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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Weekly Top Five: An ode to "the soul of film noir," Robert Mitchum

Posted by on 12.16.12 at 04:00 PM

Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter
  • Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter
On Wednesday, December 19, 7:30 PM, at the Portage Theater, the Northwest Chicago Film Society wraps up its fall programming with a 35-millimeter screening of the essential Charles Laughton film The Night of the Hunter, which they've dubbed an "oddly heart-warming Christmas story." Whatever it is, there's no denying the film is a masterwork of expressionistic filmmaking. At its center is star Robert Mitchum, playing one of the most villainous figures in all of cinema history, the evil Reverend Harry Powell.

Mitchum has been one of my favorite actors for some time now, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to share my five favorite performances of his. In a tip of the hat to my buddies at Filmspotting, I'm calling this my Harry Powell Memorial List. Check it out after the jump.

5. Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1947) Dave Kehr calls this "the most delicate and nuanced of film noirs, graced with a reflective lyricism that almost lifts it out of the genre." No one could say it any better. Mitchum adds to the film's poetic tone by way of his typically reserved, but no less penetrating, style.

4. River of No Return (Otto Preminger, USA, 1954) One of Premminger's best, a 'scope Western that pits Mitchum against none other than Marilyn Monroe. The two star as an ex-con and the abandoned wife of a degenerate gambler, respectively, exhibiting an odd sort of chemistry that gives the film its beguiling tone. Preminger excelled in exploring moral relativism, and I can think of no two better vessels for his thematic concerns than Monroe and Mitchum.

3. The Locket (John Brahm, USA, 1946) This curious noir item from RKO has one of the more convoluted plots I've ever come across, but it's all the better for it. Mitchum has a somewhat small, but no less pivotal, role as an artist who splits up with the main character—an emotionally strained bride played by Laraine Day—whose past indiscretions with the opposite sex haunt her on her wedding day.

2. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, USA, 1973) Golden-era Mitchum. I'm a sucker for crime dramas, and this one's damn fine, but the real appeal is Mitchum in a role that amounts to a sort of self-parody. His line about the nuns in Sunday school is the perfect encapsulation of what makes the film, and Mitchum in general, essential.

1. The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1952) Ray and Mitchum were the perfect team: They favored the outsiders of the world and were interested in stories and films that existed on the margins of mid-century Hollywood fare. This little-known western isn't available on DVD (yet), but it's well worth the digging. Mitchum is in rare form as Jeff McCloud, an aged rodeo star, imbuing the role with the sort of existential dread one associates with the best of Ray's protagonists.

Honorable mentions: As a drifter cowboy in Robert Wise's acid western Blood on the Moon; a sheriff opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawks's penultimate film El Dorado; and as a seedy stepfather in Josephy Losey's Secret Ceremony.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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