Posted by Susan Doll on November 16, 2009
On the evening of November 30 on Turner Classic Movies, Anthony Hopkins cohosts his selection of four movies as part of TCM’s Guest Programmer series. Hopkins settled on a set of well-known films from four important directors: Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai, John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. All of these American classics should be on everyone’s required viewing lists, because they represent Hollywood at its best. Those of you who haven’t seen these films will not be disappointed in any of them. Personally, however, I was not excited by Hopkins’s selections. I found his list to be a bit obvious, and this prompted me to look up the lists of past Guest Programmers to see if anyone’s choices were quirkier or yielded any films I had not heard of. The exercise proved surprising to me in a couple of ways.
For example, of the 60 Guest Programmers currently listed on the TCM website, only thirteen were women. Yikes! Given TCM’s generally supportive attitude toward women’s contributions to film history, I was surprised at this under-representation. I know the Guest Programmer series goes back farther than those mentioned on the website, and I hope the ratio of women to men is better overall. Of those 13 women, I found the selections of star Sally Field and editor Thelma Schoonmaker to be the most intriguing. Field’s choices represented four defining performances by four great American actresses: Natalie Wood in Love with the Proper Stranger, Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, Bette Davis in All About Eve, and Betty Hutton in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. I don’t know what Field and Robert Osborne discussed during her evening at TCM, but I found her selection to be a subtle criticism of contemporary Hollywood’s complete disregard for women’s roles and female audiences. Here were four hit films carried by women in the leading roles—a slap against those current studio executives who claim that female stars can’t carry a film. Cybill Shepherd’s list was similar to Field’s in its focus on great performances by classic female stars, including Garbo in Ninotchka, Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. The choices of Schoonmaker, who has edited many of Martin Scorsese’s best films, stood out for me because I had not seen any of them: Green for Danger, Edge of the World, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and Age of Consent (the 1969 version by her husband Michael Powell). I wonder if she selected the films based on personal taste or out of professional respect.
Looking at the lists of other programmers yielded some notable observations. For example, the choices of comic actor Rainn Wilson seemed the quirkiest: High School Confidential, The Gene Krupa Story, Singin’ in the Rain, and The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. Of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s four selections, three were Cary Grant films, and, surprisingly, Grant’s movies were better represented in general than those of John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, or Bogart. I questioned why some of the Guest Programmers were tapped to participate at all: Maria Menounos and her “accomplishments” lacked the weight of other programmers and their achievements, while asking Kermit the Frog for his four selections seemed like a mere stunt. Kermit did have a selection in common with director John Singleton, however, which was Lassie, Come Home! My favorite list of films was provided by Paul Aquirre, the unknown actor/writer who won a contest to be the TCM Guest Programmer. His selection of The Greatest Show on Earth, Happy Time, The Crowd, and Westward the Women represents the eclectic list of a true movie-lover!
Of all the Guest Programmers, my own tastes ran closest to Rose McGowan, who included two Robert Mitchum films, Night of the Hunter and Out of the Past, in her selection. I was surprised that certain Guest Programmers, such as director John Sayles, Devo founder Mark Mothersbaugh, and character actor Tommy “Tiny” Lister—who pride themselves on going against the grain in one way or another, did not include any Mitchum movies. After all, Robert Mitchum was the ultimate Hollywood maverick both on and off the screen. The only other programmer to pick a Mitchum movie was film historian David Thomson, who chose the noirish thriller Angel Face.
If I were a TCM Guest Programmer for a night—and I don’t see anyone asking me anytime soon—all four of my selections would be Robert Mitchum films. To date, no Guest Programmer has focused on the films of a single actor, but because of the diversity of genres that Mitchum worked in and the length of his career, it is easy to select four completely different films. Being a major Mitchum fan (I would have been a “Mitchum Droolette” back in the day, according to the studio publicity machine), I naturally found it difficult to narrow my selection down to only four films. So, I decided NOT to go with the obvious by selecting films such as Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear, Home from the Hill, The Sundowners, Out of the Past, or Heaven Knows Mr. Allison—wonderful films that are widely acknowledged as his best work. Instead I thought I would offer a selection of my quirky favorites because . . . hey, I’m the Guest Programmer.
The Locket (1946). This little-known film noir from RKO features Robert Mitchum in a secondary role as one of femme fatale Laraine Day’s victims. Day stars as Nancy, a young woman driven to kleptomania by a childhood trauma in which she was denied a locket. Beautiful and sophisticated, Nancy attracts the attention of men whom she can use. She pretends to love them in order to get close to a higher class of people, who have the goods and the lifestyle she wants. The tagline for the film sums it up: “Men Worshipped . . . Cursed . . . Hated . . . Loved Her.” Mitchum stars as Norman Clyde, an artist who falls for and then is abandoned by Nancy. He is so distraught that he loses his grip and kills himself. The Locket was released early in Mitchum’s career before his tough-guy image as the maverick anti-hero was established. I like this film because he plays a sensitive artist who is so overwrought at losing the woman he once loved that he jumps out of the skylight of his atelier—which seems completely out of the norm for Mitchum. And, frankly, he isn’t entirely convincing as the character with the excruciatingly geeky name of Norman Clyde, but he is young and drop-dead handsome in a tailored wardrobe of fancy suits and jackets. Mitchum wanted to keep the wardrobe after the film, which was not unusual for stars during the studio era, but RKO balked, riling the rebellious star-in-the-making. Eventually RKO decided he could have the clothes for a dollar, but Mitchum never handled authority very well, and he resented the studio’s control over his life and career, so he refused their offer with a nasty insult. His irritability is understandable considering he was making three films simultaneously. After shooting The Locket at night, he reported to a different RKO set in the morning to work on Undercurrent, and then he was flown to Monterey in the afternoon to appear in the MGM film Desire Me. RKO received $25,000 a week for loaning Mitchum to MGM, while the actor was paid $350 per week while working on all three films.
