Robert Mitchum retrospective

As the NFT celebrates Robert Mitchum's career, Geoffrey MacNab recalls a star who was the epitome of laid-back style
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Mitchum's career is currently being celebrated in a season of his films at the National Film Theatre in London, but he himself wasn't the type to take his work too seriously. The director Ken Annakin, who wanted to cast him in a project called The Gold Lovers in the early 1960s, says: "When I first met him, he tried to get me to smoke pot. A number of ladies arrived at his apartment. It was clear that he wanted to enjoy life and try a little of everything."

Marijuana was one of the constants in the actor's peripatetic life. He smoked the drug when he was a teenage hobo, roaming around America in boxcars during the 1930s. "The poor man's whisky," he called it. In 1948, just when he was establishing himself as a major star, he was caught in possession, put on trial and sentenced to 60 days in jail. Mitchum served his time without bellyaching ("It's just like Palm Springs without the riff-raff"), came out of prison and resumed his career as if nothing had happened.

The actress Jean Simmons appeared with him in such films as Otto Preminger's Angel Face and Stanley Donen's Grass Is Greener. "We became good buddies," she says today. "He was a highly underrated actor. He made it look so easy - and it ain't." Despite his easygoing façade, Simmons says, Mitchum was extremely disciplined. He always knew his lines and was never late on set. "The only time I saw him raise his eyebrows was when I first met him and I asked him if he would like to have some tea." (In those days, in Mitchum's circles, "tea" was a euphemism for pot.)

There was something paradoxical about Mitchum. He cultivated an air of machismo and yet the person Simmons encountered was far from being a hell-raising stereotype. "He was a very funny man; a very bright man, too," Simmons insists. "He would write poems, write songs."

Mitchum was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on 6 August 1917. It's sometimes hard to sift the facts from the myths about his childhood. Mitchum was expert at covering his tracks, often giving starkly contradictory accounts to interviewers. Nonetheless, it is established that he was arrested for vagrancy in Savannah and escaped from a chain gang after six days.

Given the suffering that he witnessed at first hand in his travels across Depression-era America, it's hardly surprising that he regarded the film business as something less than a matter of life and death. There was a nagging suspicion, too, that he felt just a little bit embarrassed about being an actor: it wasn't a manly profession.

But one quality Mitchum had in abundance was an innate decency. That was why William Wellman chose him to play Captain Walker in The Story Of GI Joe (1945), his breakthrough film and the only one for which he was ever to receive an Oscar nomination. Unfairly neglected these days, GI Joe stands as a Second World War counterpart to Robert Altman's M*A*S*H. It was based on the folksy wartime journalism of Ernie Pyle, the legendary foreign correspondent who travelled with the US army. There is real pathos in Mitchum's performance as the officer who tries to hide his own weariness, fear and exasperation for the sake of his men.

Audiences warmed to his fatalism and his deadpan humour. These were qualities that would also feed into his great roles in film noir, most notably in Jacques Tourneur's Out Of The Past (aka Build My Gallows High) and Charles Laughton's The Night Of The Hunter.

Perhaps Adrian Wootton, director of the NFT's Crime Scene season, puts it best when he says: "Mitchum was one of the most subtly intelligent and minimalist actors that has ever graced a cinema screen. He could do more a look than most actors could do with three pages of dialogue."

The Robert Mitchum season continues at the NFT, London SE1 (020-7928 3232) to 31 August