Big Bad Bob: Robert Mitchum in MAN WITH THE GUN (United Artists 1955)

Rugged Robert Mitchum is pretty much the whole show in MAN WITH THE GUN, a film by first  time director (and Orson Welles protege) Richard Wilson. It seems a strange choice at this juncture of Mitchum’s career. He was just coming off four big films in a row (RIVER OF NO RETURN, TRACK OF THE CAT, NOT AS A STRANGER, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER ), then makes a low budget Western that harkens back to his days making ‘B’ Zane Grey Westerns at RKO. But that was Mitchum; always the maverick who did things his way.

The film itself isn’t bad: Mitchum plays a notorious gunslinger, a “town tamer” hired by Sheridan City to clean things up from the clutches of boss ‘Dade Holman’ (who isn’t seen til the end, but whose influence is everywhere). There’s a subplot with his ex-wife Jan Sterling, now running the dance hall girls at The Palace, and the whereabouts of their five year old daughter. Another subplot involves Karen Sharpe, daughter of town council leader Emile Meyer, catching feelings for Mitchum, to the chagrin of her young, headstrong fiance  John Lupton. But don’t let the soap opera elements fool you: MAN WITH THE GUN is an exercise in violence, with Mitchum a killing machine who has no problem mowing down bad guys. Wilson and N.B. Stone Jr’s script dips briefly into the psychological reasons Mitchum’s character does what he does, making him more than just a one-dimensional gun-for-hire.

Wilson had helped stage plays for Welles’ Mercury Theater of the Air, and worked as Welles’ assistant on CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, and associate producer on LADY FROM SHANGHAI and MACBETH. He completed the documentary IT’S ALL TRUE: BASED ON AN UNFINISHED FILM BY ORSON WELLES shortly before his death in 1991, and appears posthumously in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND . While he’s no Welles, Wilson manages to create some moody, almost film noir-ish scenes with the help of ace cinematographer Lee Garmes (the burning down of The Palace in particular is well staged). His directorial filmography is skimpy, but includes some interesting vehicles, like THE BIG BOODLE (starring a dissipated Errol Flynn), AL CAPONE (with Rod Steiger as Scarface), the well-regarded noir PAY OR DIE, and the AIP sex romp THREE IN THE ATTIC.

MAN WITH THE GUN also benefits from a supporting cast of Familiar Faces, including veteran Henry Hull as the ineffective town marshal, Ted de Corsia as the Palace’s manager (complete with bad French accent!), Leo Gordon and Claude Akins as heavies, young Angie Dickinson as a saloon girl, and Jay Adler, Barbara Lawrence (as a dizzy blonde), Burt Mustin, Maidie Norman, Maudie Prickett, Stafford Repp, Buddy Roosevelt, Amzie Strickland, and James Westerfield (who sets up the film’s finale). The film’s no classic, but will satisfy fans of both Westerns in general, and Robert Mitchum in particular. I fall into both categories, so of course I liked it; the rest of you will have to watch and judge for yourselves!

 

 

Special Memorial Day Edition: Randolph Scott in GUNG HO! (Universal 1943)

Duke Wayne wasn’t the only movie cowboy who fought WWII in Hollywood. Randolph Scott battled fascism in quite a few war dramas, and one of his best is 1943’s GUNG HO! (currently streaming on The Film Detective ). The rock-solid Mr. Scott plays tough-as-nails Col. Thorwald, an expert in guerilla warfare thanks to his experience with the Chinese army, who whips a diverse crew of Marines into fighting shape to launch the first American ground offensive against the Japanese on Makin Island.

Scott and his second-in-command, the versatile character actor J. Carrol Naish (playing a Marine of Greek descent this time around), gather up a motley crew of misfits and reprobates ala THE DIRTY DOZEN:  there’s battling stepbrothers Noah Beery Jr. and David Bruce (who’re also rivals for the affections of pretty Grace McDonald in a subplot), hillbilly farmboy Rod Cameron, murderous minister Alan Curtis , “no good kid” Harold Landon (from Brooklyn, of course!), hustler Sam Levene , and most notably a young Robert Mitchum as a scrappy ex-boxer with the moniker ‘Pig Iron’. A shirtless Bob made the bobbysoxers swoon, and he was soon cast in a series of ‘B’ Westerns at RKO, then scored big two years later in another war flick, THE STORY OF G.I. JOE , leading to superstardom and screen immortality.

