The Passion of the Chump: The Synoptic Mitchum

During his long stint in Noirville, Robert Mitchum played everything from upright heroes to the nastiest of villains, but first and foremost he was the definitive sap. More than any other actor, Mitchum created the pivotal figure of the lovesick antihero with tragic taste in women. Here is a guy destined to die for love. We find the core aspects of this persona in three films he made at RKO between 1947 and 1953: Out of the Past, Where Danger Lives, and Angel Face. These films feature the actor in strikingly similar scenarios which develop and resolve in parallel fashion.

In each film:

  • Mitchum is a seemingly stable professional who, through his job, meets a beautiful woman.
  • Although she has money and is already involved with another man, this woman has a pathological need to control Mitchum.
  • Mitchum has a relationship with a virtuous but somewhat boring nice girl. At some point, he will reject this woman.
  • Before the femme fatale completely bonds herself to Mitchum, she will kill the other man.
  • Realizing that the femme fatale is crazy, Mitchum will try—and fail—to leave her.
  • The film will climax with the femme fatale’s attempt to murder Mitchum.

The similarities between these films are fascinating, and through this repetition of scenes and situations, we see a persona take shape which is more resonant than any specific character the actor portrays. In a way, “Mitchum” becomes our central character, and the three films become retellings of his story. Just as interesting are the differences between the films, each one a variation on the theme of Mitchum’s martyrdom at the hands of a femme fatale.

The Gospel According to Tourneur:
A Graceful Defeat

Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) sets up the basic framework of the Mitchum persona we’ll see developed in all three films. Here, he plays a private detective hired to track down sexy Jane Greer and the forty thousand dollars she’s stolen from her gangster boyfriend Kirk Douglas. Of course, once he finds Greer, Mitchum falls helplessly in love with her. They run off together, but when she commits a murder to protect the forty grand, he realizes she’s not exactly a timid damsel in distress. He quits the detective business and tries to settle down with nice girl Virginia Huston, but before long he’s drawn back into Greer’s web. He dies at the end, the victim of film noir’s signature turn of fate: he met the wrong woman.

Tourneur’s variation on the chump’s gospel is notable for its lush romanticism. Beginning beside a pristine mountain river, the film starts off on a note of pastoral simplicity and contentment. As Mitchum begins his steep descent into the nocturnal world of Greer and Douglas, however, both Roy Webb’s score and Nicholas Musuraca’s exquisite cinematography transition seamlessly to fit the moody urban nightscapes. Packed full of witty dialog and dramatic plot twists, Out of the Past is the kind of classic old Hollywood melodrama that ends on a glorious note of self-sacrifice. After Mitchum dies helping bring Greer to justice, his young confidant lies to Huston, telling her that Mitchum died trying to escape with Greer. It’s a symbolic rejection, designed to help the good girl get on with her life, and it ends the film on a moment of grace. With this final gesture, the film establishes Mitchum’s antiheroic persona as a figure of romantic fatalism. His entanglement with Greer is more bad luck than anything else, and while he dies in the end, he still manages to keep a measure of his integrity. This is a small victory, but it is as close to heroism as an antihero can get.

The Gospel According to Farrow:
Sin and Consequence

In John Farrow’s Where Danger Lives (1950), Mitchum takes a turn for the worse. This time he’s a doctor who exercises extremely poor judgment by falling for a beautiful young woman (Faith Domergue) who has tried to commit suicide. Mitchum blows off his sturdy nurse girlfriend (Maureen O’Sullivan) to try to rescue Domergue from her rich, controlling father (Claude Rains), only to find out that Rains is actually Domergue’s husband. After Rains whacks him over the head with a heavy fire poker, Mitchum knocks out the older man. Floating in and out of a concussion-induced mental fog, Mitchum doesn’t see Domergue smother Rains with a pillow, and once she convinces him that he killed Rains, they take off for Mexico. They wind up on the border, holed up in a cheap hotel where Domergue smothers a nearly comatose Mitchum with a pillow and then leaves him for dead like a crushed cockroach. Somehow he survives and even lives to see Domergue gunned down by the cops. In the end, he’s reunited with O’Sullivan.

