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Darkness and light

All week people have been asking me who I liked better--Jimmy Stewart or Robert Mitchum? I wouldn't play the game. They were both one of a kind. Each had a style, a grace, a bearing, a voice, a face, a walk, that was unmistakable and irreplaceable. To be forced to choose between them simply because of the unhappy coincidence of their deaths is meaningless. Who would you choose: John Wayne, or Jimmy Cagney? Bette Davis, or Marilyn Monroe. See what I mean?

And yet, when the obituaries had been written and the tributes had been televised and the AMC cable channel had devoted one day to Mitch's movies and the next day to Jimmy's, I confess I felt a certain sadness that Mitchum's death was to some degree overshadowed by Stewart's. Here's how I read the general reaction: When Mitch died, we lost a legendary old movie star. When Jimmy died, we lost a national treasure.

Both of these "opinions" are of course judgments made in an instant by news people who--let's face it--may not have ever seen most of the films either man made. In the last week I've been amazed at how many people knew who they were but had forgotten, or never knew, what they'd done.

"What was his best movie?" people have asked me. With Mitchum, I answered "Night of the Hunter," or maybe "Out of the Past." With Stewart, I answered firmly: "Vertigo." And then I paused for a reaction, and got none. They hadn't seen any of them.

The one movie they'd all seen was "It's a Wonderful Life," which on Christmas Eve seems to play on every channel not solely devoted to selling zirconium necklaces. James Stewart, in that one film, passed beyond the kind of fame you get as a movie star, and became a kind of cultural icon, a saint of our secular church. For Stewart to die was for George Bailey to die, and the ending of the film provided the perfect curtain for his life: One more star in heaven, and one more angel. In her words at her father's memorial service, his daughter, Dr. Kelly Harcourt, evoked the character and the film by calling him "the richest man in town."

That was the James Stewart that the news shows and the newspaper editorials eulogized--the actor who appeared in a movie that has become one of the few things we all seem to share in our fragmented society.

He also appeared in darker and more difficult roles, including above all "Vertigo" but also "Rope," "Winchester 73," "Rear Window," "Anatomy of a Murder" and "The Naked Spur." And in lighthearted comedies ("Philadelphia Story"), and superb adventure films ("Flight of the Phoenix"), and romantic biographies ("The Glenn Miller Story") and in countless other fine movies. But those are what movie fans would remember. "It's a Wonderful Life" is remembered by everyone.

Robert Mitchum never made a picture like that. Perhaps he couldn't have. He embodied a completely different kind of character on the screen: Harder, wiser, darker. No matter what your age was, Mitchum always seemed older than you were, just as Stewart always seemed boyish. Stewart smoked in roles, and you felt it was because the character smoked. Mitchum smoked, and it was because he needed to. And when he drank in a movie, the way he picked up the glass let you know he wasn't keeping count.

Robert Mitchum was my favorite movie star because he represented, for me, the impenetrable mystery of the movies. He knew the inside story. With his deep, laconic voice and his long face and those famous weary eyes, he was the kind of guy you'd picture in a saloon at closing time, waiting for someone to walk in through the door and break his heart.

Mitchum was the soul of film noir. And film noir is one of the three uniquely American movie genres (the others are Westerns and musicals). The way he wore a fedora, the way he let a cigarette dangle from his lip, the way he handled himself in a fight, was manly, tough, and cynical. The model for that kind of character was Bogart, but Mitchum refined it, and made it modern.

When he was in a fight in a movie, you felt like you were watching a fight. Not a skillful exercise in choreography, constructed out of pseudo-karate and special effects and stunt man. But a fight, in which one guy's fist hits another guy's gut, and it hurts, and is surprising and definitive, and is over in a flash.

Mitchum made probably the best of all film noirs, "Out of the Past," and a lot of others. He made that distinctive American art film "Night of the Hunter," directed by Charles Laughton, which combined a nightmarish story with the most delicate of visual whimsy (remember the animals along the river bank as the children float to safety?). To look at the span of his work, from "The Sundowners" to "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," from "Farewell, My Lovely" to "The Lusty Men" to "The Yakuza" to "Pursued," is to see a professional at home in many genres, periods and accents. You can never catch him cheating, coasting, or looking phony.

When a great star or director dies, critics all over the world haul down David Thomson's big "Biographical Dictionary of Film," because it does the best job in the fewest words of capturing the essence of its hundreds of subjects. Some of them may have been surprised by what he wrote about Mitchum:

"How can I offer this hunk as one of the best actors in the movies? [There is an] intriguing ambiguity in Mitchum's work, the idea of a man thinking and feeling beneath a calm exterior so that there is no need to put 'acting' on the surface. And for a big man, he is immensely agile, capable of unsmiling humor, menace, stoicism, and above all, of watching other people as if he were waiting to make up his mind."

And then Thomson added: "Since the war, no American actor has made more first-class films, in so many different moods." I was lucky enough to meet both James Stewart and Robert Mitchum several times. Stewart was one of the nicest movie actors I ever met. He was patient, humorous, modest, smart. There was an edge to him--no one could fly 22 combat missions over Germany and be merely a nice guy--but he liked people and liked himself, and you felt good around him.

Mitchum was another story. He was known as the hardest interview in the business. I thought he was the best. I learned early how to talk to him. It was a rain-swept night in 1968, in a little cottage on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland, where he drank whisky and listened to Jim Reeves records and told stories. He was making "Ryan's Daughter" and was beginning to think he should have been making something else. I was awestruck. He didn't simply fill a room, he wore it like a T-shirt.

My questions sounded inane: "What it is like, working with Mr. Lean?" His answers turned and coiled upon themselves, following paths of invention and whimsy. I realized that he had a technique for not getting bored during interviews. His technique was to free-associate about whatever he damn well pleased, and to invent stories if the real ones weren't entertaining enough.

When we met the next time, I just let him talk. I was an audience, not an interviewer. Once in McKeesport, Penn., he dismissed his driver and announced that he and I would be driven to the movie location by his friend and stand-in. We spent four hours being lost. At one point, we had left Pennsylvania altogether and were in McKeesport, Ohio, with Mitchum wondering if a snow-plow operator could be bribed to lead us back to town. And all the time he talked, free-associating. I don't know if he was the best conversationalist in the movies, but he might have been the best monologist.

The last time I saw him was at the Virginia Festival of American Film, in Charlottesville, four years ago. They did a tribute to film noir and I interviewed Mitchum on stage after the screening of "Out of the Past." He'd gone out to dinner rather than see the film again ("I don't know if I've ever seen it") and at dinner he smiled at his wife of 50 years, Dorothy, and told this story:

"Once there were a lot of fans under my hotel room window. I turned to Dorothy and asked her, 'Why do they make such a big deal? You've been married to me for years, and you're certainly not impressed. And Dorothy said to me, 'Bob, when you're up there on the screen, they're smaller than your nostril'."

There's a truth there that applied to every movie star. But not many of them would have told the story.

So, Mitchum or Stewart? I cannot chose. I cannot do without either one of them. They are among the immortals. But when Stewart died, the entire nation went into mourning, and the President issued a statement, which he had not been moved to do the day before. And I thought, yes, all honor to Jimmy. But let us also love and remember Mitch. And I put on my laserdisc of "Night of the Hunter," and listened to Mitchum's voice coiling from the screen ("Chill....dren?"). And I thought, Stewart was the heart, and Mitchum was the soul. sidebar or shirttail:

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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