Cult Movie: Robert Mitchum – not even a Calypso LP can taint King of Cool's crown

Robert Mitchum in Night Of The Hunter, his performance lending Charles Laughton's dreamlike morality tale genuine terror

THIS week marks what would have been the one hundredth birthday of Robert Mitchum. It’s hard to think of a cooler actor in the history of Hollywood.

Some may say Steve McQueen, early Marlon Brando or perhaps James Dean in his all-too-brief glory period but Mitchum wipes the floor with all of them, in my book. That hulking, ordinary-guy screen presence that made him seem like the most naturalistic actor on the planet, that heavy-lidded aloofness that allowed him to play good and bad guys with equal authority and that apparent couldn’t-care-less attitude to his art (“I have two styles of acting,” he famously said: “With a horse and without a horse”) all make him an effortless King of Cool.

He made some seriously duff films – well, in a career that took in 130-odd movies, that’s perhaps inevitable – but very few duff appearances. He was a jobbing actor who worked with the great, the good and the not so hot of Hollywood directing talent and despite his demeanour he was truly dedicated to his craft. It took a lot of effort to look that disinterested, you know.

When he was good, though, he was untouchable. See The Night Of The Hunter (1955), where his performance as a psycho preacher on the trail of two young children added genuine terror to director Charles Laughton’s dreamlike morality tale, if you want proof of that.

The list of mighty screen performances that pepper that hefty CV remains hugely impressive.

There’s his genuinely terrifying turn as Max Cady, the ex-con on the tail of Gregory Peck in the original Cape Fear (1962), for a start. His role as an ordinary man on the run from his own history in Jacques Tourneur’s Out Of The Past (1947) elevates a quality thriller into the very highest echelons of film noir masterpieces. Even later in his career he was capable of delivering true gems like the hard boiled crime epic The Friends Of Eddie Coyle (1973) and Farewell My Lovely (1975) that saw him deliver perhaps the finest, most world weary and brow beaten Philip Marlowe the screen has ever seen.

His status with the public meant he was able to emerge from a stint in jail in 1948 for marijuana possession with this popularity not merely untainted but quite possibly enhanced – some achievement in that austere postwar era.

He even survived the possible credibility bypass of making a full-blown calypso album in the 1950s. Calypso Is Like So could have been a disaster but old Bob pulled it off. A vinyl copy resides proudly in my collection. I occasionally dig it out just to marvel at the cover shot of Mitchum in his casual jumper and white slacks holding a glass of booze and leering at the camera.

The tale that best embodies his special charm, though, concerns his big breakthrough movie The Story Of GI Joe, from 1945. After numerous false dawns he finally arrived, at 27, receiving what would be his only Oscar nomination. Mitchum didn’t even bother going to the ceremony. Now that’s cool.

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