Robert Mitchum: Five Films for Newcomers


Robert Mitchum is of a class of performers that were enhancers of their generation. His noir performances were not indicative of the style, rather the style was indicative of him. Gruff, menacing, yet alluring, Mitchum was able to transition from different genres with the same kinds of approaches. His mantra was that he either acted on-horse or off-horse, and there wasn’t anything else to his presence, yet his enduring legacy would dictate otherwise. Mitchum may not have seen the breadth of the complexities in his performances, so we’re going to allow this article to showcase them. It would have been his 102nd birthday, after all. If you are new to the golden age icon, welcome, and be prepared for some of the best stoic acting you may ever see. Here are five films for newcomers to the films of Robert Mitchum.


5. Pursued
It takes a special film to introduce a nuanced star to the massed. Pursued was one of the first films to really make Mitchum’s presence known. Its amalgamation of classic westerns and films noir allowed Mitchum to partake in a take of redemption (not the cold blooded kind, but the tale that allows the protagonist to recognize the good in the world as well). With twists and turns, you won’t be sure how the story or Mitchum’s character (Jeb) will fare out. We learn about Mitchum’s comfort in minimalism, and also discover the guy’s got a lovely voice during a vulnerable musical moment, too.


4. The Friends of Eddie Coyle
Decades into his career, Mitchum could still command a scene. As the titular character, Mitchum blazes through The Friends of Eddie Coyle as an intimidating (scratch that: frightening) mob connection. He’s jaded because of his hardened life, but he’s also unapproachable as he has to watch his own back at all times. He is evil, but he also hates being evil. Mitchum’s performance refuses to partake in how other ‘70s actors were approaching their work. It wants to stay as is: a relic of the gritty ‘40s gangster flicks. That makes Mitchum’s Coyle particularly stick out, and it enhances the film tenfold.


3. Cape Fear
Exhibit A of Mitchum’s ability to be incredibly creepy. Can Mitchum be charming? Damn right he can be. He also knows the difference between authentic swoon, and uncomfortable attempts at attracting people. Max Cady is a despicable stalker who seems unmatched by many similar cinematic duplications. He smiles at you from across the room without trying too hard, but you still can almost smell the stench from his smirk, as if this is rotten food personified. When he stops following his prey and decides to pounce, you may very well be sick to your stomach.


2. The Night of the Hunter
Exhibit B: Mitchum’s done it before, and it was even more disturbing this previous time. The Night of the Hunter is finally getting the recognition it deserves, and people are seeing that is easily Mitchum’s most transitional performance he ever did. No clinging to the past here. This is a mixture of his usual western and noir roles with a taste of German expressionism. We get an exaggerated psycho, who is still nauseating at peak level over sixty years later. Many elements have rendered Hunter a reassessed classic, but Mitchum’s turn as a demented minister is easily a main highlight.


1. Out of the Past
Not much can top The Night of the Hunter when it comes to the best work Mitchum ever did, but we do have a clear winner. In fact, Mitchum’s work as Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past is debatably one of the best noir detective performances there ever was (you can even make the claim that it is the best). An entire performance burdened by reservation, guilt, and comeuppance, Mitchum’s Bailey figuratively turns around at every corner to check his perimeters, all while holding his own. It’s a waltz between shame and perseverance. It’s a great place to start, because the film is also a fantastic introduction to the purest era of films noir; and you’ll have the best Robert Mitchum turn to enjoy.

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Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.