The Locket makes for good viewing for other reasons, including the beautiful high-contrast cinematography by RKO’s great DP Nick Musuraca in addition to other film noir conventions. Noirs are famous for complex, often convoluted, narrative structures, and The Locket’s use of a flashback within a flashback within a flashback qualifies as one of the most interesting structures I have ever watched. The way the story starts in the present, goes back in time, then moves farther back in time, and then reverses itself until it has returned to the present, is reminiscent of a person trying to peel back the layers of his past in psychotherapy. Not coincidentally, the dominant storyteller in the film is Nancy’s former husband, a psychiatrist who uncovers her past to figure out her issues.
Thunder Road (1958). Mitchum wrote, starred in, and produced this independent film through his own company, D.R.M. Productions. In a previous post, I wrote in depth about how the film perfectly fits Mitchum’s cool, anti-authoritarian persona, so I won’t repeat that information here, but no Mitchum film fest would be complete without this movie. The actor stars as Luke Doolin, a legendary bootlegger who runs moonshine from the mountains to the city while revenue agents do their best to catch him. In addition to his other creative functions, Mitchum wrote two songs for the movie, “The Whippoorwill,” which Keely Smith sings in the film, and “The Ballad of Thunder Road,” which doesn’t appear in the movie but was released by Mitchum as a single on Capitol Records. Mitchum’s son, Jim, costarred as Luke’s little brother, a role supposedly offered to Elvis Presley. According to one of Elvis’s buddy-bodyguards, the singer did not take the role because his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, did not want him to be in the film. After years of reading and writing about Elvis Presley, I have learned that the recollections of members of Presley’s entourage are “foggy” to put it kindly and can’t be trusted. However, even if parts of the story are true, the Colonel was probably correct to turn it down, because Thunder Road went unnoticed by distributors and audiences at the time of release. It did not gain a following until the late 1960s, after years of playing the drive-in circuit and third-run houses across the Midwest and South. I like the film for its authentic and sympathetic portrayal of the rural South as well as the romanticized depiction of old-school bootleggers who drove at breakneck speeds along mountain roads in the pitch-black of night to deliver their cargo.
The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) is not really a Robert Mitchum film. A classic mystery set in England among the fox-hunting upper crust, The List of Adrian Messenger tells the story of wartime informer George Brougham who wants to surreptitiously gain control of his family’s fortunes. He methodically eliminates the men on the titular list who could identify him and thus reveal his plans. Intelligence officer Anthony Gethryn steps in to untangle the plot by following the clues in the style of a classic English mystery. John Huston directed this oddball addition to his filmography, with Kirk Douglas as Brougham and George C. Scott as Gethryn. Brougham was a master of disguise, and the audience sees Kirk Douglas several times without recognizing him in false moustaches, hairpieces, and heavy makeup. To underscore the theme of disguise, the movie features several famous stars of the day in heavy makeup in cameo roles, including Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, and Robert Mitchum. Just before the end credits, the actors take off their makeup for the big reveal. Mitchum’s turn as wheelchair-bound Jim Slattery is more than a cameo, because the role actually has significance to the plot. The handsome Mitchum is unrecognizable under pounds of makeup, and he manages a credible if not entirely authentic East End accent. Mitchum was friends with Huston, who had directed him in one the actor’s best films, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, so when the director asked him to participate in the fun, Mitchum readily agreed. Though critics such as Pauline Kael griped about the gimmick, calling it “campy,” I think the idea of the movie stars in disguise is fun, and the mystery holds up.
Farewell, My Lovely (1975) alternates with Out of the Past as my favorite Robert Mitchum film, depending on my mood. The latter represents the beginning of Mitchum’s run as a film noir protagonist and helped establish his screen persona as the cool, chain-smoking anti-hero who walks the line between proper society and the criminal underworld. Farewell, My Lovely, made 28 years later, depends on that screen image to flush out the character of Philip Marlowe in this melancholy version of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled novel. Robert Mitchum’s history with the genre adds resonance to the film, while his lined face and world-weary air make Marlowe look like he has tangled with countless femme fatales and lost. As Martin Scorsese once said in an oft-repeated line, “Mitchum is noir.” Futility and failure hang in the atmosphere as Marlowe fails to keep his client from getting killed, a war with Hitler looms on America’s horizon, and the hitting streak of the era’s biggest hero—Joe DiMaggio—is ended by two nobody pitchers from the Cleveland Indians. Though set in the 1940s, the film is more about the mid-1970s, when Vietnam, social unrest, and Watergate killed our collective belief that one person could make a difference and that heroes always won.
Though known primarily for his roles in film noir, Robert Mitchum also starred in westerns, romantic dramas, family melodramas, war films, and comedies. He brought a unique combination of masculinity and sensitivity to his characters, and his approach to those roles was colored by his offbeat real-life experiences, his inner demons, and his aversion to authority. And, that’s why if I were Guest Programmer, I would spotlight Robert Mitchum, who is my favorite actor of all time . . . ever . . . no contest. As the cliché goes, they don’t make stars like this anymore, and we are the worse for it.
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