The "Robert Mitchum Film Collection" Has More Stars Than Duds Review

Robert Mitchum is a fine actor.  Like many actors of the time, his range is somewhat limited both by casting directors and his own force of personality.  There’s just so much you can do with a face like his.  It just oozes confidence bordering on indifference.  In The Robert Mitchum Film Collection, ten films (either from 20th Century Fox, United Artists/MGM) between 1954 and 1967 are brought together into two paper sleeve volumes.  Like any actor’s film collection, there is a balance of mediocre back catalog and pretty good back catalog (with one or two solid classics).  After the days where actors were nearly exclusive to a particular studio, it’s basically chance whether more than a couple classics were made by that company.  And, of course, an actor has less effect on a movie’s greatness than does a writer or director.  A polished toilet is still a toilet, only shinier.  So, you won’t see Mitchum’s best movie, The Yakuza (1974), in this collection. 

You will, however, see River of No Return (1954), The Night of the Hunter (1955), Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), The Enemy Below (1957), Thunder Road (1958), The Hunters (1958), The Longest Day (1962), Man in the Middle (1963), What a Way to Go! (1964), and The Way West (1967).  Two of those are absolute classics.  Four of them ought to be.  Two of them aren’t really Mitchum movies, strictly speaking.  And two are basically duds.  Not a bad ratio.

For those who may look at that list and think, “Hmm that sounds very black and white.  I don’t like those,” then please reconsider.  Watching movies is a cumulative experience.  You wouldn’t, one prays, only read those books you expect will entertain you for as long as your eyes are on the page.  If you add improving books to your reading diet, then all books help you grow as a reader and a person.  The same is true of films.  If you watch The Night of the Hunter, then you will watch other movies with a different eye.  Classics, by their experimental and sometimes extreme nature will force you to alter your perception of a topic or the medium generally.  This is good.  And, with movies, it often only costs ninety minutes.

So, without further ado, your review.

River of No Return (1954)

"Will we be as rich as the people who find gold?"  "No, but we’ll be richer than those that don’t."

Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) meets up, after years apart, with his son Mark (Tommy Rettig) at a seedy trade post with the intention to take him to his farm.  Mark has befriended Kay Weston (Marilyn Monroe) who sings in the saloon.  She’s with Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun) who just won himself a gold claim (explained in the earlier song).  Weston isn’t the brightest crayon, though, and gets himself a raft with Kay’s money with the intention of going down the rapids to file his claim at Council City.  As the Weston’s are passing Calder’s farm, it’s clear Harry can’t handle the raft and Calder pulls the raft up to shore.  After some brief hospitality, Harry borrows/steals Calder’s gun and horse and knocks him unconscious.  Kay stays behind.  Without his gun, however, Calder knows the ludicrously stereotypical Indians will attack, leaving them no choice but to get on the raft and journey the rapids to Council City.  They face the hunger, dangerous fauna of the human and non-human variety, and a harsh river.

The biggest problem with the movie is the age.  It’s basically understood that the normal acting style before the 1960’s was theatrical in nature.   That’s another way of saying unsubtle (which is uncharitable to stage actors).  The primary object seemed to be to have one’s line understood and the emotion behind it be unmistakable.   Preminger (happily) doesn’t soften the camera during the musical numbers.  He keeps the camera at a medium distance and the scene as gritty as it was before Monroe started singing. 

Feminists that don’t like to like to be completely mouth-frothingly angry ought probably to avoid this movie.  First, Calder sexually assaults Kay who then, moments later, decides to stay with Calder rather than go off with two (admittedly) seedy fellows also on their way to Council City.  Later, Calder takes her bodily from the saloon and she goes, first kicking and screaming and then docile and happily along.  Yikes.  Still, it’s probably the most human role I’ve seen from Monroe.

The worst part of old movies is the title song.

Did they just kill a reindeer?

