First, I suppose I should describe what I mean by “cool,” since the word is so broadly defined now…
Growing up, to me “cool” meant someone that people were instinctively drawn to, but who kept themselves slightly apart. Someone unflappable, slightly mysterious, out of reach. Someone aware of their own charisma but with no need to flaunt it. Someone whose ego wasn’t fed by the approval of others.
Cool was not necessarily suave -- that was Cary Grant.
Cool was not necessarily angry or openly rebellious -- that was James Dean or Brando.
Cool was not necessarily the cocky dreamboat type -- that was Paul Newman.
Yet when I polled some friends last night about which male star -- past or present -- was endowed with the highest concentration of cool, these were the names mentioned first.
I then asked them to dig deeper, and fairly swiftly they got a lot closer to what I’m talking about with three names: Steve McQueen, Sean Connery, and Humphrey Bogart.
Now those stars each exemplify precisely what I mean by “cool.” Yet in my view, there is one actor who’s got them all beat.
Give up? His name was Robert Mitchum.
Just what are Mitchum’s "cool" credentials, you ask?
He had an early problem with authority which caused him to hit the Open Road in his mid-teens, during the pit of the Depression. At one point, he was arrested and put on a chain gang in Georgia, but escaped.
He was the first movie star ever busted and sent to jail for marijuana use in the late forties. His career miraculously survived, and supposedly, he smoked pot quite contentedly the rest of his life.
While admittedly he had numerous sexual dalliances over his career, he stayed married to the mother of his children for sixty years. (Perhaps I should restate that: she stayed with him).
He drank prodigiously and for the most part held his hooch like a champ, once impressing no less a boozer than Oliver Reed by consuming an entire bottle of gin in under an hour.
But perhaps most important, he would never admit to taking acting seriously, saying to one interviewer: “Listen. I got three expressions: looking left, looking right, and looking straight ahead.” (The quality of his performances working with directors like Howard Hawks and Fred Zinnemann contradict his humble assertion.)
To another reporter, he showed his blunt, savage wit -- and a hint of self-deprecation -- when he mused: “People think I have an interesting walk. Hell, I’m just trying to hold my gut in.”
And then there’s perhaps my favorite Mitchum quote, about his own legacy and mortality: “When I drop dead and they rush to the drawer, there’s going to be nothing in it but a note saying ‘later.’”
Now I humbly submit: that’s not only cool, that's cool in all caps.
But don’t just take my word for it. Check out his best movies by Farr, and see for yourself why I crown Bob Mitchum the king of cool.
Crossfire (1947)- Three war veterans (Mitchum, Robert Ryan, and Steve Brodie) meet up in a bar with civilian Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene), and after a few rounds drunkenly follow Samuels back to his apartment to raid his liquor cabinet. When Samuels is later found beaten to death, Police Captain Finlay (Robert Young) is called in to investigate. It's quickly apparent that one of the soldiers did the killing, but which one -- and just as puzzling, what was the motive for such a brutal crime? This gripping, intricate little thriller boasts an intelligent script, atmosphere to spare and solid performances all around, particularly from Ryan and Young. The film remains as biting a condemnation of Anti-Semitism as the better-known Gentleman's Agreement, released the same year. Assured direction from the soon to be blacklisted Edward Dmytryk makes this an unheralded classic.
Out Of The Past (1947)- Private detective Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) is hired by high-ranking mobster Whit Sterling (a young Kirk Douglas), to find the crook's runaway mistress, Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer). Apparently, the young woman got into some serious mischief and ran off with $40,000. Tracking her South of the Border, Bailey meets and falls for Kathie's seductive charms, setting off a chain of events that drags him ever deeper into a world of lies, treachery, and betrayal. Replete with expressionistic lighting, ominous atmosphere, cynical dialogue, and a sizzling femme fatale, Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past is quintessential film noir. In a star-making performance, Mitchum cemented his image as a laconic, heavy-lidded fatalist, while the white-hot Greer -- radiant as Kathie -- executes one of the most sensual entrances in film history. All conspire to make Tourneur's Past damn close to perfect. Remade to lesser effect as Against All Odds (1984), with Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward.
The Night Of The Hunter ( 1955)- Ben Harper (Peter Graves) hides away ten thousand dollars he stole, only revealing its location to his small children John and Pearl (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce). Eventually caught, Ben is sentenced to death, since a man was killed during the robbery. Ben's prison cellmate is Harry Powell (Mitchum), a psychopathic would-be preacher, who encourages Ben to disclose where the money is before meeting his maker. Failing to do so, on his own release Harry seeks out Ben's family, including his widow (Shelley Winters) and the two kids. As to locating that cash, this time Harry won't take "no" for an answer. Gothic suspense/horror entry was actor Charles Laughton's only outing behind the camera, and he was heart-broken when it failed at the box office. Evidently, the film was simply too dark for audiences of the time. Mitchum is terrifying as Preacher Harry, a wolf in sheep's clothing who has the word "Love" printed on the fingers of one hand, "Hate" on the other. Winters is ideally cast as the dim Willa, but the stand-out is silent actress Lillian Gish as gun-toting Rachel Cooper, the kids' unlikely eventual protector. Eerily composed and shot, and featuring a brilliant screenplay by James Agee, Hunter remains a spine-chilling masterpiece.
