When I told my husband about this post, he said, “Shouldn’t that be ten of your favourite Mitchum characters?” I thought over it, and had to disagree. No; these characters aren’t my favourites. Some of them are wonderful men, but others aren’t—for instance, the characters Mitchum plays in films like Cape Fear and The Night of the Hunter are chillingly evil.
So this, then, is not a list of the most likeable characters Mitchum’s played. They’re a list of the roles he’s excelled in.
1. Corporal Allison in Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (1957): Till November 2008, the only Mitchum film I’d seen was The Longest Day. Then I saw this one, and changed overnight into an ardent Mitchum fan. He’s endearing as the hard-bitten Marine who’s spent most of his life in orphanages, jails and correction homes, and now finds himself in the middle of World War II, marooned on an island with only a pretty nun for company. Steering clear of stereotypes, the film portrays Allison as a man who, though he’s attracted to the nun, is gentleman enough to remain what she wants him to be—a friend and companion, no more. And Mitchum is perfect.
2. Max Cady in Cape Fear (1962): As I mentioned in my review of Cape Fear, if this was the only Mitchum film I’d seen, I’d have hated him, he’s so convincing as the ruthless rapist who’ll stop at nothing to have his revenge on the man who sent him to prison. Everything about Mitchum—the leer, the drooping eyes, the measured saunter—spells danger. One of his victims (before she realises the truth about him), says Max Cady’s “coarse, rustic and barbaric”, yet she’s too attracted to him to listen to her own reason. He sends shivers down my back.
3. Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (1955): Harry Powell is one of the reasons I couldn’t call this a list of my favourite Mitch characters. Where Max Cady is ruthless, in-your-face evil, Powell is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing: a Bible-thumping preacher who offers solace, comfort, and oneness with God—literally. The fanaticism of this man, the mournful singing of hymns in Mitchum’s resounding baritone, and the LOVE and HATE tattooed on his fists all add up to make this perhaps the best of Mitchum’s performances—and the eeriest.
4. Paddy Carmody in The Sundowners (1960): Though Mitchum didn’t quite get the Irish-Aussie accent right in The Sundowners, he made a great sundowner—a nomad to the core. Paddy Carmody is a tough guy, but with a warm, lovable side to him: a man who dawdles so he can have a cup of tea with his missus; who cherishes his little family and even agrees to give up wandering so that they can be together… but that’s another story. Mitchum makes for a very believable Paddy (barring the accent), and his comfortable, easy chemistry with Deborah Kerr is unbeatable.
5. Dr Lucas Marsh in Not as a Stranger (1955): Luke is one of the best-etched `shades of grey’ characters I’ve ever seen. Contemptuous of his own drunk father; mercenary enough to marry a woman he doesn’t love simply so he can use her money to pay his medical college fees; and so obsessed with being a dedicated and brilliant doctor that he will not stand for mistakes or faults—either in himself or in others. And yet, Luke fumbles through life, driving away those who love him, causing what could be irreparable damage in his relationships.
I forgot this was Mitchum. He was Luke Marsh, arrogant yet insecure, brilliant yet flawed. Superb.
6. Jeb Rand in Pursued (1947): Pursued is an unusual film in that it’s a Western with a touch of noir. Mitchum plays the tormented, confused Jeb Rand, adopted as a child by a woman he doesn’t know, to grow up with her children and suddenly find that everybody around—including his foster brother—harbours a deep hatred for him: so deep, in fact, that they’re trying to kill him. This is one of Mitchum’s early films in which he did more than just shoot and ride a horse, and it’s worth a watch. Jeb Rand’s character has different shades to it (though good all through!) and it’s interesting to watch it develop, from a trusting and naive young cowhand to an outwardly arrogant and wealthy rancher out for vengeance. And for those on the lookout for eye candy: Mitchum looks awesome in this.
7. Steve Mason in Holiday Affair (1949): Steve Mason is the sort of man it would be so easy to fall in love with: sweet, affectionate, gentle. He’s not the powerful and taciturn he-man who fights dragons for the sake of his lady: instead, he feeds her hot dogs at Central park; he listens patiently to her little son’s hopes and fears; he loses his job because he can’t bring himself to be unkind to a widow who’s bringing up a little boy all by herself. And he proposes to her at a Christmas lunch—in front of her former in-laws and her present fiancé. If I were Connie Ennis, I’d not have waited so long to say yes.
8. Sheriff J P Harrah in El Dorado (1966): El Dorado was a remake (though director Howard Hughes hotly denied it) of Rio Bravo (1959). And, like many remakes, it couldn’t match the original—except, in my opinion, in the role of the drunk lawman. Dean Martin played the role beautifully in Rio Bravo; Mitch played it equally well in El Dorado. J P Harrah, respected sheriff and one of the best gunmen in the West, falls apart after the girl he loves leaves him. We don’t see his descent, but we see the end result: a trembling, unshaven, filthy wreck with hands too shaky to load his gun; a man who stumbles madly about his office trying to find whisky, and who wallows in self-pity (and self-loathing?) when he realises the town’s laughing at him—before he sets out to wipe those grins off their faces.
9. Duke Halliday in The Big Steal (1949): Remember Mitchum saying that for 6 years he kept the same suit and the same dialogue, they just changed the title and the leading lady? Well, one of those films had a character I find especially attractive. Duke Halliday’s the quintessential Mitchum character of the late 40’s-early 50’s: suave, street-smart, with a solution to every problem and a snappy retort to every remark. In usual hero style, Duke’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and his quest for the real criminal takes him into alien territory, with—for reluctant company—a girl who thinks he’s the crook. Hackneyed, but Mitchum as Duke is delicious: charming, urbane, witty, smart and oh so handsome.
10. Lucas Doolin in Thunder Road (1958): No, Thunder Road isn’t one of my favourite Mitchum films, mainly because I hate the end. But Lucas Doolin is an interesting character, a man who returns from the Korean war to help in the family business: Papa distills moonshine, younger brother Robin keeps the car in trim, and Lucas drives—as the transporter of that illegal liquor. Like another Lucas (the doctor, Marsh, from Not As A Stranger), this one has many facets to his character. The tough crook who knows he’s breaking the law, but doesn’t care—and gets a thrill out of it. The son and brother who’ll put his own life in danger to keep his family safe. The attractive, protective lover, and the older man who’s affectionately tolerant of the obvious infatuation of a young girl. A likeable man, so what if he’s on the wrong side of the law.