Bonus Features Theatrical Trailer, Restoration Comparison, Still Gallery, Marilyn Monroe Trailers (Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Let’s Make Love (1960), Monkey Business (1952), Niagra (1953)).  Of those, the Restoration Comparison is the only one actually of interest.  Old trailers tend to summarize the movie instead of tease your interest.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

"Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves"

“Preacher” Harry Powell (Mitchum) is a psychotic.  God speaks to him and tells him to do some rather naughty things.  Apparently, the Lord shares Harry’s hatred of matted, curly hair.  But Harry’s so odd a duck, that he’s quite cognizant of his need for cash to do God’s bidding.  In jail (for driving a stolen vehicle), Harry overhears that Ben Harper (Peter Graves) has hid the $10,000 (about $80,000 in today’s money) Harper got in a robbery (in which Harper killed a guard).  Once Harry gets out, he seeks out Harper’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters), to marry her and find the money.  But Willa doesn’t know where the money is.  Only John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), Harper’s two children, know where the money is.  Harry inflicts his insanity on the Harpers until Willa is dead and John and Pearl have to run away to escape him.  Down the river of dreams…

The Night of the Hunter is unexpectedly stylized.  The smokey isn’t a problem.  The lighting isn’t a problem.  But the quasi-dance sequence was just too much.  I am given to understand that this is expressionism.  Well so much the worse for expressionism.  There is a brand of viewer that likes to feel weird.  As though confusion was a good thing.  The movie is so…French.

The movie is highly thought of by critics.  It’s #34 on the AFI 100 Years…100 Thrills (that’s ahead of Bullitt (1968), Casablanca (1942), and Dial M for Murder (1954)).  I know I talked it up quite a bit in the introduction, but the AFI is wrong.  The editing is abysmal.  Ebert calls it a dream-like state.  Well, yes, because those without an interest in seeing every Robert Mitchum movie will quickly enter a dream-like state.  The writing from James Agee is arguably good in the kind of neat plotting appreciated by people with no wit or subtlety (though much of the dialogue is top-notch).  But so much of it is weirdness.  What’s with the animals?

This overstates the weirdness of the movie, surely.  And it isn’t as though it’s unwatchable.  But for most modern viewers that have trouble with black and white, the movie won’t make it to the 30 minute mark before it’s turned off.  But for the rest of us, the whole movie has enough moments of interest to stick with it.  Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), for example, as the old spinster that raises other people’s children is worth the price of admission.  Perhaps if this were after censorship, the Powell character would be more explicitly crazy and would go down in everyone’s book as the greatest villain of all time (as opposed to the lists made by people who like to name things other people aren’t familiar with).

Again, the movie will push your ideas of what movies are like.  Ebert, if asked, would probably draw a straight line from The Night of the Hunter to Inception (2010).  What is a dream?  How is it displayed on screen?  These are questions for critics, film makers, and very interested amateurs and not for most movie-goers.  That said, it will make you a better viewer, and that ain’t nothin’.

Bonus Features Theatrical trailer.

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

"You got your cross, I got by globe and anchor."

Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr), an Irish nun, is left on a deserted island during World War II.  Angela better appreciate her luck.  What Angela requires, the island provides.  The food is plentiful, she’s got a roof over her head, and within a day, Cpl. Allison (Mitchum) of the Marines washes ashore and befriends her.  Allison is basically a gentleman (despite a rough upbringing) and but once doesn’t come near to offending her.  Angela and Allison have to avoid Japanese bombings, Japanese soldiers, and American bombings before their story is through.

Something happened to Mitchum during this movie.  He just decided he was going to be an actor.  One nit:  He’s from Wisconsin, not the Bronx, what’s with the accent?  Other than that, though, he was terrific.  The best performance of the first three movies—and The Night of the Hunter is a (supposed) classic—and perhaps of the whole set.  He’s understated, there are flashes of real responses, and there are relatively few lines that sound like he’s delivering them for a radio program.  That’s excellent work in 1957 for a dramatic actor.  He’s got a ways to go, but this is where he really starts to improve.  Kerr, I thought, was also very good (also with occasional accent troubles).

John Huston directs and directs it very well.  The camera work is noticeably good.   The performances are good.  The story is mostly well told. He has significant trouble with the end, but it isn’t the first time that he’s flubbed an ending.  Very well done.

Bonus Features MovieTone News.  The newsreels are amazing.  The continual reference to Japanese as “Japs” is regrettable.

The Enemy Below (1957)

"Never think, Heine, be a good warrior and never think."

Capt. Murrell (Mitchum) is the skipper of a sleepy American destroyer, the USS Haynes, in the South Atlantic.  Murrell lost his last ship and spent time in a lifeboat before getting his commission and joining the Haynes.  Von Stolberg (Curd Jürgens) is the skipper of a German U-boat on a mission to pick up a codebook and return to Germany.  He’s sick of the war that has cost him his two sons and the country he knew.  “They’ve taken human out of war… There is no honor in this war.”  These are two intelligent captains that fate has brought together as enemies.  When contact is made until their final dramatic collision, these two play out their duel.

