best film:   For Robert Mitchum it is a three horse race at the top for his best film. From those he plays a significant role in, it is either the 1947 noir classic Out of the Past or Charles Laughton’s only film as director, the 1955 sort of southern gothic horror fable Night of the Hunter. Taking in all of Mitchum’s filmography though, it is Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 postmodern western Dead Man that would take the top slot overall. This is Jarmusch’s most beautiful film from a photographic standpoint (back to his trademark black and white after two straight color films in his career). This is Mitchum’s final archiveable film, and he gets a couple of very funny scenes alongside lead Johnny Depp. Still, sticking to films with Mitchum as sort of the main course, Out of the Past is a finely tuned narrative machine and Mitchum is perfect as the fatalistic hero. Mitchum does the heavy lifting in front of the camera (though Kirk Douglas steals a few scenes) and that sublime script does not sound as sweet as it does with any other actor, besides Mitchum, doing the voice-over.


Mitchum in Out of the Past – the best male acting performance in a film noir


best performance:  When Robert Mitchum is on screen for Night of the Hunter the film takes off to another level. One could say that about most of Robert Mitchum’s films, but it is especially true with his Harry Powell character. Powell is an all-time hypocrite and charlatan. This is a haunting portrayal and the love vs. hate monologue is justifiably legendary at this point. Mitchum also has that booming baritone voice that is perfect for the hymns and sort of sing-song dialogue delivery.


The Night of the Hunter is much more than just the chance for Robert Mitchum to sink his teeth into the Harry Powell character as one of the all-time great screen villains. It has been described as one of the great American Gothic films – Charles Laughton described it himself as a “nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale”- and it is extremely musical – there are four songs in the first 18-minutes, and Mitchum’s marvelous baritone often sings a few bars of “Leaning” to a horrifying effect. At the 20-minute mark Mitchum (what a voice for a preacher) gives his “love and hate” monologue (Spike Lee pays homage in Do the Right Thing with Bill Nunn’s Radio Raheem). Mitchum is just uncanny as Powell. It is sort of the opposite of what the new acting trends and Marlon Brando is doing in the early 1950s, but a watershed role and performance nonetheless.


stylistic innovations/traits: Mitchum is a bit of an anomaly as he largely succeeded, artistically,  in his career without the backing of a singular collaborative auteur. He does not have a John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock or Sergio Leone to help him get there. This is both sort of a compliment, and what probably keeps him from going higher on this list. Mitchum was largely ignored by the Oscars. His one nomination, a non-win, is in a film that is not in the archives (The Story of G.I. Joe). Mitchum excelled in noirs and as villains. Two of his best three turns are as villains (Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear). A short list of the best screen villains (Heath Ledger The Dark Knight, Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds) has to include Mitchum. Out of the Past is mandatory watch in any film noir study and Mitchum is the greatest male lead in any film noir – no small feat. It also does not hurt Mitchum’s case that he outduels Robert De Niro (the best actor of all-time) in Cape Fear playing Max Cady. De Niro plays the Mitchum role in the 1991 Martin Scorsese remake. Mitchum’s on-screen persona (his style is closer to the classic Hollywood Humphrey Bogart type than the Marlon Brando/Montgomery Clift/James Dean type) is an existential longer, an outsider who does not give a rip. Mitchum called the dialogue “lyrics” and there is most definitely a rhythm to his way of delivery – very musical. If someone believes in the actor as auteur theory – Mitchum is a poster child. His character is always in the know, brooding, with his destiny set (usually against him). Mitchum’s twenty-five (25) films in the archives is a strength. And as no small footnote, he may be the single actor most at home in both an urban setting noir and a western. Bogart could not do the wild west really. John Wayne would struggle as a bit city detective or private investigator.


Cape Fear – the introduction of Mitchum tells the viewer everything – much like Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and the economy of the introduction of the Joseph Cotton Charlie character laying on the bed in his room. Mitchum’s Max Cady here stares at a young woman’s behind on the street, he does not help an older woman who drops a book, then puts out a cigar with his  hand – talk about character through visual storytelling. Cape Fear also has much common with William Wyler’s 1955 film Desperate Hours –  the disruption of the suburban nuclear post-World War II family. And such a uniform for Mitchum as Cady – cigars and a panama hat. It is another iconic villain in the vein of his sadistic preacher in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter in 1955. This is not auteur cinema (though J. Lee Thompson directed The Guns of the Navarone the year before as well) but features a magnetic Robert Mitchum performance and one of the great Bernard Herrmann’s best scores.


directors worked with:  Vincent Minnelli (2), Otto Preminger (2), Jacques Tourneur (1), Raoul Walsh (1), Robert Wise (1), Don Siegel (1), Josef von Sternberg (1), Nicholas Ray (1), Howard Hawks (1), David Lean (1), Sydney Pollack (1), Elia Kazan (1), Martin Scorsese (1), Jim Jarmusch (1). Many of these collaborations are in minor works or late in Mitchum’s career past his prime (or both). It is not a stretch to say that when thinking about any of these directors – and then thinking about their acting collaborators – Robert Mitchum does not come to mind for a single one. Mitchum’s best and/or most memorable roles, were directed by Jacques Tourneur, Charles Laughton, J. Lee Thompson, and William Wellman. Only Tourneur is in the top 250 directors of all-time, and he is not in the top 100.


top five performances:

  1. Night of the Hunter
  2. Out of the Past
  3. Cape Fear
  4. Track of the Cat
  5. The Friends of Eddie Coyle


Track of the Cat – this is Robert Mitchum’s snow western film – and one of his films sporting a beard. This is Mitchum in his prime- this is after Out of the Past and just one year before The Night of the Hunter. Mitchum plays Curt Bridges. The film has a dominant matriarch “Ma” (Beulah Bondi) and two other brothers (Tab Hunter, William Hopper) and a sister (Teresa Wright – who is tough to recognize here – this is more than a decade after Shadow of a Doubt). The house of the Bridges’ is completely black and white- the entire kitchen, the bedroom, the barn. And throughout the film only Mitchum’s bright red coat does not have that color design (and even that coat has a big black stripe through the middle).  The Bridges run a ranch and have money. This is Shakespearian with the family power struggle. It also deserves comparisons to Dreyer’s minimalism in composition design. There is a black cat – a panther or “painter” as said often in the film on the loose at the ranch. The cat is hunting cattle and the sons go out to stop it. The barn is black, the horse is black. William Wellman and cinematographer William Clothier even make the evergreens look black. The set decorator Ralph Hurst deserves praise as well for making their home look like a western version of Patrick Bateman’s Manhattan apartment in American Psycho set one hundred years before. This is wildly ambitious visually – it is shocking to see something so avant-garde in a bigger budget 1950s Hollywood western. This is the same year as Johnny Guitar and deserves comparison as an artistic achievement. Mitchum is marvelous as the relentlessly cruel and crude Curt. There is a masculinity study going on here and no actor better in 1954 than Mitchum for this role.


archiveable films

1944- Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
1946- Undercurrent
1947- Crossfire
1947- Out of the Past
1947- Pursued
1948- Blood on the Moon
1949- The Big Steal
1951- His Kind of Woman
1952- Angel Face
1952- Macao
1952- The Lusty Men
1954- The River of No Return
1954- Track of the Cat
1955- Night of the Hunter
1958- Thunder Road
1960- Home from the Hill
1962- Cape Fear
1962- The Longest Day
1966- El Dorado
1970- Ryan’s Daughter
1973- The Friends of Eddie Coyle
1974- The Yakuza
1976- The Last Tycoon
1991- Cape Fear
1995- Dead Man