How to Make Depp Weep: Robert Mitchum’s Long Binge

Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don’t Care , by Lee Server. St. Martin’s Press, 590 pages, $32.50.

It was 1942, and the studios were unsure how to pitch Robert Mitchum to the American public. “He looks kinda mean around the eyes,” said one producer. “Sounds like a gorilla,” suggested another. The teenage readers of Photoplay magazine were a little more forthcoming: “He’s got sex appeal in an evil sort of way,” said one. And another: “He has the most immoral face I’ve ever seen”–a delightful way of putting it, as if the face had been up to stuff without its owner knowing, sloping off to bars for a slug of bourbon, leering at girls and then coming back all pie-eyed.

That’s how it is with Mitchum, though: Body and face feed you a completely different story. He has the body of a brute–torso like a tree, shoulders that don’t know when to stop–but it comes topped off with the face of an angel: perfect Cupid’s-bow mouth, dimpled chin, and an unbroken line of brow and nose which calls to mind at least four major Greek deities. Only those indolently hooded eyes give the game away: You look at those lids and wonder what’s been keeping Apollo up at night.

“Quite a lot” is the answer, and sometimes not just nights. On the set of Not As a Stranger , which starred Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, Broderick Crawford and Lee Marvin (“not so much a cast as a brewery,” said Mitchum), drinking began in the morning, and by the evening the cast had abandoned acting in favor of more pressing tasks, like trying to eat Sinatra’s wig or track down Marilyn Monroe, who wasn’t even in the movie: The Wrong Door Heist , as it became known. Lee Server’s new biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don’t Care , is so packed with stories like this that Mitchum’s career at times seems like one long binge with occasional breaks for shooting. You finish it feeling exhausted but healthy, flushed with respect for a time when people took the job of hell-raiser seriously, and very slightly guilty for doing anything as weedy as reading a book–rather than using it, say, to throw at a cop or club a horse.

At 590 pages, it would leave a sizable dent. Mr. Server comes to Mitchum from a previous biography of Sam Fuller, where he presumably refined his taste for bad behavior and his nose for the varying bouquets of bullshit. Other biographers might shy away from an attribution like “… he told her, or said he did,” but Mr. Server knows it only draws you closer to the campfire, and to the rich baritone burr of the actor’s voice. Mitchum may have attracted tall tales, but none so tall as the man himself. His childhood was the sort of thing that used to make Charles Bukowski go all soppy: fatherless, lawless, a matter of “broken windows and bloody noses.” He left home at 14, and after a few years of hitching rides on the railroads, and a spell on a chain gang for vagrancy, Mitchum had steeped himself in all the essential gentlemanly arts. He knew how to catch and cook a squirrel, how to disarm a man with a long length of chain and how to pinpoint the exact region from which a crop of marijuana hails–proving himself a very Henry Higgins of hemp.

All of which should be enough to make Johnny Depp weep. Modern-day stars like to court a naughty countercultural thrill by trashing their mini-bar every now and again; but most, if forced to reveal a typical diary entry from the age of 14, would most likely unearth something like “changed agents” or “fired mom.” The way Mitchum takes shape in this book, though, he seems less a man than an advance loan on the 1960′s in human form. It’s little wonder the Hollywood of the 40′s didn’t know what to do with him. It took 20 pictures before he made his mark, in The Story of G.I. Joe , in which he sported the softly fatigued look of a man who has just been through the hell of war. Even better, though, was Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past , in which he sported the softly fatigued look of a man acting opposite Kirk Douglas. An intriguing match: a head-to-head between the two biggest cleft chins in the business. You worried that, if they got too close and actually brushed chins, they might lock together like Lego.