Dick Powell directs this film with a steady hand.  It is a sea battle with a touch of personality behind it.  Both are well created in the screenplay from Wendell Mayes.  The battle and personalities are rather conventional for a Hollywood film, but it is entertaining and always satisfying.  Both men are reluctant but excellent warriors.  It isn’t their policy, but their duty to hunt down and destroy people they’ve never known, much less thought of in their lives. 

Ultimately, it is the most despicable thing about war that is hallowed in words like patriotism, duty, and heroism.  Really, they’re proxies for other people’s interests and policies.  The best you can say, and it is considerable, is that they protect their civilians from the abuses of their enemy.  It is about fear.  Americans know that its enemies need not fear them (though perhaps their friends) but we do not project that spirit on our enemies.  When it comes to Nazis, that’s appropriate.  So perhaps we ought not salute their proxies who out, instead, to have opposed their own leadership.

That’s opened up the conversation a bit.

The performances are quite good—nearly said, “predictably good,” but find films are entirely unpredictable—with Jürgens particularly notable since most of his popular films cast him as a rather comical villain.  He does gravitate towards the overdramatic, but compared to his other films he’s positively understated.  Mitchum, the subject of today’s collection, plays the part he’s given.  He’s no deeper than Mel Gibson in We Were Soldiers (2002) and that’s just fine.

The music is just this side of a Superman score, but, all in all, this is one of the better battle films of the era.

Bonus Features Fox War Classics (trailers for 13 Rue madeleine, The Blue Max, The Desert Fox, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allson, and Sink the Bismark!), MovieTone News (The War Situation, U-Boat Capture by Biplane, Inside the German U-Boat Base at Lorient, France), and Theatrical Trailer for The Enemy Below.

Thunder Road (1958)

"Father, forgive those who are unable to attend due to…uh…pressing business."

Luke Doolin (Mitchum), with the help of his little brother Robin Doolin (Mitchum’s real life son, James Mitchum), run moonshine from the sticks into Memphis.  Doolin is a war hero and came back to the moonshine business that’s been in the family since Ireland.  Doolin’s a bit nutty with a preference for action and no fear.  The Treasury Department is after him and the other moonshiners because of unpaid taxes.  Medium city gangster, Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon), is starting to buy up the area’s stills and if he can’t buy them, he’ll take them by force.  The local moonshiners agree to oppose Kogan, but they’ve still got Troy Barrett (Gene Barry) and the government to contend with.  This is their story.  Bum-bum.

Arthur Ripley directs this mediocrity with something close to apathy.  The performances range from acceptable to the quite terrible.  For a 1958 film—by the way, it’s black and white and scragly—the quality of filming is atrocious.  If it were the 30’s, it’d be solid, but not by the late 50’s.  And the performances were so bad.  Mitchum hardly escapes with something like decency.  James Mitchum basically ready out his lines and followed his blocking like he was in high school—which I guess he was at the time. 

James Atlee Phillips and Walter Wise wrote the screenplay with the story by Robert Mitchum, who also has a music credit.  In fact, Mitchum is rumored to have directed much of the movie himself.  I’m not sure which parts they were, but it isn’t much of a recommendation.  The dialogue was mostly fine without many moments of depth.  The thing had all the feeling of a television movie.  The only distinction is the story that holds attention despite all that goes wrong with the movie, including the despicable car chase scenes.  Cringe-worthy.

The bad with the good.  You didn’t think ten movies were all going to be gems, did you?


No special features.

The Hunters (1958)

"Do you like the war?"  "It’s the only war I got."

“Japan 1952 at the time of the Korean War.”  It’s jets baby.  Maj. Saville (Mitchum), the “Iceman,” is an old hand at fighting in a plane, a veteran of WWII.  He’s cool, assured, and loves to be in the air.  Also on base in Seoul is Lt. Abbott (Lee Philips), a decent pilot with a drinking problem, and Corona (John Gabriel) who’s the only one Saville really likes.  Lt. Ed Pell (Robert Wagner) joins in as a new kid on the block.  He’s a cool cat who just won’t shut up.  But, he’s aced every training program he’s been in and he wants to get up there and take down MiGs.  He’s a maverick.  Hmm.  Saville falls in love with Abbott’s wife, Kris (May Britt), who has stuck by Abbott despite his serious psychological hang-ups, and when Abbott’s plane goes down, Saville crash lands and does what he can to save him.