There’s plenty of blazing combat action, and the violence is quite brutal for the era, but we were at war, and War is Hell. Director Ray Enright handles it all well, with plenty of help from some of Universal’s best: DP Milton Krasner, editor Milton Carruth, composer Frank Skinner, and special effects wizard John P. Fulton . Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Hoffman’s script was based on the first-hand account by Lt. W.S. LeFrancois, first published in The Saturday Evening Post. Besides those previously mentioned, other Familiar Faces to film fans include Irving Bacon (in a funny bit as a soda jerk), Peter Coe , Dudley Dickerson, Louis-Jean Heydt, Robert Kent, Richard Lane, Walter Sande, and Milburn Stone. Those of *ahem* a certain age will recognize the voice of newscaster Chet Huntley narrating the proceedings.

Carlson’s Raiders: The Real Heroes of Makin Island

Modern day viewers may cringe at some of the blatant racist epitaphs hurled towards the Japanese (“I wanna kill Japs”, “I just don’t like Japs”), but once again I need to remind you of historical context. Pearl Harbor was still fresh in America’s collective mind, and retaliation was demanded. The real raid on Makin Island was the first strike, led by Lt. Col. Evans Carlson and his second-in-command James Roosevelt (FDR’s son). The 2nd Raider Battalion was transported by submarine to the Japanese stronghold, and the bloody two day battle resulted in the destruction of Japan’s garrison, with 46 verified enemy kills. The Americans weren’t spared either: 28 dead (including nine who were captured and later executed), 17 wounded, and 3 MIA. Today we honor those who sacrificed their lives on Makin Island and in other battles for the cause of freedom. Before you eat those hot dogs or bask on the beach, remember them in your thoughts and prayers.

Pot O’Gold: Robert Mitchum and the Ames Brothers Sing “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral”

TV impresario Ed Sullivan hosted an Irish-themed “really big shew” on St. Patrick’s Day in 1957. Among his guests were actor Robert Mitchum (promoting his new Calypso record!!) and musical quartet The Ames Brothers, who joined sleepy-eyed Bob for a rendition of “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral”:

Now you can begin your St. Patrick’s Day festivities… and remember, drink that green beer in moderation!

Special Veteran’s Day Edition: THE STORY OF G.I. JOE (United Artists 1945)

William Wellman’s THE STORY OF G.I. JOE tells the tale of boots-on-the-ground combat soldiers through the eyes of war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist for Scripps-Howard newspapers. The film was one of the most realistic depictions of the brutality of war up to that time, and made a star out of a young actor by the name of Robert Mitchum . In fact, this was the one and only time Mitchum ever received an Oscar nomination – a shocking fact given the caliber of his future screen work.

Burgess Meredith  plays Pyle, who embeds with the 18th Infantry’s ‘C’ Company in order to give his stateside readers the grim realities of war from the soldier’s point of view. The men accept him, affectionately calling him ‘Pop’, as he shares their hardships, heartbreaks, and victories. Meredith’s voice over narrations are taken directly from Pyle’s columns, detailing the cold nights, dusty roads, and slogging across muddy rivers, as they campaign through the rugged Italian terrain. Pyle and Captain (later Lieutenant) Walker (Mitchum) bond, the diminutive writer and the battle-hardened Walker sharing Grappa as they discuss life, love, and the pain of losing comrades in the midst of war.

Mitchum stands tall as Walker, his breakthrough role after toiling for five years in mostly ‘B’ Westerns. Walker, with his scruffy beard and stoic demeanor, is the embodiment of the American fighting man, fiercely loyal to his troops, tough when he has to be, tender during somber moments. The haunting final scene, as the soldiers solemnly pass by Walker’s corpse, will bring tears to the eyes of even the hardest hearted viewers. Mitchum’s restrained performance, under the watchful eye of director Wellman, led to his casting in larger roles and eventual superstardom.

Former Middleweight boxing champion Freddie Steele does outstanding work as Walker’s second in command, Sgt. Warnicki, whose eventual crack-up after trying to hold it together for so long is amazing to behold. The rest of ‘C’ Company’s main players (John R. Reilly, Wally Cassell, Jimmy Lloyd, William Murphy) all get their chances to shine, and real-life veterans of the Italian, Sicilian, and African campaigns are featured to add further authenticity.

