Robert Mitchum in Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter
“He [Robert Mitchum] was my favorite movie star, and my favorite interview. He would tell you anything. He fearlessly maligned his directors, co-stars, even actors he had never worked with. ([Steve] McQueen? 'He doesn't bring much to the party.') He was once called 'the embodiment of film noir,' and that was about right.
“In 'From the Archives' this week, I'm reprinting four of the seven or eight interviews I did with Mitch. The first three take place between 1969 and 1971, during and after he made Ryan's Daughter. The fourth is at a tribute some 20 years later. You get a sense of his irreverence, his refusal to take himself seriously, and also, beneath the surface, a constant intelligence. Nobody can be that funny and not know what he is doing.
“David Lean's Ryan's Daughter was a critical and box office failure, but now I think I have to go back and look at it again, because I've been informed by the director Gregory Nava that he looked at the DVD, and was astonished to think it a masterpiece.”
Personally, I've never cared much for Robert Mitchum in film noirs. I like the mind-boggling Out of the Past, but mostly because of femme fatale Jane Greer. As far as I'm concerned, Steve Cochran would have been infinitely better in any of Mitchum's noir roles. Cochran was better looking, more menacing, more brooding, more sensual, and a more convincing ladies' man than Mitchum ever was.
In fact, I find Mitchum's somnambulistic approach to acting detrimental to most of his movies. There are, however, a few glaring exceptions. He is remarkably good in Fred Zinnemann's The Sundowners (1960, right), in which he co-stars with the even more effective Deborah Kerr. Both were cast against type: Mitchum plays an affable and somewhat “weak” sheepman, while the English Rose Kerr plays his wife and fellow Australian hick.
Mitchum is also good – in another non-virile role – in Ryan's Daughter. In fact, that may well be his best performance, though David Lean's highly uneven drama (I certainly find it no masterpiece) actually belongs to Sarah Miles.
In his interviews, Mitchum could indeed be quite caustic about other people he knew or had worked with. Entertaining reading (or watching) for some, perhaps, but in my view he often comes across worse than the people he so gleefully puts down.
Here's a (all-but-harmless) Mitchum quote from an interview Roger Ebert conducted in October 1969:
“But I don't give a damn, I must be good at my job; they wouldn't haul me around the world at these prices if I weren't. I remember one picture – Wonderful Country , I think it was – where the character comes across the border from Mexico. [Robert] Parrish was the director and he wanted me to gradually lose my Mexican accent and then pick it up again when I went back to Mexico.
“… Parrish is essentially a cutter, not a director. There are several of those. [Robert] Wise, for example, couldn't find his way out of a field without a choreographer. Bobby even times a kiss with a stopwatch. He marks out the floor at seven o'clock in the morning, before anybody gets there. Lays it all out with a tape measure. True. It's very difficult to work that way. I worked with him and Shirley MacLaine [on Two for the Seesaw in 1962] and Shirley said, 'Why doesn't he go home? He's just in the way…'"