In The Matter Of The Centennial Of The Birth Of Film Actor, Noir Film Actor, Robert Mitchum (2017)
By Associate Film Critic Alden Riley
[Due to the “controversy” between current film critic Sandy Salmon and his old-time friend and film critic emeritus I have been designated to write up this article based on notes that Sandy gave me and a perusal of Sam’s film review of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer’s Out of the Past, the film that sparked the controversy. Site moderator Pete Markin agreed with that decision if for no other reason than to put an end to the bickering, his term. Here it is-Alden Riley]
Film Editor Emeritus Sam Lowell is like something out of a film noir which he has always been fascinated by ever since he was a kid down in cranberry bog Carver south of Boston and would catch the Saturday matinee double-headers at the Bijou Theater (now long gone and replaced by a cinematic mega-plex out on Route 28 in one of the long line of strip malls which dot that road now). That fascination had a name, The Maltese Falcon, starring rugged chain-smoking tough guy Humphrey Bogart as a no nonsense, well almost no nonsense, private detective, who almost got skirt-crazy, almost got catch off guard by some vagrant jasmine scent from a femme over the matter of an extremely valuable bejeweled bird which the theater owner, Sean Riley, would occasionally play in a retrospective series that he ran to keep expenses down some weeks rather than take in the latest films from the studios.
The reason that I, Sandy Salmon, current film critic at the American Left History blog and also at the on-line American Film Gazette can call the old curmudgeon Sam Lowell “something out of a film noir” is because once he decided to retire from the day to day hassle of reviewing a wide range of current and past films he contrived to get me to take his place on the blog along with my other by-line. That based on our years together as rivals and friends at the Gazette. He did this “putting himself out to pasture” as he called it to the blog’s moderator, Peter Paul Markin, when he mentioned the subject of retirement with the proviso that he could contribute occasional “think” pieces as films or other events came up and curdled his interest. I had no particular objection to that arrangement since it is fairly standard in the media industry and is an arrangement that I would likewise want to take up in my soon to come retirement from the day to day grind. (To that end I am grooming an associate film critic Alden Riley for that eventuality.)
This business with Sam and his guest commentaries all came tumbling down on my head recently after he had read somewhere, maybe the Boston Globe, yes, I think it was that newspaper that the centennial of the birth great actor, great film noir actor, Robert Mitchum, was at hand. Without giving me a heads up he, Sam, decided that he wanted to do a “think” piece on this key noir figure and someone whose performances in things like Out Of The Past, Cape Fear, and Night Of The Hunter were the stuff of cinematic legend. But you see I wanted, once I became aware of the centennial, to write something to honor Mitchum although I have the modesty not to call it a “think” piece. My idea, as was Sam’s in the end, had been to write about that incredible role Mitchum played as a low key private eye in Out Of The Past against the dangers of a gun-addled femme. We resolved the dispute if you want to call it resolved by having “dueling” appreciations of that classic film. Sam’s potluck article has already been published and now I get my say. Enough said.
I will say one thing for Sam although I would have noted it myself in any case that both our headlines speaks of a film noir actor although Micthum did many more types of films from goof stuff like the Grass Is Greener where he played some kind of rich oil man adrift in England and infatuated by some nobleman’s wife and Heaven Help Mr. Allison where he got all flirty with a fellow marooned nun to truly scary can’t go to sleep at night without a revolver under the pillow stuff like Cape Fear to the world weary, world wary former standup guy pasty/fall guy in the film adaptation of George V. Higgin’s The Friends Of Eddie Coyle. (That film a true Boston Irish Mafia classic complete with men only barroom scenes and a view of dank City Hall Plaza was the best novel Higgins wrote, wrote with a passion that his later work fell a little short on.) That said to my mind, as to Sam’s as well, his classic statement of his acting persona came in the great performance he did in Out Of The Past where between being in the gun sights of an angry gangster played by Kirk Douglas and the gun sights of a gun crazy femme played by Jane Greer he had more than enough to handle.
Yeah, if you think about it, think about other later non-goof, do it for the don’t go back to the “from hunger” days paycheck vehicles Mitchum starred in (he did something like one hundred plus films in his time plus some television work) that film kind of said it all about a big brawny barrel-chested guy who had been around the block awhile, had smoked a few thousand cigarettes while trying to figure out all the angles and still in the end got waylaid right between the eyes by that damn femme. All she had to do was call his name and he wilted like some silly schoolboy. I like a guy who likes to play with fire, likes to live on the edge a little but our boy got caught up badly by whatever that scent, maybe jasmine, maybe spring lilac but poison that he could never get out of his nostrils once she went into over-drive.
