- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

I assumed that Robert Mitchum, nominated for only one Academy Award in his career, for “The Story of G.I. Joe” in 1945, would become a belated recipient soon after the Golden Globes beat the academy to the punch with a career award in 1992. The presentation proved an irresistible highlight of that year’s Globes telecast. Inexplicably, the academy failed to take the hint. Mr. Mitchum died in 1997, at age 79, without ever being properly saluted on Oscar night.

He is the subject of a retrospective tribute that begins today at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre. The 12 selections in the series include such indispensable titles as the 1947 mystery thrillers “Crossfire” and “Out of the Past,” which reflect the actor’s stellar emergence at RKO in the immediate aftermath of World War II; the sinister classics “The Night of the Hunter” and “Cape Fear,” which preserve formidable Mitchum impersonations of ruthless psychopaths; and his endearing co-starring turns with Deborah Kerr, “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” and “The Sundowners.”

Given the current reverence for film noir, it’s not surprising to find the series commencing with “Out of the Past.” It has become the holiest film-noir relic for many critics, and Mr. Mitchum remains a fascinating presence and camera subject as the elusive sleuth Jeff Bailey (ne Markham), whose resourcefulness fails to save him from a fatal attraction to femme fatale Jane Greer.

At the time, “Crossfire” was the more respected thriller, a major Oscar contender of 1947. Cast as one of the sane characters, a Signal Corps sergeant in postwar Washington who is drawn into a murder investigation, Mr. Mitchum didn’t lend himself to haunted musings. The arresting opportunities belonged to Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame and Paul Kelly, who played tortured and twisted figures.

Mr. Mitchum once opined that “easy does it” was the secret of life. He contrived to win and sustain audience loyalty by not presuming too much on the attachment. He appeared in more than 100 features during a career that transcended recurrent scandal and many a pedestrian vehicle. It must have been fun to “discover” him in the war years. At the outset, moviegoers became accustomed to him as a cowboy and an admirable man in uniform. The latter identity remained a career constant, suiting him on such television miniseries as “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.”

During 1943, Mr. Mitchum’s first full year as a film actor, he could be seen in 17 pictures, half of them Hopalong Cassidy Westerns, in which he typically was cast as a menace on horseback. He looked so distinctive that he still jumps out at you in minor roles as a soldier in “The Human Comedy” or an airman in “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.”

Mr. Mitchum’s heavy-lidded eyes reinforced a somewhat reptilian watchfulness that could imply anything from boredom to homicidal cunning. James Agee, later a collaborator when he wrote the screenplay for “Night of the Hunter,” joked that Mr. Mitchum in “Out of the Past” was “so sleepily self-confident with the women that when he slopes into clinches, you expect him to snore in their faces.” The movie is still more fun if regarded in this spirit, as an entertainment rather than an object of veneration.

Several directors — Edward Dmytryk, John Huston, Charles Laughton, Fred Zinnemann, William Wellman, David Lean — testified to the actor’s sneakily witty and savvy personality. Mr. Mitchum cultivated a facade of lighthearted indifference to his profession that was contradicted by work habits so diligent that he rarely blew a reading or wasted a take. He may have possessed a photographic memory, enhanced by an ear that made him a quick study when simulating accents.

A hard-knock boyhood and scattered laboring jobs in young manhood familiarized him with parts of the country and dodgy social conditions that most people in the movie business are inclined to seek out and sentimentalize.

Mr. Mitchum fell into acting while participating in a Long Beach, Calif., little theater group that his older sister had joined. At one time, it seemed likelier that he would pursue a show-business writing career because he once freelanced by providing songs and nightclub material to several performers in Los Angeles. There might be a funny movie in his tenure as the all-purpose writer for a popular astrologer, his most lucrative gig before the movies panned out.

When Mr. Mitchum first began auditioning in Hollywood, his agent heard variations on the following complaint: “He acts like he doesn’t want the job.” That impression probably was justified, but Mr. Mitchum’s nonchalance proved a useful defense mechanism. Over the long haul, it didn’t prevent him from going all out when the role struck a nerve, sympathetic or threatening, in his own nature.

SERIES: “Robert Mitchum Retrospective”

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring

WHEN: Today through May 5

ADMISSION: $9.75 for the general public; $8.50 for AFI members, seniors (65 and older), students and military personnel

PHONE: 301/495-6700

WEB SITE: www.afi.com/silver

CALENDAR OF SHOWINGS: “Out of the Past” (1947), today through Sunday, March 25 and 27; “Crossfire” (1947) and “When Strangers Marry” (1944), Saturday through Monday; “The Lusty Men” (1952), March 28 through 30, April 2 and 3; “Pursued” (1947), March 29 through 31; “Blood on the Moon” (1948), March 29 through 31; “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” (1957), April 5 and 7; “The Sundowners” (1960), April 6 and 9; “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), April 11 through 17; “Thunder Road” (1958), April 18 through 21 and April 24; “Cape Fear” (1962), April 25 through 27, April 30 and May 1; “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973), May 2 through 5.

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