As it was, Douglas took an instant dislike to Mitchum and tried to out-underact him–a more or less impossible task, like trying to limbo under the carpet. “Bing Crosby supersaturated on barbiturates” is how James Agee described Mitchum’s acting style; and throughout his career, critics would complain that he had only two basic expressions: laconic and asleep. The important thing, though, is that they happened at the same time. All the great movies stars have faces that do this; many can smile and many can frown, but only Robert De Niro can do both simultaneously. Mitchum has one of the great two-faced faces, great for duplicitous plots. He made a herd of Westerns, but it was in the hot gloom of film noir that he first bloomed, where the lighting was low to keep the morals company; and if he looked half-asleep, well, what more receptive state for the unfurling of a waking nightmare?

Mitchum squinted his way through Out of the Past , Blood on the Moon , Where Danger Lives –all lit by Nicholas Musuraca–as if even the darkness was too bright. “I’m afraid I threw you a little into shadow then,” worried Loretta Young after a take during the shooting of Rachel and the Stranger . “Honey, I don’t give a damn,” replied Mitchum: He’d been playing shady characters for years. Shadiest of all, of course, is his preacher in Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter , a fairy tale composed of looming expressionist shadows, most of them cast by Mitchum himself as he loiters around the children’s front door like the big bad wolf. “I’ll be back … at night,” he threatens, and the more you find out about the man, the more redundant that last clause seems. He is the night.

Alongside his beautifully insolent turn as Max Cady in Cape Fear , Night of the Hunter contains what is probably Mitchum’s best performance. It is certainly the one certifiable masterpiece in the backlist, but then Mitchum was never really about masterpieces; appearing solely in top-quality cinema would have struck him as a form of snobbery, like only wanting to mix with dukes and earls. Hardened Mitchum fans must instead venture much further afield, deep into the boggy marshland of the B movie, where cultists roam and the threat of bumping into Jayne Mansfield grows stronger by the hour. There you will find such gems as Thunder Road , the one truly personal movie that Mitchum made–he served as actor, producer, writer and composer–and one which, naturally, immortalized the heroic plight of the moonshine smuggler. Or Bandido! , a lurid Mexploitation flick in which, in the middle of a battle field, Mitchum orders a taxi . It is for such moments that the Mitchum fan lives–little flares of cool in the night of a thousand drive-ins.

This will make the book tough going for dedicated auteur theorists. Time and again, Mitchum hooks up with a great director–Nicholas Ray! John Huston! Sam Peckinpah! Jacques Tourneur!–and your heart leaps at the thought of the beautiful collaboration to follow, only to see it all fizzle out in a glow of mutual respect and no further movies. The news that he was to have starred in The Wild Bunch is particularly hard to take, and has you pounding the floor in a very un-Mitchum-like show of exasperation–until you remember that his great, autumnal, end-of-the-road role came in 1975, in the form of Farewell, My Lovely , in which Mitchum, looking more and more like a de-tusked walrus, competes with L.A. to see who can look more derelict.

“Did it matter what fucking picture you made? They were all just masturbation aids,” writes Mr. Server in a sympathetic bout of belligerence. He is very much a proponent of the Nick Tosches school of Method biography-writing–all empathic second-person and tough-guy prose, the better to buddy up to his subject: “[J]aws were broken, fingers were broken, blood everywhere. Good times.” Fair enough, but then he goes and writes something supple and sly, like his description of Villa Rides as “noisy, colorful, violent, watchable, forgettable,” or his dismissal of Secret Ceremony as “modernist esoterica,” which rather lets the cat out of the bag: You can’t strike delicately glancing blows against modernism and still come on like your knuckles are raking the ground. Lee Server is, in other words, not nearly as dumb as he makes out, which makes him the perfect biographer for Mitchum, whose drunken boorishness was but a thin cover for deep wellsprings of courtesy and professional respect. “You pretend you don’t care about a damn thing,” Howard Hawks once said to him, “and you’re the hardest working so-and-so I’ve ever known.” Mitchum replied: “Don’t tell anyone.”

Tom Shone was film critic for The Sunday Times of London; he is now a staff writer at Talk.