Today is the birthday of the the late Hollywood tough guy Robert Mitchum (1917-1997). Film noir or crime dramas are the first things that spring to mind when we think of Mitchum. His was a pretty urban, and contemporary (irreverent and boundary-busting) persona. But he was both talented and highly intelligent and was consequently able to negotiate a wide variety of genres. It was inevitable that he would bring his laconic style and take-no-prisoners energy to the western. Here are some of the ones I’ve seen (warning: we always include spoilers):
One of Mitchum’s earliest starring films, made during a period when he was in lots of westerns, including a series of Zane Grey adaptations (which this is). Mitchum plays a cowpoke with two buddies, one of whom has one of the worst Mexican accents I have ever heard. There is a big rush on the Comstock Lode. Mitchum saves a girl (Anne Jeffries) and her friends (whose carriage is being pulled by a runaway horse). She turns out to be a lady gambler and dance hall girl who nicknames him “Nevada” and says he should go there. The trio takes her advice. On the way they win a large amount of money at the gambling table. Meantime, there is a bad guy (the gambler lady’s boyfriend) who seems to be an upstanding citizen but is really a crook. No one is finding gold. The guy knows the “worthless stuff” they ARE finding is silver. No one else knows it. So he buys all the land. He kills a rancher who won’t sell. Mitchum is picked up by a lynch mob and happens to be holding several thousand dollars. They are going to kill him. His friends rescue him by cleverly becoming the foremost of the lynchers. Rather than escape, Mitchum wants to go back and clear his name. He gets to the bottom of the mystery, implicating the real bad guy. The gambler lady gets accidentally shot by the villain (this always happens to “wicked” women in films), but Mitchum is set to marry the sweet, conventional daughter of the murdered rancher. A remake of earlier pictures made in 1927 and 1935,
Blood on the Moon (1948)
Directed by Robert Wise. Fairly routine programmer about battles over turf between cattlemen. Mitchum as a drifter caught in between two factions. With Robert Preston, Walter Brennan, Barbara Bel Geddes. Spectacular stampedes, but not a lot of originality. As in all of these tales, Mitchum is an independent sort, flips sides a couple of times. First he’s a hired gun for the bad guys, because he was hired by his old friend Preston. Then he feels bad about it and sides with the good guys.
Rachel and the Stranger (1948)
Less a conventional western than a drama set on the colonial frontier. The setting is a cabin in the woods (a farm). William Holden is a depressed widower with a son. He hires a gorgeous indentured servant (Loretta Young) to be his wife and continues to treat her as a servant. His best friend Robert Mitchum, a trapper and trader, comes back around and falls for Young. Nowadays the story would be about how the two of them hook up. This being 1948, it’s about how Holden comes to realize he really loves her and the pair stay married. Black and white, but beautifully designed and shot, and well written and acted. RKO’s most successful movie of 1948.
The Lusty Men (1952)
A modern latter day western. Arthur Kennedy is a ranch hand who dreams of owning his own ranch for himself one day along with his wife, practical minded Susan Hayward. When retired rodeo star Robert Mitchum drops into their orbit, Kennedy spies his chance to realize his goal on the fast track, by becoming a rodeo star himself, with Mitchum as his trainer and manager. Improbably he does so, breaking all sorts of records and making big money. This is all against Hayward’s wishes – she doeesn’t like the risks. Predictably Kennedy gets sucked into the rodeo life and begins to want to choose that over the ranch he originally set out to get. He’s also playing around with other women. Mitchum finally sees his chance to reveal that he is in love with Hayward. But she is still in love with Kennedy, who publicly accuses Mitchum (formerly his hero) of being a leech and hanger-on. His pride wounded, Mitchum, who is in bad physical shape, enrolls to participate in the rodeo himself and has an accident, becoming fatally wounded. Kennedy resolves to quit that very instant, and he and Hayward go to start their ranch.