This is another Dick Powell movie and, this time, he’s got a more classical human plot.  The production on this movie is pretty incredible.  There is in-air footage of simulated jet dog fights.  The shot from the joystick in the cockpit is now a classic in jets.  Also, you may recognize some elements that reappear in later jet-fighter movies (by which I obviously mean Top Gun (1986)).

It’s a funny thing when an actor starts to play the old hand.  The slang—daddy-o, dig, George,etc.—is strange to hear in an older man’s voice.  Actually, 50’s slang is strange to hear in anyone’s voice.  Slang from the 20’s/30’s is charming and ironic, slang from the 70’s/80’s is defiant and occasionally witty.  Slang from the 60’s/70’s kind of sucks.  It’s like a 11 year old who learns all the swear words but doesn’t quite know how to use them:  Annoying.

The story is solid.  The performances are above average for the time.  Wagner’s hip dialogue is utterly insufferable and he mostly plays the character over-the-top, but even he has moments of strength.  Philips also puts in the occasional realism himself.  And with Mitchum, it’s the same as usual with notes of rudeness.  He’s everything an American man could ever want to be.  The same comparison will reappear, but Mitchum is John Wayne without the jingoism and self-satisfaction.

Bonus Features Theatrical Teaser, Theatrical Trailer, and MovieTone News.  The News shows the world premiere of The Hunters at the new Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.  Pretty neat as a historical point.  That goes for all the MovieTones that pepper this collection.  They’re windows into the times and can be interesting for that reason.

The Longest Day (1962)

"The Fuhrer is not to be awakened."

It’s D-Day.  It took a great deal of time.

“Data, data, we cannot make a film without data!” this film calls out (from beginning to end).   Here’s a little taste:

“I don’t think I have to remind you that this war has been going on for almost five years, over half of Europe has been overrun and occupied.  We’re comparative newcomers.  England’s gone through a blitz with a knife at their throat since 1940…”  Apparently, we needed to be reminded.  It continues from there in setting the scene in the dullest fashion possible.  They could have given us an essay at the top and it would have been less contrived.  ”It’s her birthday tomorrow . . . the sixth of June.”  My God. 

The rest is battle sequences and an obsessive attention to certain kinds of details.  The movie runs the gamut of good to bad in absolutely every category.  Depending on your forgiving nature, this may make it mostly good or mostly bad.

You can read an extended review at my Blog.

Putting this in the Robert Mitchum Collection is like putting A Bridge Too Far (1977) in the Robert Redford collection.  It can no more be an example of his work or the progress of his career.

Bonus Features Theatrical Trailers (The Longest Day, Patton, Tora! Tora! Tora!)

Man in the Middle (1963)

"The court martial will be held Wednesday and surely Winston will hang."

Lt. Winston (Keenan Wynn) walks into Staff Sgt. Quinn’s (Bill Mitchell) tent and shoots him to death.  We don’t know why.  We’re in India and things are tense between the “joint” American and British forces.  Lt. Col. Barney Adams (Mitchum), who has some legal training from West Point, is brought in to handle the defense by family friend General Kempton (Barry Sullivan).  The Allied forces intend to use India as launch pad for the final offensive against the Axis.  So, they want Winston tried and hanged to satisfy the British, but done cleanly and clearly.  What starts obvious turns out less so and when Adams gets the run-around, his natural pride makes him more interested in getting to the bottom of things.  So Adams talks to the psychiatrists Maj. Kaufman (Sam Wanamaker) and Major Kensington (Trevor Howard).

Back on track with quality Mitchum movies with Man in the Middle.  The titular man is Adams who is caught between his duty to the military and to justice.  One cannot say that Adams feels a duty to his client because Winston does everything he can to undermine that sense of duty.  Not on purpose, really, but that’s irrelevant.  Guy Hamilton directs the movie with purpose and ability (if not inspiration or art).  Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall write the screenplay based upon the novel, The Winston Affair, by Howard Fast.  It took puts function over art.  There are, of course, the required profound-sounding wisdoms spoken on war, justice, and the like, but mostly they rush over themselves to point out who is in the wrong and then give no respite.  That said, the story holds interest very well.  Regular movie-viewers will see great influences on A Few Good Men (1992), Primal Fear (1996), and other courtroom dramas.

Question: How do you have a guest star on a movie?  Trevor Howard, unquestionably an actor of considerable ability and history, is credited as a guest star.  Aren’t they all guests?

Bonus Features Theatrical Trailer and Still Gallery.

