With more than 100 credits to his name and at least a dozen masterful performances, Mitchum made acting look easy. At least, that’s what he told anyone who’d ask. One often-told story from the set of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) recounts a scene where Mitchum had to Army crawl through the grass and over—unknown to director John Huston—a patch of stinging nettles. Huston did four takes before moving on, cutting up Mitchum’s legs in the process. When Huston discovered what he’d done to his leading man, he was beside himself. Mitchum replied nonchalantly: “You work, you suffer.”
Before Mitchum found fame (or fame found Mitchum), there was much suffering. Born Aug. 6, 1917, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Mitchum grew up without a father and was shipped back and forth between various family members like an unwanted penny. As a teenager, he dug ditches and boxed when he needed money, rode the rails when he needed a change of scenery, and was arrested and sentenced to a chain gang in Georgia. He escaped, injuring himself in the process. But there was an upside: while nursing his injuries, Mitchum met Dorothy Spencer. Four years later, the two married and remained together until his death in 1997.
With a backstory like this, it’s no wonder Mitchum excelled in film noir. In his best, Out of the Past (1947), Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, a detective brought out of hiding to settle old scores between Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) and Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer).
It’s a complicated story of crosses, double-crosses, and double-double-crosses, but nothing phases our hero. Those sleepy eyes have seen it all and then some. When Kathie asks Jeff if there is a trick to winning roulette, we know she is talking about the wheel. When Jeff counters with “There’s a way to lose more slowly,” we know he’s talking about life.
A similar exchange echoes in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. In the movie, Mitchum plays a Marine stranded in the South Pacific during World War II. The island he washes up on has already been evacuated, save for one lone soul: Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr), a young nun who has yet to take her vows.
“Only God knows what’ll happen to us,” she says confidently.
“And He won’t tell us, huh, ma’am?” he responds in only the way Mitchum could.
Few said could have done it better.
Header photo: Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past, courtesy RKO Radio Pictures. A version of the above article first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 25, No. 41, “The right stuff.”