Tag Archives: Robert Mitchum

Midnight Screening: Out of the Past

Anyone familiar with Jacques Tourneur doesn’t need to read a review for evidence to the claim that Out of the Past is one of the best film noirs ever made. But that doesn’t mean establishing and specifying what is so undeniably great about it isn’t a worthwhile pleasure all the same. Cutting his teeth on Val Lewton’s near poverty-row horror unit for RKO, a team that single-handedly saved American horror in the 1940s by injecting a dose of the European, and a team which counted Tourneur as its most valuable member, Tourneur is one of the unheralded masters of the medium of cinema and one of the most poetic genre directors ever to grace the silver screen. Pairing him to noir like a fine wine to a slab of deliberately indelicate beef is too obvious to be a stroke of genius, but the results are no less marvelous for the “why didn’t they think of this earlier” nature of the film.

Pairing Robert Mitchum – ever the heavy – to a noir, however, was a stroke of genius, precisely because he made indelicate slabs out to be fine wine, making him the perfect bridge for the flavors milling around in Tourneur’s stew. Mitchum was a known face by 1947, but not even close to a star, and seeing his ambiguity flourish in Out of the Past is a tormented, deceptive beauty so perfectly matched to the material it almost approaches non-performance. Mitchum went on to fame as the cinema’s ultimate heel, concocting deliberately vague piles of blunt force that slithered and skulked across the land and directly into the dark hearts of humankind. The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear find him too close and comfortable with pure evil for words. Nothing about him felt like acting, like trying; he conveyed an evil that simply existed, an unexplainable devil that could only be approached by running away. The problem with running away from Mitchum… he constructed figures so impenetrable and unknowable they couldn’t but chill the blood into stagnancy. Continue reading

Wild Wild Jest: Dead Man

This being a review in a month-long exploration of the Western genre.

Update late 2018: After a re-watch, I’m not entirely satisfied with my original, college-age review. (Would that I ever was?). In particular, I find my more nihilistic reading of Dead Man to be hopelessly mired in my youth. In its interplay of shaken signifiers and layered meanings, Jarmusch’s film is never nihilistic. If it reduces the Western to a pageant, it also animates new possibilities for pageantry, retexturing the Western as a kind of poetry as Emersonian as it is Derridean, as open to reconnecting with space and nature as it is exposing its inabilities to do so. The film thrives on an immanent tension, and would that more films followed suit.

After all, if this film re-reads all films as lies, is not Dead Man part of that great filmic canard as well? Dead Man is not “truth”, nor does it want to be. It’s a self-reflexive, filmic op-ed piece, overstated for pure effect. In its untethering from reality, it associatively overlays, blurs, and emulsifies various images and sounds together in new, unexpected ways, shattering pre-established truths and restitching them with an eye not for their cohesion but their imaginative associations, for the spaces in between them, for the breakages and fractures which expose the stitching of reality and the potential for reorganizing sound, space, and mind to new ends. A lyrical expression of the Western as out-of-body experience, it not only critiques the genre; it breaks it, and resurrects it as something anew. What it ultimately imagines is not anti-Western, really, but a new, hopefully prognostic breed of cinema, one not only interested in excoriating the Western myth but also in conjuring a new, more mutable one, a vision of the Western as self-critical, poetic play. I’ll keep the original review up for posterity’s sake, but read at your own risk!

Original Review (Edited mid-2015):

Dead Man is a revisionist Western, sure, but there have been many great revisionist Westerns (look to Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven from three years before-hand for ample evidence). There certainly have not, however, been many movies like Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch’s attempt at creating not a gritty non-myth but an anti-myth –  and it’s a marvel of marrying acidic form to acerbic content. This is not only a revisionist Western, but an anti-revisionist Western, an anti-Western, even an anti-film. Continue reading

Film Favorites: The Night of the Hunter

Edited June 2016

One of the most perturbed and disturbing parables of childhood adversity ever found in fiction, The Night of the Hunter is primarily famous for one thing: a magnetic all-time tempter in Robert Mitchum, starring as a criminal disguised as a preacher who stalks two children, John and his younger sister Pearl. The film ultimately ruined director Charles Laughton’s budding career (he had been a respected actor for several decades, but we can’t but see his career behind the camera slipping away with every depraved, anti-realist shot). But today it wears this fact like a badge of honor.  Accolades have been lumped upon the film left and right in recent years, but the primary target is still, in regrettably narrow fashion, Mitchum’s undeniably inhuman evil. The commendations are entirely deserved but something of a shame – Mitchum, sometimes quite literally, towers over the film, but it’s a far more challenging, innovative, and spellbinding effort than one performance can muster.

Jame’s Agee’s mournful, soul-shaken script (based on a book by Davis Grubb that clearly spoke to Agee’s childhood experiences) and Laughton’s genre-crossing direction in tow, the film works not purely because of Mitchum but because its storytelling –  equal parts Southern Gothic tone poem and German Expressionist parlor trick –  conjures a surreal world for Mitchum to slither around in. The filmmaking legitimizes him, giving him a depleted, damaged energy to feed off of and human souls to take. It establishes the storybook geography that could create, and hopefully contain, him.  In 1955, it was positively radical. Today it is all the more so. Laughton’s anxious beauty looks into our soul and never comes back. Continue reading