William Wellman’s insisted on having his actors train with actual soldiers in California to insure that authenticity – they didn’t call him ‘Wild Bill’ for nothing! Wellman, DP Russell Metty, and the rest of the crew worked as a team, much like the soldiers themselves, to create a realistic depiction of the harshness of war. Wellman was a combat veteran himself, having been a fighter pilot during WWI, which helped provide the backdrop for his Oscar-winning film WINGS. Otho Lovering’s editing deserves special credit for putting it all together.

War correspondent Ernie Pyle (1900-1945)

The real Ernie Pyle was killed in action covering the Pacific front in Okinawa on April 18, 1945, two months before THE STORY OF G.I. JOE was released. War correspondents like Pyle were just as brave as the soldiers they covered,  putting themselves in harm’s way in order to bring the battle directly to the public, and sharing the human interest drama of the foot soldier’s struggles and triumphs. As we set aside this day to honor those who served, I leave you with this quote on returning veterans from a man who served in his own small way, the late Ernie Pyle:

“Our men can’t make this change from normal civilians into warriors and remain the same people. Even if they were away from you under normal circumstances, the mere process of maturing would change them, and they would not come home just as you knew them. Add to that the abnormal world they have been plunged into, the new philosophies they have had to assume or perish inwardly, the horrors and delights and strange wonderful things they have experienced, and they are bound to be different people from those you sent away.”

 

 

Happy 100th Birthday Robert Mitchum!: THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (United Artists 1955)

Regular readers know I’m a big fan of Big Bob Mitchum, having covered nine of his classic films. The self-effacing Mitchum always downplayed his talents in interviews, but his easy-going, naturalistic style and uncanny ear for dialect made him one of the screen’s most watchable stars. Whether a stoic film noir anti-hero, a rugged soldier fighting WWII, a romantic lead, or a malevolent villain, Mitchum always delivered the goods. Last night I watched THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER for the first time, and his performance as the murderous ‘Reverend’ Harry Powell just zoomed to the top of my list of marvelous Mitchum performances.

Mitchum’s Powell is totally amoral and totally crazy, a sociopathic killer who talks to God about killing women, those “perfume smelling things, lacy things, things with curly hair” that The Lord hates, according to Harry. He’s sexually repressed to the point he must murder in the name of God to find release, and believes God provides for his evangelism by pointing him toward widows with money to act as sacrifices. Powell is by turns charming and savage, ingratiating himself to the townspeople with his pious act in public, cold as the devil’s tail privately. His hands are tattooed with the words “Love” and “Hate”, enabling him to sermonize on the duality of man’s nature:

Listen to Mitchum’s pitch-perfect vocal cadence; he could fit right in as a cable network Southern preacher right now! The Rev has come to this idyllic West Virginia town after being incarcerated for car theft. His cellmate was Ben Harper ( Peter Graves ), a Depression Era man who robbed a bank to feed his family and killed two people in the process. Before being hanged, Harper let slip where he stashed the $10,000 from the crime. Only his two children know the secret, and Powell has ventured forth to do God’s work by finding out where the money’s hid. He woos and wins Harper’s widow Willa ( Shelley Winters ), but Harper’s son John immediately recognizes Powell for what he is, a con man come to steal the ill-gotten gains Dad left behind.

Mitchum creates such a chilling character in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, you’ll have no reason to cheer for him. On his wedding night, he berates his new bride for her carnal instincts, later murdering her with his switchblade in their bedroom after she learns the truth about him. The bedroom itself is designed to resemble a cathedral, their bed a sacrificial altar. He cajoles and threatens the kids, growling and howling like an animal, eyes blazing from their sockets like the devil himself. It’s a portrait of pure evil straight out of a horror movie, and Robert Mitchum proves all his talk about being a “one-note actor” was just blarney. But that’s Mitchum being Mitchum, a true artist who was so good at what he did he made it look easy.

