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Robert Mitchum: Noir Bad Boy

Robert Mitchum, bad boy extraordinaire, was the quintessential noir protagonist, both onscreen and off. This talented actor also appeared in lots of westerns and war movies, but with his sultry good looks and devil-may-care attitude, he really stood out in his many noirs. In one of the most famous noirs ever made, Out of the Past (1947), he portrayed Jeff Bailey, a jaded private eye who gets drawn into a shady frameup involving beautiful femme fatale Kathie Moffat, played by Jane Greer, and moneyed mobster Whit Sterling, played by Kirk Douglas. Jeff ends up falling for Kathie in Acapulco, only to find out she was really Whit’s moll all along. Interestingly, fans sometimes confused Mitchum with Kirk Douglas, perhaps because they were both tall, macho, cleft-chinned leading men. Mitchum even got into a fight once, in Ireland, when a belligerent drunk asked “Kirk Douglas” to sign an autograph. When Mitchum responded by signing with an expletive, a brawl ensued. I believe the only other movie Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas appeared in together was the western The Way West, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by A. B. Guthrie Jr. The Way West, in which Sally Field debuted playing a randy young woman, also featured Richard Widmark, who often played noir heavies and was especially memorable in Kiss of Death as a psychotic gangster who pushes an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs. In 1978, some 31 years after Mitchum’s dazzling portrayal in Out of the Past, he played jaded detective Philip Marlowe in a remake of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Mitchum was one of a long line of distinguished actors to play Marlowe, including Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Elliot Gould, Robert Montgomery, George Montgomery, Danny Glover, James Caan, and James Garner (in 1969’s Marlowe, which featured a sweet pale yellow Jaguar convertible and a Bruce Lee cameo). According to Lee Server’s 2002 biography of Bob, “Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don’t Care,” which was a great read, by the way, Mitchum’s father was killed when Bob was only two years old, in a horrific rail yard accident in which he was crushed between two freight cars that were being loaded. Mitchum’s mother then supported the family by working as a Linotype operator. When the Depression came along, however, Bob’s mother could no longer support the family and gave her blessing to Bob, who was only 14, to hit the rails as a hobo. Young Bob hopped freights all over the country, and it was during this time that he discovered “the poor man’s whisky,” marijuana, which often grew wild near the train tracks. Bob took up pot smoking as a lifelong habit, and was busted for it at the height of his fame in 1948, along with blonde starlet Lila Leeds, shown in the picture below. The bust took place at the Laurel Canyon home where this picture was taken. Lila had recently rented it with a roommate. Bob and Lila both got jail time. Bob spent 60 days in the pen, during which Life magazine reporters snapped his picture mopping up, and then went right back to work afterward. When asked if he felt the jail time had harmed his career, he replied: “Well, I couldn't play eagle scouts, but other than that, no, it didn't hurt my chances.” Mitchum died in 1997 at the age of 78, of emphysema.