River of No Return (1954)
An Otto Preminger sextravaganza. I first saw this film at NYU in the early 90s, with all the prdictable hooting and ridicule college students tend to give old movies. The screenplay is a total mess, with a bunch of commercial elements (musical numbers, Indians on the war path, a bad guy, and hair-raising rapids) strung together into a product. It’s set somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Mitchum is a farmer scratching out a living in a territory where everyone is mining for gold. He sends for his nine year old son, who arrives at the mining camp (the typical frontier Sodom and Gomorah) before he does. Dance hall girl Marilyn Monroe (at her sexiest) looks out for the boy in the meantime. Mitchum brings the boy back to the farm and is busy teaching him to plow and shoot, when Monroe and her worthless boyfriend Rory Calhoun come down river in a raft en route to a claim Calhoun has won in a card game. Mitchum rescues them. They are caught in rapids. Upon learning that the rest of the trip is impassible on the river, Calhoun conks Mitchum on the head and steals his horse and gun, necessary tools for survival. The girl elects to remain behind to care for Mitchum. Two minutes later, the Indians attack (why now?) Without the gun for protection, Mitchum takes them all on a raft to escape. Monroe, who has been nice til now, unaccountably becomes bitchy to Mitchum for the rest of the trip. It emerges that he has been in jail for shooting a man in the back. He loses all our sympathy when he attempts to rape Monroe. Fortunately, he is interrupted in the beastly act by a mountain lion. As he struggles with the mountain lion, two bad guys show up. Mitchum is obliged to shoot them when they try to steal Monroe. Along the way they also shoot the rapids and fight Indians. Eventually they get to the town where Mitchum seeks Calhoun for vengeance. Calhoun is about to shoot Mitchum, but then he is shot by the nine year old boy. Monroe returns to the dance hall for one final song “River of No Return” when Mitchum kidnaps her and takes her back to her farm. Such a relationship hardly seems promising. Where will she get her supply of peroxide?
El Dorado (1967)
One of Howard Hawks’ last pictures. It’s about two warring ranchers, one of whom is an evil cattle baron played by Ed Asner. John Wayne is a hired gun. On the advice of his old friend the sheriff (Mitchum) he decides not to work for Asner. On his way back, he accidentally shoots the young son of the neighbor. In retaliation, the daughter shoots Wayne. The bullet lodges near the spine, threatening paralysis. Wayne leaves for a time (to Mexico), where he hooks up with one “Mississippi” (James Caan) who is adept with knives, but can’t shoot. They hear that Mitchum has become a drunk, and Asner has hired some very bad killers. Wayne and Caan ride back to help the sheriff.
We are now at the very same formula that made a success of Rio Bravo. In fact, it’s almost exactly identical to that earlier picture. Asner gets thrown into jail and the bad guys are going to spring him (just like in Rio Bravo). And we have the same quartet of good guys. A drunk (now Mitchum as a sheriff, instead of Dean Martin as a deputy), John Wayne, a kid (now James Caan instead of Ricky Nelson), and the sidekick — here an old Indian fighter (Arthur Hunnicutt) in buckskin and carrying a bugle, instead of Walter Brennan. The movie sort of unravels and becomes dull. Lots of business about trying to sober up the sheriff. Lots of shoot outs. But Wayne’s paralysis keeps kicking in, gumming up the works. The end looks hopeless (Mitchum has been shot, too), but they manage to pull it off anyway.
The Way West (1967)
A by the numbers epic, but pretty effective all the same. Aside from some frank sexual business, the film feels and looks a great deal as though it had been made 10 years earlier. Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen. The story concerns a wagon train moving west to Oregon, led by the triumvirate of Kirk Douglas, a senator who has organized the whole journey; Robert Mitchum as a scout/ wagonmaster; and Richard Widmark as one of the settlers (the one who gripes the most of course about Douglas’s uncompromising authoritarianism). Also in the party are Sally Field as a very sexed-up teenaged girl, and Jack Elam as a preacher (the comic relief), as well as Harry Carey Jr and Stubby Kaye. It only lags in spots—most of the events are compelling and dramatic enough to keep you engaged all the way through, many of them quite memorable. In the end, there is a coup, and Douglas is deposed from leading the party and Widmark takes over. Odd how forgotten this movie is.
