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The Stars Never Die

Jimmy Stewart

The passing of Jimmy Stewart and Robert Mitchum only reinforces the persistence of movies like 'Vertigo' and 'Night of the Hunter'

An appreciation by Richard von Busack

Often, when movie stars die, they have the last word on their lives. Robert Mitchum's epitaph, according to the Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion (8th Edition), was "Later"; Jimmy Stewart's was, according to National Public Radio, "I hope I brought people some entertainment."

But the last words of a movie star are immaterial; they never really stop communicating. When you rewatch an old movie, you bring a different person to the experience: You bring the weight of more years, new pains and new satisfactions. And the film--and thus the star--speaks to you in new ways.

Meanwhile the star has died. Movie critics are called out, blinking in the sunlight, to comment on the death of an elderly actor. And as they do, they try to remember his life backward, from the last few sightings on the chat shows, as foils for breezy, stupid hosts.

Robert Mitchum They also remember the last few bill-paying appearances where the actor in question was used to leaven some stale pastry with stardust. If the actor has been languishing, as Jimmy Stewart had been, the death is no surprise and may even have been a mercy. But Robert Mitchum--I doubt if anyone ever expected him to die. The passing of the Stewart and Mitchum at once leaves you tongue-tied.

By the way, they were co-stars, in the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep: Mitchum as Marlowe; Stewart, only 10 years older than Mitchum, as Gen. Sternwood in his wheelchair among the orchids. These two roles are one way to imagine the pair of them: Mitchum belted in his raincoat as the dog-cynic Marlowe, Stewart watching with postwar world decaying from the vantage point of his greenhouse.

Nice Guy in a Frenzy

"I don't act. I react." So claimed Stewart, nice guy from the town of Indiana, Penn., that he was. He was a Princetonian. Stewart made his first movie 62 years ago. Like Gary Cooper, he was a fairly cosmopolitan lead, even a villain, in the beginning. He even did a bit of singing when required.

Director Frank Capra made Stewart into the quintessential small-town American in the same way that Cooper was made the archetypal Westerner. What Pauline Kael said about Cooper was also true of Stewart: When you looked at him, you were ready to give him power of attorney.

Jimmy Stewart

He was a beloved light comedian in the hit The Philadelphia Story, but it was when he came back from the war (Stewart was a hero pilot) that he became the most interesting. It's a Wonderful Life, Stewart and Capra's first postwar film, has demonstrated, to generations since, the terrifying side of Christmas. It is also a landmark in the new look of American film; optimism would never come as easily again to vets who left Bedford Falls and came back to Potterville.

Stewart helped produce some of the most interesting Westerns ever made; movies that matched heroism with corruption and mortality. Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) might never would have developed as a filmmaker if it hadn't been for the early experiments in the "adult Western" by Stewart and his director Anthony Mann: The Far Country, The Naked Spur, The Man From Laramie.

Since Stewart, only Clint Eastwood since has understood how the Western hero must be lower than God but higher than a rattlesnake. It would seem to be easy to make a Western, but somehow the formula has been lost.

Two of Stewart's movies for Hitchcock are case studies of sturdy men with shaky legs. Anyone obsessed with movies reserves a warm place for that trenchant study in voyeurism, Rear Window, a sort of warning label on the movies themselves, an analogue to Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. expressed with even more whimsy and mortal terror.

The recently rereleased Vertigo (1958) is Stewart's masterpiece, a portrait of the negative side of the American Century Man. Stewart, a nobleman of this new empire, is completely destroyed by need for control and the need to be loved. The movie wasn't a hit when it was released; it's the children of men like Scottie Ferguson who have given Vertigo its cult. When we watch it, we remember our fathers. We remember the look in their eyes.

Rearing back from the abyss, Stewart assayed easier, untroubled roles--mostly playing whimsical cowboys and grandfathers more grandfatherly than any grandfather could ever be. And this was his final role in life as well. Stewart had a famous scene reacting to the line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence about how here in the West we print the legend and ignore the facts. Of Jimmy Stewart it must be said, then: no doubt, no doubt, in real life he was just like that man he played on screen.


The Jimmy Stewart museum.

Robert Mitchum tribute site.


