Hardboiled film noir actor Robert Mitchum (1917-1997) is one of the very few Hollywood stars to appear in the Henry Poole & Co ledgers. With the honourable exception of Sir Henry Irving, Poole’s tended to discourage customers from the world of show business; leaving that clientele to Savile Row neighbours Huntsman, Anderson & Sheppard and Kilgour, French & Stanbury. Mitchum is listed in 1960 when London’s Grandon Productions Ltd underwrote his tailoring bills for the comedy The Grass is Greener co-starring Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons. Poole’s made Michum’s entire on-screen wardrobe including the dinner suit worn for publicity stills.
Robert Mitchum’s deep voice, six-foot boxer’s build, laconic, crooked smile and heavy-lidded gaze made the actor a natural for playing lone wolf, maverick characters. His own life prepared him for these parts. ‘Mitch’ was a wild boy whose father had died when he was two years old. Aged fourteen, he was arrested for vagrancy and put on a local chain gang. He escaped and ‘rode the rails’ to California where his sister was working in cabaret. Arriving in LA in 1936, Mitchum found work for the Lockheed Aircraft Company but suffered a nervous breakdown.
With the encouragement of his sister, Mitchum joined the Players Guild of Long Beach and began working as an extra in the Western movie series Hopalong Cassidy. Various bit parts earned Mitchum the attention of director Mervyn Leroy who produced The Wizard of Oz and also discovered Clark Gable and Lana Turner. Mitchum signed a seven-year contract with RKO and was cast in Western ‘B-movies: short films played as the prelude to the featured film. His breakthrough came when RKO loaned Mitchum to United Artists to make The Story of G. I. Joe (1945) which gave him his first and only Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
In the same year, Mitchum was drafted into the US Army and worked as a medic in the induction department checking recruits’ genitals for venereal disease: a job he described as ‘a pecker checker’. He was equally irreverent about his career in Hollywood. When Marlon Brando and James Dean introduced Method acting to the screen in the 1950s, Mitchum drawled ‘these kids only want to talk about acting method and motivation. In my day, all we talked about was screwing and overtime’. He said that movies bored him – ‘especially my own’ – and told an interviewer ‘I gave up on being serious about making pictures around the time I made a film with Greer Garson and she took a hundred and twenty-five takes to say no’.
The ‘father of film noir’ had a reputation as a drunk and a hell-raiser. As he said, ‘they think I don’t know my lines. That’s not true. I’m just too drunk to say em’. Though he claimed to be a ladies’ man, Mitchum married wife Dorothy in 1940 and they remained together until his death in 1997. In 1948, Mitchum and actress Lila Leeds were arrested for possession of marijuana. He served a week in the county jail describing the experience as ‘just like Palm Springs but without the riff-raff’.
The 1950s saw Robert Mitchum teamed with some of Hollywood’s greatest sirens including Jane Russell (Macao 1952), Jean Simmons (Angel Face 1953) and Marilyn Monroe (The River of No Return 1954). His favourite leading lady was Deborah Kerr with whom he co-starred in three films including The Grass is Greener. In 1955, Mitchum was cast as a vicious criminal masquerading as preacher Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter, the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton. It is acknowledged to be his finest film even though Mitchum would demur and say ‘I have two acting styles: with and without a horse’.
The pot-smoking, saxophone-playing, alcoholic insomniac was a beatnik before the phrase had even been coined. It was his injuries as a teenage boxer and his insomnia that Mitch put his signature drooping-lidded look down to. The roles he played in the 1960s continued to darken. He played psychotic rapist Max Cady in the 1962 film Cape Fear and, incidentally, performed a cameo role in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake starring Robert de Niro. In 1970, Mitchum played against type as a mild-mannered schoolmaster in the David Lean film Ryan’s Daughter. A year later, he turned down Dirty Harry: the film that made Clint Eastwood a star.
In 1975, Mitchum was cast in the role he was born to play as Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled private detective Philip Marlowe in a film adaption of Farewell My Lovely. He reprised the role in the 1978 film The Big Sleep. Mitchum was treated for alcoholism at the Betty Ford Center in 1984 and, after a lifetime smoking cigarettes, died in 1997 from complications due to lung cancer and emphysema. Posterity was kinder to Robert Mitchum than he was about his acting ability. According to IMDb (the International Movie Database), ‘Robert Mitchum was an underrated American leading man of enormous ability, who sublimated his talents beneath an air of disinterest’.