The Sundowners (1960)- Drifting sheepherder Paddy Carmody (Mitchum) is blissfully content to roam the Australian countryside with his wife Ida (Deborah Kerr) and son Sean (Michael Anderson Jr.). But Ida and Sean fantasize about buying an old farmhouse and settling down in one place, and convince Paddy to take a job as a sheep shearer so they can save up for a mortgage. Needless to say, Paddy's less than thrilled with this arrangement, and soon rebels against his new lifestyle. Filmed on location, this breezy, scenic Western from Down Under earned five Oscar nominations and has weathered well over the years as a mini-epic about freedom and family bonds. Mitchum and Kerr square off nicely as hardworking but happily married roamers, and even manage to hold their Aussie accents in check most of the time. Peter Ustinov, playing a chipper ex-officer who comes to live with the Carmody family, provides some of the film's highest humor, especially in his flirtatious relationship with hotel owner Glynis Johns. What makes a man wander indeed? Fred Zinnemann's Sundowners provides no easy answers, but it's sure fun to tag along.
Cape Fear (1962)- Trial lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) finds himself and his family threatened by the return of Max Cady (Mitchum), a wily and dangerous criminal just released from prison. Since Sam was prosecuting attorney at Max's trial, Cady holds a king-size grudge against him for sending him away, and does everything he can, short of being seen breaking the law, to transform the Bowdens’ world into a living hell. Compared to Martin Scorsese's excessively graphic re-make, J. Lee Thompson's original is a subtler, vastly more chilling exercise, with Mitchum's Cady a searing portrait of evil and barely contained violence. The story examines how the law can work against the innocent when the victimizer knows just how far he can go to harass his victims with impunity. Peck is reliably stolid as Sam, Polly Bergen excels as jittery wife Peggy, and both Martin Balsam and Telly Savalas provide assured support playing a sheriff and private detective. This is what they mean by “edge-of-your-seat” entertainment.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)- Mitchum plays burned-out Boston hood Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, a small-time gun-runner on the fringes of the Boston mob who finds himself facing a second prison stint for participating in a botched robbery. Desperate not to go back, he ponders whether to provide determined cop Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) with some timely information on his co-workers. But though Eddie is stalling for time and in fact hasn’t got that much to tell, his “friends” -- including bartender/hitman Dillon (Peter Boyle), and bank robber Jimmy (Alex Rocco) -- won’t be too understanding. Peter Yates’s grim, ultra-realistic crime drama provided Mitchum with his finest late career role. His Eddie confronts a frightening future, but all this hulking shell of a man feels is tired. No one plays world-weary better than Mitchum, and he even nails a Boston accent. On-location shooting at seedy Beantown locales only heightens the film’s sense of authenticity. Paul Monash’s script (adapted from a novel by George V. Higgins) vividly captures the distinctive language of the Boston underworld, and gets delivered with conviction by a uniformly first-rate cast. Friends, meet Eddie Coyle.
The Yakuza (1975)- When WWII veteran Harry Kilmer (Mitchum) is asked by old army buddy George Tanner (Brian Keith) to find his missing daughter in Japan, he agrees. Once there, he confirms she was abducted by the Japanese Mob, aka The Yakuza. Out of his depth, culturally and otherwise, Harry reluctantly seeks the assistance of an old adversary, Tanaka (Ken Takakura), in retrieving her from the notoriously vicious organized-crime ring. Jointly scripted by Robert Towne (Chinatown) and Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), this riveting East-meets-West action thriller is expertly handled by director Sydney Pollack, and features great low-key acting by a haggard-looking Mitchum. With its twin themes of honor and guilt, "Yakuza" certainly belongs in the Schrader canon, and the story arc is boosted immensely by sword expert Takakura's explosive run-ins with Japanese thugs. Keiko Kishi provides excellent support, too, as Mitchum's long-ago lover, and their interactions give the whole film a rueful air of regret. Few films of the action genre are as soulfully felt, or ring so sorrowfully true.
(Note: Mitchum also outdid himself playing a rumpled Philip Marlowe that year in Farewell, My Lovely, putting his own stamp on a character originated on-screen by Dick Powell, but made famous by Bogart. Maddeningly, this title is no longer available on DVD.)
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