If anyone personified the Film Noir ethos it was Robert Mitchum. From his generally accepted "i don't give a shit" attitude to his sleepy eyes and laconic communication style, Mitchum embodied 'cool' before anyone had even fully defined it. His rough upbringing, riding the rails as a 14 year old runaway, instilled in him a perpetual wanderlust that reflected itself in the charismatic loners that he so often played. It also instilled in him a fatalism that so perfectly lent itself to his iconic Film Noir characters in films like Out of the Past, Angel Face & Where Danger Lives. Picking just 10 Noir films that feature or star Mitchum is no easy task, but the best of the bunch stands head & shoulders above the rest. His portrayal of Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past (Tourneur) is classic Mitchum, talking just enough to get a point across but nothing more. The film itself is an archetypal example of all things Noir: lightness being overwhelmed by darkness (literally & figuratively), the past dictating the destructive present, the manipulative femme fatale, & finally the resignation of the hero to accept what fate, happenstance and his actions have dealt him. Even the flashback structure of the film is pure Noir, revealing Bailey's past mistakes as harbingers of what will inevitably befall him in the 3rd act. Director Jacques Tourneur & cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca create an atmospheric reality that shifts seamlessly between Bailey's narration of the past and the inevitable present.
I'll group The Night of the Hunter (Laughton) & Cape Fear (Thompson) together only because Mitchum plays 2 characters that are relentless in their pursuit & both cause destruction, injury & death along the way. Powell, in Night of the Hunter is verbose, manipulative & driven by greed, while Max Cady, in Cape Fear, is emotionless, but smart & filled with rage. Both characters drive the respective plots with willful determination and capture what made Mitchum such a powerful movie star and a brilliant actor. His physical dominance is on display in both performances as he towers over those around him, both literally and figuratively. His performances demand that the viewer give the characters full attention and creates a sense of awe in the totality of their evil. What shapes these characters, however, is not just their evil, but the benevolent charm that runs beneath both performances. Perhaps Mitchum alone could have created these 2 characters with his blend of rugged good looks and laid back style.
Angel Face (Preminger) is an interesting movie all the way around. Jean Simmons plays classic femme fatale Diane Tremayne with an interesting twist, she is full on crazy. Unfortunately that doesn’t stop Mitchum’s Frank Jessup from falling under her spell, becoming completely manipulated by her & even putting his life at risk in her hands. Their first encounter sets the tone for the entire relationship, in fact, when Jessup slaps her to end a hysterical fit only to have her slap him right back. That masochistic undercurrent plays itself out throughout the entire movie, with several twisted relationships layered into Simmons’ Tremayne family tree for good measure. Otto Preminger, one of Noir’s finest craftsmen, adds wonderful touches, like Simmons’ dead eyed piano playing as her step mother lies dying upstairs & the sexual innuendo of Frank’s girlfriend Mary, assuming he has slept with Diane, say “I bet you’re tired”, slipping one past the censors.
The Racket is a different kind of performance from Mitchum, in that he plays righteous police captain Tom MgQuigg, not above banging some heads to get justice, but the only uncorrupt man in town. Mitchum plays McQuigg as a stone faced avenging angel, an outsider, but his portrayal belies Mitchum’s disdain for the twisted authority McQuigg represents. Robert Ryan plays the mobster Nick Scanlon as a classic gangster/boss, courtesy of screenwriter WR Burnett (Little Caesar ’31, High Sierra ’41), one of the inventors of the gangster genre.
Besides both being classified as Noir, Where Danger Lives (Farrow) & His Kind of Woman (Farrow) have little in common other than the same director, John Farrow (The Big Clock), & that both were released within months of each other. While Where Danger Lives is a more fatalistic and a purely dark piece, the main characters meet after a suicide attempt, His Kind of Woman has some sly wit & slapstick mixed with the normal Mitchum cool detachment. Between the two I prefer Where Danger Lives because of its dark tones & the last third of His Kind of Woman suffers from “Howard Hughes-it is” in that he reworked the climax more than year after original shooting was complete, adding he Raymond Burr character altogether. Both Faith Domergue, in Where Danger Lives, & Jane Russell, in His Kind of Woman, are wonderfully cast opposite Mitchum, but play very different femme fatales.
Crossfire is a fantastic film, but Mitchum plays a supporting role, so I have moved it further down the list. In Crossfire, a terrific morality story about Anti-Semitism, Mitchum is the wise voice of reason, playing Sergeant Keely, whose investigation helps to clear his friend of murder. Robert Ryan is brilliant as the troubled Montogomery, while the remaining cast, including Gloria Grahame, Robert Young & Steve Brodie are fantastic.
Mitchum defined Noir & in a certain sense Noir helped define Mitchum. His public persona was and still is indelibly linked to his Noir characters and so much of the Noir ethos that was identified by the French in the mid-fifties reflects Mitchum’s attitude towards life: Sometimes fatalistic, often dangerous, rarely purely romantic, but always cool.