What a Way to Go! (1964)

"You don’t need a psychiatrist, you need your head examined!"

Louisa May Foster (Shirley MacLaine) has a strange affliction; she doesn’t seem to want her money.  First she married Edgar Hopper (Dick Van Dyke), a local store owner who didn’t have much money and a belief in Thoreau.  The richest man in town, Leonard Crawley (Dean Martin), who had been after her, pushed Hopper into becoming ambitious and money-crazed.  He gets so busy he doesn’t even realize when she hits him over the head with a flower pot.  He eventually worked himself to death (and riches).  Then she meets Paris cab driver/artist Larry Flint (Paul Newman) who has no interest in money just his fellow artist Freda (the chimp expressionist painter).  But then he becomes rich and famous and, eventually, he is killed by his work.  Then she meets Rod Anderson (Robert Mitchum), millionaire playboy tycoon, who turns out to have all the right priorities.  It doesn’t end well.  Pinky Benson (Gene Kelly), a small time performer, is next up.  Now, all she wants to do is get rid of the money she’s inherited and, thus, is sent to psychiatrist Dr. Stephanson (Robert Cummings).

J. Lee Thompson directs an all-star cast through a somewhat dark comic romp about the dangers of ambition, success, and celebrity.  “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!”  It’s a movie of a different age.  The age of the grand musical, of Gene Kelly and Dead Martin, and is written by musical veterans Betty Comden and Adolph Green (story by Gwen Davis).  For friends of movies and their parody, it’s a lot of fun.  Van Dyke and Cummings play it so over the top that their difficult to watch, but everyone else is perfectly marvelous.

Bonus Features MovieTone News including “What a Way to Go to the World’s Fair” (movie premier for What a Way to Go! At the World’s Fair in New York City described in that sparkling gossipy fashion of the times) and “Screen Tests for Chimps” (exactly what it sounds like), Theatrical Teaser, Theatrical Trailer, Fox Flix (semi-trailers for All About Eve, An Affair to Remember, From the Terrace, How to Marry a Millionaire, How to Steal a Milion, The Long, Hot Summer, The Seven Year Itch).

The Way West (1967)

"I don’t know why, but, it’s just that I gotta go where I’ve not been and where I can say ‘This far I’ve come, I can’t go no farther.'"

Sen. William Tadlock (Kirk Douglas) goes to Dick Summers (Mitchum) to be a scout to Oregon.  Summers has done it a dozen times, but last time “his Indian wife died” and he’s reticent to do it again.  Aww.  Lije Evans (Richard Widmark) has caught the traveling bug and wants to take his wife Becky (Lola Albright) and son Brownie (Michael McGreevey) to Oregon.  Mercy McBee (Sally Field her first film) is going with her father (Harry Carey Jr.) and has her eye on a married man Johnny Mack (Michael Witney).  These and a whole lot more cross rivers, forests, plains, and deserts to get to the promised land of Oregon.  Tadlock is going to push them hard to get there as fast as they can and not all will make it.

Wowza, it is certainly the 60’s.  Look at that font!  It’s like those old live action Disney movies like The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) (okay, that’s 70’s).  It’s got one of those terrible, dated title songs and Mitchum’s costume looks almost too stupid to take seriously.  Mitchum is a hippy John Wayne in this movie.  He has the same basic lack of interest in events around him but with a quiet, modest ability.

Andrew V. McLaglen directs this old west epic written by Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann.  You can guess it was expensive, but price and value aren’t the same.  This a movie that will only ever be seen by those who buy this collection and lie awake stoned watching TCM all night.  It’s grist for the mill.  An old mediocrity.  The story is basically of interest, but not executed well enough to make it stand the test of time.  Characters share so much time that they get only one or two points of interest.  Some are introduced only to be killed.  Is the point of the film to describe a wagon train or an ensemble of human flaws?  They tried for both and ended up with something average.  The closest somewhat recent comparison would be Australia (2008), but that had the benefit of a tighter story (with actual direction rather than a single, literal destination) and better production values to make use of the grand terrain.  But you get the idea.

No special features.

"The Robert Mitchum Film Collection" is on sale October 9, 2012 and is not rated. Adventure, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Musical, Thriller, War, Western. Starring Curd Jurgens, Deborah Kerr, Gene Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine.

Jason Ratigan • Staff Writer

A lawyer-turned-something-else with a strong appreciation for film and television.  He knows he can't read every great book ever written, but seeing every good movie ever made is absolutely doable.  Check out his other stuff on Wordpress.


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