Since he first appeared on a movie screen in the early 1940s, he has thrilled movie audiences like no other actor of his generation: Robert Mitchum is still a household name to many Western and action lovers.
In the course of his career, Robert Mitchum played a wide variety of roles: Originally, Mitchum was known for starring in films noirs. Films noirs were mainly filmed in Hollywood during the 1940s and 1950s and dealt with crime stories.
Robert Mitchum was a star of the classic film noir: before Mitchum became known to a wide audience, he proved his acting skills in crime movies.
Robert Mitchum lost his father at a young age: His youth was marked by wandering across the United States as a hobo. In an interview, Robert Mitchum recounted that during a casual job with an airline he met Marilyn Monroe, who was unknown at the time.
His cross-country travels also took him to California: Initially, Mitchum was a member of a theater group in Long Beach. From the early 1940s, he worked in Hollywood as an actor.
Initially, Mitchum was mainly employed in extra and supporting roles: However, unlike other actors of his generation, his breakthrough as an actor followed quite early. Mitchum celebrated his first major success with his role in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). The war film is still considered one of the most realistic non-documentary war films.
Actually, the film studio had another main cast in mind for the film: Names like Gary Cooper or Fred Astaire were under discussion. However, since none of these actors was available for the project, the choice fell on the hitherto unknown Robert Mitchum.
His success in The Story of G.I. Joe shaped Robert Mitchum’s further Hollywood career: to this day, Robert Mitchum is known mainly for his roles in war films.
Josef von Sternberg
In 1952, Robert Mitchum starred in the film Macao: Josef von Sternberg directed. Although the film flopped at the box office and among critics at the time, today it enjoys cult status among films noirs. Sternberg had long since passed the zenith of his career at the time: he was best known for directing Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s. The comeback of a then out-of-time director startled audiences and critics at the time, so the film lay dormant in the archives undiscovered for a long time.
In the 1950s, Robert Mitchum didn’t just star in films noirs: in 1954, Mitchum starred alongside Marilyn Monroe in the western River of No Return. His role alongside Monroe made him known to audiences beyond films noirs.
The Night of the Hunter
In the film The Night of the Hunter (1955), Robert Mitchum played the role of a psychopathic itinerant preacher during the Great Depression of the 1930s: at the time, the film received a rather lukewarm reception from critics and audiences. Today, the film is considered a masterpiece of the film noir genre and, for many, Robert Mitchum’s best acting performance. In the 21st century, a French film magazine even went so far as to call The Night of the Hunter one of the best films of all time.
In the mid-1950s, Mitchum and his wife founded their own production company to circumvent the traditional Hollywood studio system: With his own production company, Mitchum produced four films.
In 1957, Robert Mitchum immortalized himself in the war film The Enemy Below: the plot of the film revolves around the encounter between an American destroyer captain and a German submarine captain. The German captain was portrayed by Curd Jürgens.
Curd Jürgens and Robert Mitchum were united in front of the film camera once more during the shooting of the war film The Longest Day (1962).
Acting – an easy job?
In 1966, Robert Mitchum was casted for the western El Dorado together with the western legend John Wayne.
Throughout his life, Mitchum was convinced that acting was a simple profession: he didn’t think much of acting theories or intellectual reflections on the art of acting. For him, acting was a profession like any other. If one looks at Mitchum’s youth, one finds the reasons for his perception here: in his younger years, Mitchum made his way through numerous odd jobs – from ghostwriter for an astrologer to assistant at an airline. Acting was initially nothing more than a casual job for him: although Mitchum worked as an actor for the rest of his life, acting was a sort of lifelong odd job for him. Mitchum always kept his status as a Hollywood star and esteemed character actor under wraps.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Robert Mitchum was one of the central actors of the film noir movement: He shaped the genre like no other actor before him.
Through his roles in westerns and war films, Mitchum became known to a wide audience. His attitude to acting, which he regarded as a profession like any other, made him an exotic among Hollywood actors: Mitchum often denounced the superficiality of the film industry and thus risked being declared persona non grata in film circles.
Mitchum died on July 1, 1997: he died a few weeks before his 80th birthday. In the course of his career, Robert Mitchum starred in over ninety films.
Cover picture: Robert Mitchum with Leslie Nielsen in 1976 during a press conference in Amsterdam
Picture credit: Fotograaf Suyk, Koen / Anefo, Nationaal Archief, CC0