Robert Mitchum: 10 essential films

These are less than 8% of the 130+ films that Mitchum made. But you gotta start somewhere…

David Parkinson
Updated:

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

“You know you can’t act,” Katharine Hepburn berated Robert Mitchum during a row on the set of Vincente Minnelli’s Undercurrent (1946), “and if you hadn’t been good looking you would never have gotten a picture.” Mitchum might not have agreed about his looks, as he compared himself to “a shark with a broken nose”. But, despite his public flippancy (“learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture”), he took acting very seriously. He liked to joke “it sure beats working” and that producers only hired him when they couldn’t think of anyone better for the role. “I don’t care what I play,” he quipped. “I’ll play Polish gays, women, midgets, anything.” But Mitchum tended to do most things well.

Following a troubled childhood and vagabond youth, he cultivated a bad boy image of chain gangs and marijuana busts. Yet he wrote children’s plays and the text for an oratorio. He also recorded a calypso album and reached No.62 in the US charts with ‘The Ballad of Thunder Road’. But, having made 20 films in his first year in Hollywood, Mitchum made a commitment to cinema and resigned himself to the fact that for every good picture he made, four more would be trash. “I wear the same suit, speak the same lines, throw the same punches,” he once complained. “All they do is change the girl.”

In all, he racked up more than 130 credits, with his laconic drawl, moral ambiguity and cynical, heavy-lidded passivity seeming to suit every genre. But Mitchum knew his limits. “People can’t make up their minds whether I’m the greatest actor in the world – or the worst. Matter of fact, neither can I.”

Story of G.I. Joe (1945)

Director William A. Wellman

The Story of GI Joe (1945)

Robert Mitchum made the leap from debuting villain in a Hopalong Cassidy western to Oscar-nominated star in just two years. Director William A. Wellman was sceptical about his casting, but was deeply moved by Mitchum’s unique talent during a camera test of the scene in which Lieutenant Bill Walker writes to the mothers whose C Company sons won’t be coming home from southern Italy. Acting alongside 150 of the “mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys” who had actually survived the campaign, Mitchum conveyed the everyman courage that prompted General Dwight D. Eisenhower to declare this tribute to the infantry and journalist Ernie Pyle “the greatest war picture I’ve ever seen”.

Out of the Past (1947)

Director Jacques Tourneur

Out of the Past (1947)

Scripted by James M. Cain and Daniel Mainwaring from Build My Gallows High, the pulp novel the latter wrote as Geoffrey Homes, Jacques Tourneur’s noir masterclass is a flashbacking exposé of human nature at its worst. No wonder the Breen Office insisted that the sin and sex were toned down. Roy Webb’s lowering score insinuatingly complements Nicholas Musuraca’s low-key monochrome imagery, while the rivalry between Mitchum’s runaway shamus and vicious gambler Kirk Douglas positively crackles. But the fascination lies in femme fatale Jane Greer’s ruthless destruction of a basically good man, who shruggingly accepts his inescapable fate with the iconic line: “Baby, I just don’t care.”

Angel Face (1952)

Director Otto Preminger

Angel Face (1952)

Femme fatales could see Mitchum coming, with Jane Greer in The Big Steal (1949), Faith Domergue in Where Danger Lives (1950) and Jane Russell in His Kind of Woman (1951) all running rings round him. But he was perhaps puttiest in the hands of Jean Simmons in this steamy story of the stepdaughter and the chauffeur. On first meeting the psychotic heiress, Mitchum is an ambulance driver with a devoted sweetheart. But he rapidly develops a reason-robbing obsession that has to end badly. On the set, however, Mitchum proved anything but malleable, as he thumped director Otto Preminger for browbeating Simmons at the behest of RKO chief, Howard Hughes

Track of the Cat (1954)

Director William A. Wellman

Track of the Cat (1954)

As Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947), Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952) and Otto Preminger’s River of No Return (1954) all testify, Mitchum had a thing about offbeat westerns. But this ‘film blanc’ ventures further off the beaten track in combining Eugene O’Neill-style domestic dysfunction with Jack London-esque outdoor adventure. Returning to novelist Walter Van Tilburg Clark after The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), director William Wellman conspired with cinematographer William Clothier to drain much of the colour from Mitchum’s snow-lashed hunt for a marauding panther. The effect is as stark as the black-and-white symbolism that is epitomised by Mitchum’s bullying brother using a volume of Keats to light a bonfire.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Director Charles Laughton