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was the only film directed by another great actor, Charles Laughton , who used the expressionistic style of silent film directors like F.W. Murnau and especially D.W. Griffith, to the point of casting Griffith star Lillian Gish in the pivotal role of Rachael Cooper, a farm widow who takes in stray youngsters, and becomes the salvation for the Harper children. Miss Gish stands toe-to-toe with Mitchum both in her character and in the acting department, the “Love” to Harry Powell’s “Hate”. The entire cast is superb, with James Gleason a standout as alcoholic “Uncle” Birdie, who discovers Willa’s body at the bottom of the Ohio River. Don Beddoe , Gloria Castillo, and Evelyn Varden also shine in their minor parts.

The film wasn’t well received at the time of its release, and a disheartened Laughton never directed another film. It’s our loss, as his baroque stylings made THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER a masterpiece of cinematic art. Today it’s regarded as a true classic, and the performance of Robert Mitchum has a lot to do with that. Along with his Max Cady in CAPE FEAR, Mitchum embodies evil unlike any other actor in film. Happy 100th birthday Bob; here’s to 100 more years of audiences enjoying your wonderful work!

For more on Mitchum this 100th birthday anniversary, follow these links:

OUT OF THE PAST (1947)

WHERE DANGER LIVES (1950)

HOLIDAY AFFAIR (1949)

HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951)

MACAO (1952)

ANGEL FACE (1952)

THE RACKET (1951)

THUNDER ROAD (1958)

THE SUNDOWNERS (1960)

 

The Land Down Under: THE SUNDOWNERS (Warner Brothers 1960)

G’day, mates! Let’s take a trek through the wilds of 1920’s Australian outback with  , Robert Mitchum Deborah Kerr, and a herd of bouncing sheep in THE SUNDOWNERS. Fred Zinnemann, generally associated with serious, tense dramas like HIGH NOON and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, lends a lighter touch than usual to this sprawling, almost John Ford-esque tale of an itinerant sheep drover and his family, and the wife who longs to settle into a home of her own.

Mitchum plays Paddy Carmody, a stubborn Irishman who has to keep moving, unable and unwilling to be tied to one place. He’s a wanderer with a fondness for booze and gambling, and Big Bob is perfect for the part. Mitchum’s penchant for dialects make his Aussie accent more than believable, and his facial expressions, especially during the sheep-shearing contest, are priceless. Deborah Kerr is his equal as wife Ida, the tough Earth Mother who’s loyal to Paddy but forever dreaming of a permanent home for them and son Sean (Michael Anderson Jr.). As good as Mitchum is, Kerr’s the heart of the film, and she was Oscar nominated for this performance, losing out to Liz Taylor in BUTTERFIELD 8.

Peter Ustinov  joins them along the way as Briton Rupert Venneker, like Paddy a wandering soul, who becomes attached to the Carmodys. Ustinov, as always, shines in the supporting role of the vagabond Englishman, who meets a match of his own in chatty hotelier Mrs. Firth (Glynis Johns, who was also Oscar-nominated). Dina Merrill and Chips Rafferty are among the supporting cast, as are a number of less well-known Australian actors.

The colorful, scenic cinematography is by Jack Hildyard, who won an Oscar for BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, and whose work can be seen in HENRY V, CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, THE VIP’S, and MODESTY BLAISE . Hildyard captures the hardscrabble back country wilderness with a keen eye, and kangaroos, koalas, and dingos pop up everywhere. The deadly forest fire scene is a highlight, as is the horserace later in the film. The delightful visuals are set to a marvelous Dimitri Tiomkin score.

THE SUNDOWNERS gathered five Oscar nominations in all, including Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay (Isobel Lennert ). It did not win any; in fact, the film did poorly here in the U.S., although it was a hit in Britain and Australia. It was only later, in part because of exposure through television, that it has come to be appreciated by many fans, including Yours Truly. It’s a warm, family oriented comedy-drama with beautiful location photography and top-notch performances by Mitchum, Kerr, and Ustinov. Fred Zinnemann made some of cinema’s finest films about the human condition, and THE SUNDOWNERS is one of them. It’s lighthearted tone is what probably keeps the cognoscenti from ranking it higher in Zinnemann’s body of work; to me, it’s worth reappraisal.