In Where Danger Lives we see Mitchum stripped of any agency, his heroic swagger all but lost in the baffling swirl of events. Knocked over the head about fifteen minutes in, for most of the movie he’s essentially Domergue’s woozy puppet. We have good reason to think that he would do the right thing if he were able, but concussions have a way of complicating your moral reasoning.

Still, Mitchum’s crucial mistake comes early in the film. We’re not necessarily reading too much into Farrow’s devout Catholicism, or into the fact that Maureen O’Sullivan was his wife, if we observe that the film is essentially a cautionary tale about being tempted away from a steady (if dull) good girl by a sexy (if psychopathic) bad girl. The antihero squeaks by in the end, but he’s been punished for his transgression. The film complicates and darkens the basic situation of Out of the Past by depriving Mitchum of much of his moral autonomy. Gone is the heroic last gesture. In this telling of Mitchum’s tale, he is a sinner/victim. He falls for the wrong woman, and so he is concussed, smothered, and shot. That should have taught him his lesson. Of course, it didn’t.

The Gospel According to Preminger:
The Tunnel at the End of the Light

In Otto Preminger’s  Angel Face (1953), the darkest of the three films, Mitchum plays an ambulance driver who blows off his nurse girlfriend played by Mona Freeman (note to nurses: don’t date Mitchum) in favor of a sexy, spoiled rich girl played by Jean Simmons. Simmons is obsessed with her pathetic drunk of a father, but after she inadvertently kills him while trying to bump off her despised stepmother, she latches on to Mitchum. They’re both tried for murder, and in an attempt to gain the sympathy of the jury, they get married (in a wedding even more grotesque than a similarly freakish wedding in Where Danger Lives). After they’re acquitted, Mitchum can’t bring himself to stay with her. He tries to go back to the good girl, but this time she rejects him. She’s moved on with her life, so he goes back to Simmons. Eventually he tries to leave her, but—to put it mildly—she’s not having it.

Angel Face is ultimately the bleakest telling of Mitchum’s tale. Here, he finds no redemption from a good woman, no salvation in a deus ex machina, and no final gesture with which he can squeeze out some consolation as he stares into the abyss. The antihero is truly antiheroic and finds himself outwitted at every turn by the femme fatale.

Of the three films, Angel Face is also the starkest in its interrogation of the man’s attraction to the woman. He’s not a villain himself (after all, he does try to leave her), but one can’t help thinking that Freeman is right to reject him at the end. Mitchum’s chief adversary in the film is his own attraction to the femme fatale. He’s drawn to her, for reasons beyond sex and money, by some deeper connection—some germ of personal weakness—and Preminger is brutal in his assessment of where that weakness will ultimately lead.

Mitchum’s story is, in some ways, the central myth of film noir: the downfall of the antihero at the hands of the femme fatale. While Out of the Past views this story in grandly tragic terms, Where Danger Lives sees it as a twisted cautionary tale. Angel Face, on the other hand, unfolds as an existential study in male weakness. What stays intriguingly the same throughout these films is Robert Mitchum himself. He’s handsome, resourceful, and effortlessly cool, but he is finally helpless in the presence of the wrong woman. From film to film, his persona grows increasingly dark, complex, and hopeless, but by the end Mitchum achieves a potent cumulative power. At the time, of course, it was just a matter of RKO typecasting, but the final effect of seeing the actor playing variations on the same sequence of scenes is that he becomes the embodiment of the character type of the flawed but fundamentally good man. So, sure, it was typecasting, but the ability to develop a persona that transcends individual roles, that outlives even the performer himself, may well be the true mark of a great movie star.

Jake Hinkson is a regular contributor to the Noir City Sentinel, the journal of the Film Noir Foundation. He’s currently tucked away somewhere in New Jersey working on a massive tome entitled A Year Without Daylight: 365 Essays on Film Noir. His short story “Maker’s and Coke” appears in the new anthology Beat To A Pulp. Learn more about him and his projects at The Night Editor.