Bringing in the Sheaves

From Lillian Gish's 1969 autobiography, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, on the subject of the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter: "I played in the movie, which was about the battle between good and evil. Parts of the film were excellent, but it was not fully sustained because Mr. Laughton [Charles Laughton, in his sole effort as a director] did not want to 'ruin' Robert Mitchum's image by having him play a thoroughly wicked man. In the earlier days of films, it would have been considered a triumph to play evil convincingly."

I'm quoting this not to mock an elderly actress's rather astonishing opinion. I'm instead quoting it to point out the late Robert Mitchum's peculiar gift of making absolute evil look like glittering charm. There's a scene in The Night of the Hunter in which Gish holds Mitchum's Judas priest Harry Powell at bay in her yard.

Robert Mitchum Gish sits on her porch on her rocking chair all night, shotgun across her lap, watching the preacher sitting on tree stump as he sings "Bringing in the Sheaves." Trusting Powell as you would trust a fanged adder, she still can't help harmonizing with him, singing 'bringing, bringing, bringing in the sheaves,' as she rocks and holds her shotgun and watches him all through the night.

Mitchum made a lot of movies, and most of them weren't any good. He knew it and made sure you knew it, too. The reptilian bask-and-drowse look could, at worst, be a smirk. ("Movies bore me. Especially my own.") A 1975 biography of Mitchum was titled It Sure Beats Working. And why would he care? As critic David Thomson wrote, "The more praise Mitchum got, the less interesting he became."

His best work didn't make money. He was cool-blooded enough about his marvelous voice not only to record that famous calypso record but also to not mind too terribly much being mocked about that record decades later by David Letterman.

Everybody knows he used to like to smoke a little weed. He liked to write poetry, too, just like Stewart, but he didn't publish his. I read one Mitchum poem excerpted in an interview in Penthouse 20 years ago, and it was almost indistinguishable from a Jimmy Stewart poem. It was about a boy all alone reading a book and fishing in a brook.

And like Stewart, I don't think Mitchum considered himself a very complex man. Mitchum had that mysterious gift of a presence. Those who have this presence to the degree Mitchum had it rarely question the gift. As the baseball slang has it, You don't want to get caught looking.

Mitchum was best in the aristocratic noir film Out of the Past; and in two pictures that would make a natural double bill, if only they weren't too blood-curdling to watch in tandem: The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear, in which he played superhuman killer Max Cady. That 1962 thriller (remade by Martin Scorsese, with a cameo by Mitchum) was the first version of the yarn that goes "I'm sorry, we police can do nothing about that homicidal maniac stalking your family. We are handcuffed by those liberal courts."

The two roles and the two films are similarly situated. Cady and Powell are two alligators who never get far from the river; and Walter Schumann, composer of the "Dragnet Theme," did the bombastic theme for Powell, which was mirrored in Bernard Herrmann's thundering music for Cape Fear.

The Night of the Hunter was a resounding flop--what would someone from the 1950s think, if we could talk to them from our place in the future, about which American movies of their era we consider the greatest? Night of the Hunter, Vertigo and Touch of Evil, a few Nicholas Ray movies--hardly any Rock Hudson, little Robert or Elizabeth Taylor, certainly not The Robe or Ben Hur, only a handful of those dozens of sub-J.B. Priestly dramas about uneasy WASPS that represented prestige in the era of Ike.

Watching The Night of the Hunter now, I am puzzled at how it could have been made at all. No censor excised the leap of the blade of a switchblade out of Powell's pocket--a pants-bursting erection--as the sexually twisted preacher watches a burlesque show; no executive overrode the climax: the vanishing and reappearance of Powell, the pull of the trigger, Mitchum's war whoop as he bounds into the night like Satan before a cross.

Perhaps in Gish's opinion, if evil were portrayed "realistically," you wouldn't be interested in singing along. Still, our imagining of evil, of knowing its tune, comes partially from watching Mitchum's gimlet eyes and from hearing that buttery voice.

Of the other moth-faced and scarred devils that I've daydreamed about--Karloff, Christopher Lee's Dracula, Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth, my childhood terror Blofeld (who would detonate atom bombs for money), the scientists who kill for knowledge, the bad cops and worst robbers, the megalomaniacs and fascists, the rapists and murderers--none was as frightening as that country preacher with "love" and "hate" tattooed on his massive knuckles.

Rest in peace. Be seeing you both.

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Web exclusive to the July 3-9, 1997 issue of Metro.

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