list. But in Mitchum's case, such assertions require instant amending. Because something about him still intrigues us, something beguiling and frightening that defies time. He may be respectable enough to warrant a serious biographer's attention, but he's also interesting enough to make us finish the book. If you look past the trenchcoats and the mai tais and the out of fashion '50s furniture of Mitchum's films, don't you find an attitude as oppositional and yet apposite as it was a half century ago? A man who works hard but makes fun of work? A libertine who despises and mocks the Puritanism that corsets American life in different guises just as surely today as it did in the Eisenhower era? A man who treats women the same way he treats men? When I finally caught up with "Thunder Road," I couldn't believe how gentle and courtly Mitchum's moonshiner was.

Mitchum still affords us a workable template of masculinity, a way of being human, that his cinematic contemporaries do not. Who wants to be John Wayne today? Who could be Cary Grant? At the end of his life, Mitchum was the last redwood left standing in a world clear-cut of its icons. He served out his time in pygmyish mini-series like "The Winds of War," in which, according to Server, Mitchum got the part of Pug Henry because, the producer said, "He's the only Gary Cooper still alive." I guess that was meant as a compliment, but today Cooper just seems like your grandfather's movie star, while Mitchum still seems like ... Mitchum. Long after he ceased to pose a threat to middle-class propriety, he continued to offer a pleasing-all right, a hip-alternative to the ordinary ways of making do.

Eulogizing him, the critic Dave Hickey hailed Mitchum as "a one-man Zeitgeist." He went on to recall that when he died, in 1997 at 79, actor Jimmy Stewart went 24 hours later, "and I choose to see the Hand of Providence at work in this, since the prospect of Jimmy Stewart in a world without Robert Mitchum is not one I like to contemplate." Who would? Mitchum, bless his heart, never tried to make the world a better place, but he sure as hell made it more interesting.