Sam in his review went out of his way to make Mitchum’s character, Jeff, let’s just call him Jeff since for safety reasons he had other aliases seemed like, well, seem like the typical “from hunger” guy who got wrapped up in a blanket with a dizzy dame and that his whole freaking life led to that fatal shot from that fatal gun from that femme fatale. She had a name, Kathie, nice and fresh and wholesome name but nothing but fire and fiery although Sam insisted that it could have been any one of a thousand dames as long as she had long legs, ruby red lips and was willing to mess up the sheets a bit. Yeah, Jeff as just another from nowhere guy who got caught between a rock and a hard place.
No, a thousand time no. Robert Mitchum, ah, Jeff in those scenes has those big eyes wide open from the minute he hit Mexico, no, the minute he got the particulars from Whit, from his new employer of the moment, he was no fall guy but a guy playing out his hand, maybe well, maybe badly but playing the thing out just as he always had done since he was a kid. (Sam, maybe reflecting his own “from hunger” up-bringing in working class cranberry bog Carver if you look at his reviews of those luscious black and white films from the 1940s and 1950s that he feasted on always overplayed that fateful “from hunger” aspect of a male character’s persona, a failing to see beyond his own youth in many cases being his fatal error here)
As Sam would say here is the play, the right way to see Mitchum’s cool as ice character. Whit, a shady businessman, hell, call him by his right name, a gangster, a hood, played by cleft-chinned Kirk Douglas, a young Kirk just as Mitchum was young then too although he always seemed older whatever the role, wanted to hire Jeff (and by indirection his partner Fisher who will undercut him reminding me of that friction between Sam Spade and Miles Archer although Sam wound up doing right by his old partner. Fisher just bought the farm trying to move in on Jeff’s business) to find his girlfriend who left him high and dry minus a cool forty thousand and plus a little bullet hole as a reminder that not all women are on the level. The minute Jeff heard the particulars he was in, not for the dough, although dough is a good reason to take on a job in any profession including his, private detection, but to see what kind of dish ran away from a good-looking, rich guy with plenty of sex appeal and a place to keep her stuck in the good life. Sam missed the whole idea that Jeff already had a head of steam for this elusive Kathie before he went out the door of Whit’s mansion (Kathie or whatever her name really was played by sultry sexy, long-legged, ruby red-lipped ready for a few satin sheet tumbles Jane Greer).
For a professional detective like Jeff Kathie was not hard to find, maybe intentionally if she had Whit figured out which I think she did, and you could palpably feel the tension as Jeff waited to meet his quarry. If you followed the way he was thinking, if you in this case followed the scent then you would have known that Jeff was no more a victim of some bad childhood that I was. Everything follows from that first prescient presence in that run-down wreak of a cantina down in sunny desperate Mexico and those first drinks between them. The sheets followed as night follows day as did the plans they had to flee from whatever dastardly deeds Whit would do once he knew that a real man had taken his pet away from him-without flinching. The key was the dodge Jeff, remember it was Jeff who led the misdirection when Whit showed up in sunny Mexico wondering what the fuck was going on. Jeff had them in Frisco town before you say goodbye. Nice work.
Hey Jeff knew, knew as any man knew who had been wide awake after the age of thirteen knew, that his grip on Kathie unlike the later tryst with good girl Anne once he had to go into exile when Kathie flipped her wig, would only last as long as he could keep her interested. I will grant Sam this that maybe Jeff should have been a little more leery of what crazy moves Kathie could make when she was cornered, maybe should have thought through a little better why she put a slug in Whit just for the hell of it. But in his defense Jeff was playing his hand out and it was just too much bad luck that his old partner Fisher got on his trail as Whit’s new hound dog. Got on his trail, and hers, which she stopped cold when she put the rooty-toot-toot to Fisher. Then blew town leaving Jeff to pick up her mess.
Did Jeff call copper, did he go crying on his knees to Whit. No he went into exile waiting for the next move, waiting to see what Kathie would come up with next. He may have built him a nice little gas station business in Podunk, have gotten a dewy fresh maiden in Anne but anybody could see once he was exposed by one of Whit’s operatives passing through that little town he played his hand out to the very end. Went to see what was what including learning of Kathie’s opportunistic return to Whit’s embrace. And subsequently her return to his embrace. Of course such a course was bound to not turn out very well for anybody. Whit wasted by Kathie for the hell of it and then Jeff wasted by her as well once he knew the game was up. Don’t make though too much of that play at the very end when Anne asks Jeff’s deaf gas station employee whether he was really ready to leave everything Jeff and she had together for Kathie and the kid said yes. Yes with the implication that Jeff did the whole play to spare Anne. No, that is too pat. Jeff wanted to go with Kathie, wanted to play with fire, knew that the game was up and just didn’t care any longer as long as he was with Kathie. Couldn’t Sam see in Jeff, in Robert Mitchum’s, eyes that he didn’t care what she did, or what she didn’t do, that was the way it was between them. No fall guy there.
I don’t know about Sam but I am ready to move on to speak out about other major Mitchum films. I agree with Sam those payday check films in a career where he played in over one hundred are not worth blowing any smoke about but there are still plenty worthy of attention. More later.