Five Card Stud (1968)
Actually a very good, solid little movie, directed by Henry Hathaway. It has the sort of simplicity that would have allowed it to have been made in any of the previous decades. It may have seemed “old hat” in 1968…and yet it is definitely a much better film than the supposedly more current Hang ‘em High released the same year. A group of guys is playing poker in a saloon. The stranger is caught cheating. The rest, led by ringleader Roddy MacDowell, surely the fayest western villain in history (his agent must have advised him to butch up), goes out to lynch him. Easy going pro gambler Dean Martin chases after them to stop the lynching, but they knock him out. Soon after, one by one, each of the men from the card game wind up murdered. Could it have something to do with the mysterious gun-slinging preacher (Robert Mitchum) who has just come to town? Well, it’s a little too obvious that it does, which does take some fun of the picture. Yet, this idea of each man at a card game dying (and the visual motif of tipping each dead man’s chair up) is powerful, simple imagery and really works. When McDowall figures out that Mitchum is the killer (he’s the brother of the lynched card cheat), he misleads him to suspect the town’s black bartender as one of the lynchers. Mitchum kills the bartender, but not before the bartender (an avowed atheist) has forced his hands into a praying position to leave a clue for Martin. McDowall (whose character is a psychopath) then goes to kill Mitchum. But Mitchum pulls a gun out of his Bible and kills him. Later, Martin gets the drop on Mitchum. Mitchum tries the same trick with the Bible, but Martin notices it is upside down, and kills Mitchum.
Young Billy Young (1969)
Written and directed by the prolific Burt Kennedy. Kennedy was a good screen writer but the movies he directed all look like tv shows. This one takes place in Arizona. In the cast: Mitchum, Robert Walker Jr, David Carradine, and Angie Dickinson. Mitchum sings the theme song! Walker and Carradine are an interesting pairing (two sons of stars, and Carradine’s father had also been in westerns). The pair assassinate a Mexican general; Carradine ditches Walker. Walker meets up with Mitchum at a watering hole. Funny lines. The usual old man/young man buddy picture so common at the time ensues, the old man teaching the young man lessons along the way. Billy is rash and impetupus, prone to making mistakes. He gets into trouble when he accidentally kills a sheriff who was cheating at cards. The two ride together. Mitchum is travelling to take a job as a deputy, with a secret agenda of getting revenge for one of the crooks in the town he’s travelling to. The man had killed his son, hence his soft spot for the trouble-prone Billy). Crooks try to buy him off the instant he gets to town, he doesn’t flinch, just instantly becomes their enemy. Angie Dickinson plays a dance hall girl. She instantly makes friends with him because he treats her like a lady (and because she knows about his grievance, she had witnessed the incident). Carradine reunites with Walker. Bad guy hires them to help him take out Mitchum. Walker decides to back up Mitchum instead. Shoot-out: the two of them, holed up in the jail, against everybody. The job done, Mitchum hands his badge to the young man to take over him, grabs Dickinson, and carries her out of town to get married. Mitchum is frequently laugh out loud funny in this movie.
The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969)
Another Burt Kennedy directed western starring Robert Mitchum. Gorgeous scenery. Frankie Laine sings theme song, a ballad which recurs throughout the film. In this one Mitchum is the aging Marshall Flagg, Marshall of a town called Progress. There is a tone of camp and irony throughout the film, and humor about Mitchum’s age and that of the villain, played by George Kennedy, a notorious bank robber from 20 years ago. Mitchum wants to raise a posse to catch him, but weaselly mayor Martin Balsam is against it, what with the election two days away. (In preparation he has just sent all the town’s whores away, much to the consternation of town pervert Buddy Hackett). Balsam takes the marshalls badge and gives it to his deputy. But Flagg still wants to get the gang. To his surprise , Kennedy is now the laughing stock of his gang, a bunch of young men run by David Carradine. (His old gang all dead). The punks leave Kennedy behind, but Kennedy doesn’t want to kill Mitchum, and Mitchum takes him back to town. No one cares. Carradine and company are of course planning a big robbery. So now Kennedy helps Mitchum foil the bad guys. Also in the cast, John Carradine (as train conductor), Tina Louise (as the town hussy — va va voom!) and Kathleen Freeman.
