With his half-closed eyes and suave sangfroid, in his most iconic screen roles Robert Mitchum embodied the somnambulant doom of outcasts and psychotics. In quintessential noir Out of the Past (1947), his unsuccessful fate-dodging P.I. helplessly sleepwalks between sin and salvation, while in The Night of the Hunter (1955) Mitchum's psychopath preacher becomes a relentless, almost otherworldly vision of childhood terrors. But in the cream of the countless Westerns he starred in over a 50-year-plus career — the subject of a 10-film UCLA Film & Television Archive series starting Friday — Mitchum took on a slightly different persona: a steely exemplar of virtue possessing subtler shades of gray.
Perhaps because his rugged world-weariness suggested a man who had courted and survived the dangers of the wilderness, Mitchum got his start in the cinema as a recurring heavy in the Hopalong Cassidy franchise and the hero of several Zane Grey adaptations (the latter represented in UCLA's series by forgettable gender-confusion comedy West of the Pecos). His first serious Western was Raoul Walsh's terrific Pursued (1947), a strange inversion of Out of the Past in which the protagonist is stalked by a family legacy of which he remains unaware. For this psychological Western, Mitchum evokes with repressed pain the free-floating anxiety of a gunslinger who alienates his adopted clan in the act of defending himself against a lifelong shadowy avenger.
1948 saw Mitchum in a pair of underrated Westerns similarly centered on fractured families. In Rachel and the Stranger he plays a would-be home-wrecker (his weapon of seduction is the crooning baritone he would later employ for two solo LPs) who inadvertently forces recent widower William Holden to appreciate new bride/indentured servant Loretta Young. Blood on the Moon reunited him with Out of the Past DP Nicholas Musuraca — nobody lit Mitchum's droopily handsome features in eerier chiaroscuro — for a homesteaders-versus–cattle ranchers tale in which Mitchum emerges as the morally scrupulous savior of a besieged domicile.
Was Mitchum simply a saint out West? Hardly. His Rachel troubadour hints at an obsessively self-reliant loner whose ethical code is the only one that matters — a form of sociopathy justified only by sound principles. He proved best at playing such upright yet inflexible protagonists. Wrestling attention away from co-star Marilyn Monroe due to his ability to actually act, Mitchum travels the rapids in Otto Preminger's River of No Return (1954) to get even with the gambler who robbed him and his son. The film ends with the lad learning firsthand that his old man was right to shoot a man in the back — a pitch-black conclusion to a mostly landscape- and Monroe-dependent actioner.
An oft-overlooked prestige picture, Australian Outback–set The Sundowners (1960) allowed Mitchum to discover even greater depths within his solitary stubbornness. His hard-drinking sheepherder (not a stretch for Mitchum, who wasn't exactly soft with the sauce off-set) is a truly complex and difficult character, simultaneously good ol' boy affable and selfishly proud in forcing his long-suffering family to remain tethered to his nomadic lifestyle. The story ends fittingly unresolved, with Mitchum's paterfamilias left untamed, but also never fully redeemed.
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TRACKING THE CAT: ROBERT MITCHUM IN THE WEST | July 8-30 | UCLA Film & Television Archive at the Billy Wilder Theater | cinema.ucla.edu