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Robert Mitchum: "One of the greatest movie stars was Rin Tin Tin. It can't be too much of a trick."

Roger Ebert and Robert Mitchum at the Virginia Festival of American Film in 1993.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA -- He arrives dressed in an elegant dark blue pinstripe suit, but he will not be mistaken for a banker. There is a touch of the raffish about Robert Mitchum, a sense that the rules were made to amuse him.

He is here at the Virginia Festival of American Film, it says in the program, because he embodies "the soul of film noir." Yes. That is exactly right: In his ironic inflections, in his sleepy cynical eyes, in the laconic way he handles a gun or a dame, he embodies the essence of the darkest American film genres.

All of that is true, and yet Mitchum only smiles at it. "We called them B pictures," he said. "We didn't have the money, we didn't have the sets, we didn't have the lights, we didn't have the time. What we did have were some pretty good stories."

It is my job to be onstage with Mitchum, and question him after the screening of Jacques Tourneur's "Out of the Past" (1947), one of the greatest of all film noirs, the one where Jane Greer tells Mitchum, "You're no good and I'm no good. We were meant for each other." And where Mitchum, informed that everybody dies sooner or later, replies, "Yes, but I plan to die last."

I have met Mitchum before. In 1967 in Dingle, Ireland, during the filming of "Ryan's Daughter," we spent the evening in his cottage by the sea, drinking, and he observed "David Lean has shot for one day, and he's eight days behind." Once outside Pittsburgh we got into a car to go to the Allegheny County Jail, and ended up in Steubenville, Ohio, with Mitchum trying to convince a state snowplow driver to lead us back to the big city. And once on his birthday, which was also the anniversary of the day Marilyn Monroe died. "And also, they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima," he said. "All sorts of things happened on my birthday."

What I learned during those times was that Robert Mitchum is a great interview, as long as you do not ask a question and expect him to answer it. He marches to his own tune. On the stage at Virginia, he lit a Pall Mall to loud applause, blew out smoke, and sighed.

You've been a movie actor for 50 years, I said.

Silence. A shrug. "Well, making faces and speaking someone else's lines is not really a cure for cancer, you know. If you can do with some grace, that's good luck, but it isn't an individual triumph; it is about as individual as putting one foot before the other. One of the greatest movie stars was Rin Tin Tin. What the hell. It can't be too much of a trick."

In "Out of the Past," I said, you co-starred with Kirk Douglas. You've always been very laid back. He was more... laid forward.

"Well, Kirk was very serious about it. Just before 'Out of the Past,' Betty Jane Greer and I saw a picture that came over from Paramount called 'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers' and Kirk was very interesting in it. So we said, 'Let's get him,' and the studio got him and he's quite serious about his profession and I personally take or leave it, you know. I have a come-what-may attitude. And he spent most of his time on the set with a pencil on his chin....which kind of tickled the hell out of Betty Jane. But I saw that he was very serious about it. He came to Janie and said, 'How can I underplay Mitchum?' She said, 'Forget it, man. He ain't playing it; he's just doing it'."

He wanted to get underneath you somehow? Underact you?

"Yeah. He was an actor. I was a hired man."

The audience at Virginia was planning to look at film noir all weekend: "The Big Sleep" (1946) and "Detour," "Sunset Boulevard" and "Ace in the Hole," "The Grifters" and "Gilda," "Chinatown" and Mitchum again in "Farewell, My Lovely." Many of the movies were 40 or 50 years old, but film noir doesn't date, because they're all set at the same time: Night.

The audience loved the conventions of the period--the smoking, for example. "Out of the Past" is perhaps the greatest cigarette movie ever made, with Mitchum and Douglas standing face to face and smoking at each other. There's a scene where Douglas offers Mitchum a smoke and Mitchum holds up his cigarette and says, "Smoking." It always gets a laugh.

Did you guys have any idea of doing a running gag involving cigarette smoking? I asked.

"No, no."