Not such a good or interesting movie, but it does have the virtue of having Robert Mitchum do the opening narration. So we give it honorable mention here.
Dead Man (1995)
Jim Jarmusch’s existential western, a sort of mix of Beckett and spaghetti westerns, featuring all of the director’s trade mark deadpan scenes, black and white photography, and fadeouts. And a cool soundtrack by Neil Young! It doesn’t seem to “mean” anything, except perhaps that America is violent and we all die. Jarmusch’s style lends itself well to the western. The feeling is like Buster Keaton, you feel like you have gone back to the time period, thanks to careful mise en scene, and cinematography that evokes the photography of the era. (we also think of Keaton because of Johnny Depp’s beautiful bone structure, impassive nature, and interesting hat).
Depp plays an accountant named William Blake who comes to the Pacific Northwest town of Machine to take a job. The train ride takes forever. On the way there the train’s fireman (Crispin Glover) warns him that all he will find there is his grave. Indeed, as soon as we get west, nearly all that we experience is death. The instant we’re there, every man on the train but Depp shoots buffalo out the train’s windows. As he gets off the train and walks through the town, all he sees are piles of animal bones, antlers, caskets. He passes an open blow job in progress. The recipient threatens to shoot him for looking. When he gets to the factory, the office manager (John Hurt) tells him the position’s already been filled, a point reinforced by the owner (Robert Mitchum). (This is one of Mitchum’s last roles, ane he goes out in style, let me tell you). That night, Depp, uses his last money to buy some whiskey. He hooks up with a girl who makes artificial flowers. They are caught in bed by her lover (Gabriel Byrne). He shoots the girl dead (she is in front of Depp), and Depp grabs the girl’s gun and shoots Byrne dead. Depp has been shot too, but he makes his escape through the window, steals a horse and goes.
Alas, it turns out Byrne was Mitchum’s son. He hires three killers to go after him. One, Lance Henrikson, is a psycho who is rumored to have killed and eaten his own parents. Another is a talkative, sort of annoying guy, who’s kind of likeable despite being a hired killer. And the third is a black kid of about fourteen. They track Depp through the whole movie, that is until the other two annoy Henrikson. He kills them both, and in he film’s most memorable and appalling shot, he eats the talkative one. Meanwhile Depp encounters an Indian named Nobody, a man without a tribe, who thinks Blake is the real William Blake, and prepares him for death. (Is he just as mistaken about Depp being “dead” as he is about him being the real William Blake? It kind of feels that way). He drags the half-starved, losing-blood Blake through the wilderness. They encounter a bunch of people along the way. Depp ends up killing them all through various circumstances, a wide swath of death wherever he goes. Feels like Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood! At first, it’s by necessity. He reaches out to some men for food and they turn out to be Deliverance style wilderness queers, played by Billy Bob Thornton, Jared Harris, and Iggy Pop as a frontier trans person! So he has to kill these guys when they are about to rape him. Later, he kills two twin sheriffs. It begins to turn epidemic though when he kills a storeowner just for being an asshole, and another guy just for being there. “Nobody” brings Depp all the way out to the ocean, and sends him for his “voyage home” on a special ceremonial canoe. As Depp drifts out, he sees Henrickson finally catch up with them. He and Nobody exchange shots, killing each other. Then Depp himself dies.
The End. Mitchum would take us own ceremonial voyage into the great unknown two years later.