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A Devil's Racket

[whitespace] Robert Mitchum
Decency and Danger: Robert Mitchum and Lizabeth Scott in The Racket.

Quintessential tough guy Robert Mitchum was too weary for cynicism

By Richard von Busack

IN THE 1947 FILM Crossfire, a young Robert Mitchum plays Sgt. Pete Kiely. Cooling his heels after the war, Kiely toils in the peacetime Army, in some sort of bureaucratic position that he refuses to dignify with a description. Mitchum shares several powerful scenes with that underrated actor Robert Young, who plays Capt. Finlay, a police detective cracking a murder that happens Friday night and is wrapped up before Monday dawns.

Young's cop has a Jesuit's suspicion of men--and a sorrowfulness for the sins of the world. Mitchum's Kiely is something else, maybe the devil when he's not out on a mission scooping up unwary souls. The great Robert Ryan plays the self-injuring Job caught in the "crossfire" of Young's angel and Mitchum's devil.

In contrast to Young, Mitchum is unsurprised at the stink of humanity. A veneer of politeness covers over a great deal of insolence; he's unable to get upset much about the possibility of someone he knows being a killer. It was a persona that Mitchum massaged masterfully through his career of playing tough guys.

Crossfire, which shows April 11-12 at the Nickelodeon as part of a month-long retrospective of Mitchum film noirs, also features sharp performances by Gloria Grahame and character actor Paul Kelly as a menacing, double-talking fool in love with a bar girl.

The minifestival also brings back Mitchum's trench-coated turn in director Jacques Tourneur's close-to-perfect film noir Out of the Past (1947; March 28-29). The tangled, flashback-swaddled story of Mitchum and Kirk Douglas' twisted search for bad girl Jane Greer presents a mystery as elegant and artificial as its title; solving it is like trying to herd cats. The Racket (1951; April 18-19) stars Mitchum, against type, as a good cop; Robert Ryan plays his adversary, a vicious, charismatic gangster.

The Nickelodeon is also screening two other Mitchum films, neither available on video. In the ripe Otto Preminger melodrama Angel Face (1952; April 4-5), Mitchum begins as the chauffeur and makes the mistake of ending up as the lover of the beautiful, daddy-fixated Jean Simmons. The Locket (1947; April 25-26) finds Mitchum involved with kleptomaniac Laraine Day.

Mitchum had such wide eyes, you could never tell what held his attention--and a sharp nose to look down at the squares of the world. His persona, that of a man too weary for cynicism, was often mistaken for indifference (though he liked being thought of as indifferent and once said his epitaph was going to be "Later").

His sweet side was guarded from the press. He was an amateur poet, sang a little calypso and stayed married to his high school girlfriend until the end. That essential decency--which showed how much acting this actor did--should be remembered the next time you witness his two most famous and terrifying roles, as the buttery-voiced American psychos in the original Cape Fear (1962) and in The Night of the Hunter (1961). In each, honor and faith are taken to hideous extremes--the kind of extremes that only a really laid-back man could make as vivid as a nightmare.

The Robert Mitchum Retrospective plays weekends March 28-April 26 at the Nickelodeon; see Showtimes for details.

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From the March 26-April 1, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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