Because there's more cigarette smoking in this movie than in any other movie I've ever seen.

"We never thought about it. We just smoked. And I'm not impressed by that because I don't, honest to God, know that I've ever actually seen the film."

You've never seen it?

"I'm sure I have, but it's been so long that I don't know."

Instead, he'd gone out to dinner with his wife, Dorothy, during the screening. I asked him about "The Night of the Hunter" (1955), the great film directed by Charles Laughton, in which he played the sinister preacher with "LOVE" tattooed on the knuckles of one hand, and "HATE" on the other.

"Charles called me up,' Mitchum recalled, 'and he said, 'Robert? Charles here. I have had before me since yesterday, a script of a totally unremitted, completely unforgivable, flat-out, total, piece of shit.' I replied, 'Present!' So, we made a date and we went out to dinner and that was it. I wanted to shoot it in West Virginia or Ohio, where it was laid. I knew that sort of country, but the budget made it out of the question. And he cast Shelley Winters and I thought that was a bit odd because she was sort of an urbanite from St. Louis or Kansas City or someplace, and I asked, 'Why Shelley Winters?' 'Because we can get her for $25,000.' I said, 'Okay, man.' And so we went into it and Charles, along with the scenic designer, had characterized all the scenery. For instance, there's one shot where the kids are up in the barn loft and they hear him singing, and they look out and across the horizon they see him riding across the sky. Well, that was done on the sound stage with a miniature pony and a midget."

Are you kidding?

'The scenic design was really incomparable and Charles was an enormous appreciator, if you understand what I mean. He was like John Huston or people like that. He didn't tell you what to do or what you're thinking. Somebody like Cukor would say, 'Now, he's thinking this, and this...' And I would say, 'Really?' But Charles would just nerve you up and he would do it and he would be so appreciative that you did it to please him. Honest to God, you know, you did your really best to try to enchant him and of course it was effective. People always want to know why he never directed another picture. He died, that's why.”

Mitchum by now had the audience in the palm of his hand. If he had affection for Laughton, there were many film icons he took with a grain of salt. David Lean, for example: "David would sit there in his chair, thinking. Thinking. Sitting. Thinking. For hours. Once on 'Lawrence of Arabia' he was shooting in Jordan and they had to pick up the chair and carry him off in a pickup truck. A war had broken out."

He wasn't a spin doctor, turning memories into public relations. Asked how he would compare his work in the 1962 version of "Cape Fear" with Robert De Niro's performance in the same role in Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake, he said: "I've never seen it."

The Scorsese version?

"Neither one, as a matter of fact."

Somebody in the audience asked him about Marilyn Monroe, though, and his face softened.

"I loved her," he said. "I had known her since she was about 15 or 16 years old. My partner on the line at the Lockheed plant in Long Beach was her first husband. That's when I first met her. And I knew her all the way through. And she was a lovely girl; very, very shy. She had what is now recognized as agoraphobia. She was terrified of going out among people. At that time they just thought she was being difficult. But she had that psychological, psychic fear of appearing among people. That's why when she appeared in public, she always burlesqued herself. She appeared as you would hope that she would appear. She was a very sweet, loving and loyal, unfortunately, loyal, girl. Loyal to people who used her, and a lot who misused her."

And what about Humphrey Bogart? someone asked. Did you know him?

"Yes, I knew him. Bogey and I were pretty good friends. One time he said to me, 'You know, the difference between you and me and those other guys is--we're funny.'."

There were a lot of academic types from the University of Virginia in the audience, and one of them asked, "Ah, Mr. Mitchum, given your casual attitude toward film, what do you think of a festival like this that studies film critically and analytically?"

"My what?"

"Your casual attitude..."

"Yeah, yeah, I got the casual part. What was the other part?"

"What do you think of film festivals?"

"They're freak shows. In any community, if somebody notifies the local TV stations that there's a giraffe loose in their back yard, the whole populace turns up."

Mitchum exhaled, and looked at the audience as if they were looking at a giraffe.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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