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Robert Mitchum: Top Ten Films

The following list is highly personal. I could have just as easily included The Sundowners, His Kind of Woman or The Red Pony — which all show Mitchum at his best — or The Yakuza, which makes excellent use of Mitchum's world weariness. Want to weigh in on your favorites? E-mail me or join the Mitchum e-mail discussion group.

Out of the Past

1. Out of the Past (1947)
Not only is this a top-notch noir, it's directed by Jacques Tourneur who helmed the excellent Catpeople and I Walked with a Zombie (both far better than their titles imply). It also boasts Mitchum at the peak of his physical splendor, tossing off the best lines of his career. The ever-riveting Kirk Douglas crackles as his rival; they were competitive actors as well, each trying to underplay the other. Bob always won. The luminous and savvy Jane Greer plays Kathie Moffett, the woman they both want. Careful what you wish for...

2. Night of the Hunter (1955)
As the murderous preacher Harry Powell, Mitchum scored one of his finest performances. No one could accuse him of sleepwalking through this one! An eerie, atmospheric mise en scène by Charles Laughton helps tilt the reality axis into nightmare. It ends all too soon, with a piffle of a showdown, but what a sinister build-up! Mitchum's villain is way over the top -- as befits this fairy-tale tinged tale. He set the tone for all villains to follow, from Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet to Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. Never has his deep voice been used to better effect, as his very voice pursues two children all through the day and all through the night. "Don't he ever sleep?" wonders the boy he's hunting. No, son, I don't think he does.

3. The Lusty Men (1952)
Mitchum's weary rodeo rider is a role tailor-made for him, and teamed with one of the the best directors of the 1950s, Nicholas Ray, it's a joy to behold. Only a forced happy end mars the picture. It's archetypal Mitchum: the perpetual loner and wanderer. Nothing seemed to sum up the loneliness of the actor or his character better than the scene in which he walks across a windswept field toward his childhood home, a rootless man belonging to no one but himself. It's also the best portrayal of Mitchum the womanizer, confident of his appeal to all women, yet content to let nothing happen--whether out of loyalty, pride, or indifference.

4. Pursued (1947)
This may be the first western noir, directed by Raoul Walsh with a pensive moodiness that suits the psychological backdrop. Mitchum is again an outsider, a boy adopted into a family whose dark past intersects with that of his murdered father. A rivalry with his adopted brother positions Mitchum as hero to the audience, although the whole town thinks he's a villain. Does he come to his own defense? Not Bob. He toughs it out until the climactic end.

5. Cape Fear (1961)
The other quintessential villain in Mitchum's pantheon. Max Cady, known to more people as played by Robert DeNiro in the 1991 remake. De Niro's Bible-quoting monster owes as much to The Night of the Hunter as it does to the original Cape Fear. Mitchum as the sadistic, vulgar, unstoppable Cady is truly terrifying as he stalks Gregory Peck and his family. One of Mitchum's finest moments. De Niro was Oscar-nominated for the role, but Mitchum, sadly wasn't.

6. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)
Why didn't Oscar smile at Mitchum for his oh-so-convincing turn as a Marine? Perhaps it's because Mitchum's gift was to make it all look so natural, he never appears to be acting. If you never saw another one of Mitchum's films, you'd swear he was merely a military grunt, with a thin veneer of respect draped over a career soldier's bluntness. Deborah Kerr was Oscar-nominated for her portrayal of a no-nonsense nun. The Oscar that year went to another military hero who got to chew up more scenery, Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai. This was Mitchum's personal favorite.

7. Holiday Affair (1949)
While not as well known as other Christmas fare such as It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street, this delightful romantic comedy deserves to be a classic in its own right. You'd think that Mitchum's roguish charm would be out of place in a holiday film — but you'd be wrong! Besides having a sure way with the ladies, the character of Steve Mason is also classic Mitchum, one who's droll, great with kids, and who has a strong aversion to being bound by convention.

Thunder Road 8. Thunder Road (1958)
Although Mitchum never directed, this is his most personal film. He came up with the story idea, wrote and recorded the title song (it was a minor hit), and cast his son Jim as his brother. This tale of moonshiners in the deep South trying to outrun the "revenuers" is still as good a B-movie as you'll ever see. Rent it with an Elvis movie, say, Kid Creole or Roustabout.

9. El Dorado (1967)
A sequel to--or remake of--Rio Bravo, with Mitchum replacing Dean Martin as resident drunk and John Wayne sidekick. To see these two grand old men play off each other makes the plot irrelevant. Legendary director Howard Hawks supposedly pitched it to Mitchum like this, "Story, there's no story. You and Duke play two old cowboys." It was enough for Mitchum, and it's more than enough for the audience.

10. Farewell, My Lovely (1975)
When Mitchum played detectives in the 1940s, it was classic. When he played Philip Marlowe in this remake set in the 1940s, it was nothing less than iconic. Critics waxed rhapsodic about the lived-in look of Mitchum's face, his palpable weariness that fit the role so well. For once, the constant crack about Mitchum's sleepy look was turned into a compliment. Now critics saw that the farewell of the title might apply to Mitchum himself. He spoke of retiring, but thankfully, worked intermittently for twenty more years.