Quench the Devil’s Thirst: Robert Mitchum in THUNDER ROAD (United Artists 1958)

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Robert Mitchum  puts the pedal to the metal as a moonshine runner at odds with both the Feds and gangsters in THUNDER ROAD. This is Mitchum’s most personal picture, not only starring but producing, writing the story (and two songs!), and, rumor has it, doing much of the directing. His notorious independent streak comes through in his character Luke Doolin, a Korean War vet who believes in the right of individual ownership, whether on his land or in his car, and free market enterprise, without interference from outsiders or the government. That’s right, Luke Doolin is a true Libertarian hero!

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He’s also the best damn driver in River Valley, Kentucky, as we see in the opening scene, speeding down the backroads, eluding police with the greatest of ease. The Doolins have been making moonshine for generations, with daddy Vernon running the still, baby brother Robin the family mechanic, and mama Sarah praying for their souls every Sunday at church. The local menfolk are all anti-authority, and refuse to knuckle under to big city gangster Kogan and work under him, even after one of their own dies in an “accident”. Vernon tells the crowd Luke has promised to fight the crime cartel tooth and nail, to the death if necessary.

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Kogan and his hoods aren’t the only problem facing Luke. Special Treasury Agent Troy Barrett of the Beaureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Tax Division has been assigned to nab the cocky Luke, who’s been making a mockery out of them. The only problem Luke doesn’t have is with women, as both sweet Roxanna back home and sultry singer Francine in Memphis are in love with him. When Kogan’s men try to take him out with guns on a lonely stretch of highway, Luke pulls the old oil slick trick, sending the goons to their death in a fiery crash. Confronting Kogan at his Memphis HQ, Luke answers his “How rough do you want it?” query with a swift karate chop, peeling out as he makes his getaway only to be chased down by the cops.

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Barrett tries to make a deal with Luke to nail the gangster, but stand-up guy Luke will have none of that. Barrett tells him the Feds now have him on file, and will put the pressure on, but Luke nonchalantly replies, “First you got to catch me… if you can”. Luke’s 1951 Ford Coupe is now red hot, and he reluctantly sells it to his cousin Jed. The Feds see it parked, and Barrett’s partner approaches, only to be blown to smithereens along with Jed thanks to a bomb planted by Kogan’s men. Barrett and his agents launch an all-out assault on River Valley, busting and blowing up stills, hoping to put an end to the war. But Luke’s determined to make one more run, especially after finding out Kogan plans to set up his baby brother, resulting in a mad dash to Memphis with both a killer on the road and the Feds out to stop him.

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The low budget might make you think Mitchum’s been plopped smack-dab in the middle of an AIP exploitation flick; it’s got that kind of vibe to it. But it all works, mainly thanks to Mitchum’s enviable cool factor. He’s just so easy-breezy as Luke Doolin (as he was in most of his films) one can’t even tell he’s acting. Perhaps that’s why he never won an Oscar; he makes it look too easy. Even during his love scenes with singer Keely Smith (Francine), who’s as wooden as a popsicle stick, you believe him. Robert Mitchum was that damn good.

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The part of little brother Robin was expressly written with Elvis Presley in mind, but his greedy manager Col. Tom Parker wanted too much money, so producer Mitchum hired his son James to play the role. Mitchum’s other son Christopher also appears briefly as a washboard player in the dance scene, making this a family affair (both younger Mitchum’s went on to film careers). Gene Barry (TV’s BAT MASTERSON, BURKE’S LAW) handles the part of Federal Agent Barrett like he’s DRAGNET’s Joe Friday, and that’s not a knock, it’s a compliment. Other Familiar Faces besides the aforementioned Miss Smith include Jacques Aubuchon, Trevor Bardette, Sandra Knight, Peter Breck (Nick on THE BIG VALLEY), and Randy Sparks, who sings the title tune. Mitchum himself later recorded his version of the song, hitting the pop charts in both 1958 and 1962!

THUNDER ROAD was a big hit on the drive-in circuit for decades, and influenced a whole genre of moonshine runner movies. Veteran director Arthur Ripley, who hadn’t made a film in a dozen years, gets the credit, though most sources agree Mitchum was calling the shots. The pace is fast and furious, but THUNDER ROAD isn’t just an action pic; it’s a political statement on individuality and freedom without being overtly political about it. How I wish modern-day Hollywood filmmakers would learn from it, instead of trying to hammer us over the head with their message!