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

With the words ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattooed on his knuckles, preacher Harry Powell ranks among the most evil characters in screen history. Yet, despite exuding malicious tombstone charm, Mitchum often found himself directing Bill Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce, as first-timer Charles Laughton wasn’t entirely sure how to explain his intentions to a 12 and a six year-old. He was on surer ground with production designer Hilyard M. Brown and cinematographer Stanley Cortez, however, as he invoked the spirits of D.W. Griffith and German Expressionism to render David Grubb’s novel as a “nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale”. Mitchum rightly rated this his most complex and complete performance.

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

Director John Huston

Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (1957)

Australian Charles Shaw’s fact-based novel The Flesh and the Spirit had been lined up for Marlon Brando before Mitchum was teamed with Deborah Kerr. The Pacific island relationship between Mitchum’s marine and Kerr’s novice nun irresistibly recalled John Huston’s The African Queen (1951). But Huston and screenwriter John Lee Mahin downplayed any romantic notions to focus on the corps, the Church and the testing of faith. Mitchum exudes muscular chivalry as the “big dumb guy”, while the Oscar-nominated Kerr’s revisits her pragmatic piety from Black Narcissus (1947). They would reunite to equally good effect in 1960 on The Sundowners and The Grass Is Greener. 

Cape Fear (1962)

Director J. Lee Thompson

Cape Fear (1961)

Harry Powell might have been evil incarnate, but Max Cady is driven by a reckless ferocity that makes him far more terrifying in J. Lee Thompson’s seething adaptation of John D. MacDonald’s novel, The Executioners. Disgruntled by the prospect of co-starring with Rod Steiger or Telly Savalas, Gregory Peck had to talk Mitchum into taking the role of the predatory sex offender seeking revenge on the attorney who had put him behind bars. But he threw himself into the role, gashing his hand while menacing Polly Bergen on the houseboat and playing rough with Peck during their brutal river fight. Yet, despite his exertions, Mitchum never bothered watching the film. 

El Dorado (1966)

Director Howard Hawks

El Dorado (1966)

Something about beleaguered sheriffs appealed to Howard Hawks, as this loose adaptation of Harry Brown’s novel, The Stars in Their Courses, bears an uncanny resemblance to Rio Bravo (1959) and Rio Lobo (1970) that is reinforced by the presence in all three of John Wayne. “You and Duke play two old cowboys,” Hawks told Mitchum. But when the actor asked about the plot, he was informed: “Oh, no story, Bob, Just character. Stories bore people.” There’s actually lots of plot. But, much to screenwriter Leigh Brackett’s dismay, Hawks backgrounded the looming range war to concentrate on the friendship between Wayne’s hired gun and Mitchum’s whisky-soused lawman.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

Director Peter Yates

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

Although Peter Yates’s adaptation of lawyer-turned-novelist George V. Higgins’s bestseller is rarely mentioned in discussions of the cinema of disillusion produced in the United States in the Watergate era, few films expose the lack of honour among thieves with such bleak mundanity. Trying to solve the “big fat problem” of the jail sentence hanging over him, Mitchum’s Boston bakery driver (and covert booze- and gun-runner) seeks to cut a treacherous deal with FBI agent Richard Jordan. But bartender buddy Peter Boyle is one step ahead of him. Mitchum had his role trimmed because he only wanted to work three weeks, but his display of hangdog fatalism proved indelible.

Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

Director Dick Richards

Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

Mitchum remains the only actor to have played Philip Marlowe on the big screen twice. Little needs to be said about Michael Winner’s 1978 remake of The Big Sleep, but Dick Richards and screenwriter David Zelag Goodman deftly caught the spirit of Raymond Chandler and the mood of post-Nixonian America in using nostalgia to comment on their own debased times. The 57-year-old Mitchum may be a world-weary cynic, but he’s also a romantic. Why else would he keep delving deeper into depravity unless he hoped to find a client’s lost love? Dean Tavoularis’s production design and John A. Alonzo’s photography provide the neo-noir chic. But the essence is pure Mitchum.

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