The 10 Most Essential Robert Mitchum Movies

This week has seen ’70s crime classic and Playlist favorite “The Friends Of Eddie Coyle” get the Criterion upgrade to Blu-Ray. Peter Yates’ film has been undervalued for too long, but its cult has been growing in recent years, and the new 1080p release is a welcome one, not least because it gives us another chance to watch one of the finest performances from a true cinematic legend: Robert Mitchum.

A Connecticut native who had a troubled adolescence, including time on a Georgia chain gang that he claimed to have escaped from, Mitchum got into acting after moving to Los Angeles in the early 1940s, and swiftly got work in B-movie westerns before finding sudden fame in “Nevada” and “The Story Of G.I. Joe.”

The actor soon became a leading figure in film noir pictures, and his career survived an arrest and brief prison spell for marijuana possession (a conviction later overturned for entrapment), as well as a somewhat tumultuous reputation that saw him fired from the John Wayne flick “Blood Alley.” But Mitchum wasn’t just a hard man, he was capable of surprising range, soulfulness and had impeccable and sometimes even adventurous taste in projects (his last movie beingJim Jarmusch‘s “Dead Man“). He even had a brief side career in music, including a notorious calypso record.

Never fading away, continuing to work well into his 70s, and married to his wife Dorothy for 57 years when he passed away in 1997, Mitchum was a contradictory and fascinating figure, and a tremendous performer (David Thompson wrote in “The Biographical Dictionary Of Film” that “since the war, no American actor has made more first-class films, in so many different moods”). So, with “The Friends Of Eddie Coyle” returning to Criterion, we decided it was time to take a look at the star’s career, and pick out his ten most essential roles. Take a look below, and let us know your own favorite Mitchum movies in the comments.

READ MORE: 10 Great Overlooked Films From The 1970s

“The Story Of G.I. Joe” (1945)
The film that cemented Mitchum’s stardom and won him his only Oscar nominated (and which was shot just before he was briefly drafted into the real army), “The Story Of G.I. Joe” was mostly redundant as propaganda by the time it arrived: it landed in theaters after V.E. Day, and about six weeks before the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But “Wings” director William Wellman’s film was then, and still remains, one of the better war pictures of the period, an unsentimental, near docu-drama look at the everyday life of a soldier. Burgess Meredith headlines the film as real-life, well-loved war correspondent Ernie Pyle (who was killed before the film was released, at the Battle of Okinawa), here attached to C Company in the 18th Infantry, a mostly untested group of soldiers led by Captain Walker (Mitchum). It’s a troops-eye-view approach that stresses realism above all else — this is war as dull stretches of nothingness punctuated by bursts of horrifying combat — but the film’s all the more moving for eschewing over-the-top acts of heroism and placing its emphasis on the sheer ordinariness of the troops, and the bond that Meredith forms with them over time. And though Meredith (who’d been serving as a captain in the military until he was picked out to star here, and had his career launched as a result) is the film’s lead, it’s Mitchum that is its real heart: a man wearied by combat and by the loss of his men, but remaining a quietly beloved leader nevertheless. The ending, when it comes, packs a real punch, and it’s little wonder that, despite being unavailable on video for years, it’s one of the most influential war pictures ever.

“Out of the Past” (1947)
There’s perhaps no genre, maybe apart from screwball comedy, as closely associated with the Golden Age of Hollywood, and as heavily scrutinized as film noir. So, a film like horror maestro Jacques Tourneur‘s “Out of the Past,” which embodies every single one of noir’s expressive storytelling and filmmaking conventions, should feel at at least a little old hat. But even after repeated viewings it remains heady as catnip, its tangled storylines, stark lighting, graphic compositions and fatale-est ever femme (Jane Greer FTW every single time) never give up all their secrets. And all this fabulous coal-grit texture is anchored by Mitchum’s central turn as another noir archetype — the low-rent but honorable Private Eye whose code can withstand any temptation bar that of a faithless dame. His Jeff Bailey is essentially in the Chandler/Hammett/Spillane mold, and here Mitchum is aided by a top-notch supporting cast, from Kirk Douglas‘ early role as Bailey’s hoodlum employer/adversary, (with a higher-pitched voice than Douglas the star ever spoke in) to a touching Dickie Moore as the deaf kid loyal to him, to Greer as the irredeemable Bad Girl who’ll be his ruin, and Virginia Huston as her polar opposite — his potential savior. None of it makes much sense except on that deep, dirty, delicious level on which the best noir operates. Mitchum is so perfectly cast as the decent but self-loathing cynic betting high on one last roll of the dice, that it’s a wonder he didn’t solely occupy that role for the rest of his career.

“The Night Of The Hunter” (1955)
Over the years, “The Night Of The Hunter” has taken on an almost mythic status: the only film ever directed by the great British actor Charles Laughton.It was poorly reviewed, and flopped on release, only to discover an ever-growing audience years later, often landing on lists of the greatest movies of all time, and influencing everyone from Terrence Malick to David Lynch. It’s a great narrative, but one that often means that Robert Mitchum’s chilling central turn can be overlooked, which seems almost impossible given its undeniable brilliance. Based on a book by Davis Grubb and penned for the screen by Pulitzer Prize winner James Agee (“The African Queen”), it’s a sort of coming-of-age story about two young children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), whose new stepfather is the charismatic L-O-V-E/H-A-T-E tattooed, malevolent, murderous preacher Reverend Harry Powell (Mitchum), who’s chasing the hidden loot of their bank-robbing pa. Just about the last thing you’d expect to be directed by the classically trained Laughton (it’s like Kenneth Branagh making a Marvel movie or something…). The film is an elegant, terrifying slice of Southern Gothic, its photography drawing on classic expressionism, all chiaroscuro and looming atmosphere, but as immaculately made as it is, it draws much of its power from Mitchum at his most iconic. Dead-eyed and reptilian, it’s his most atypical performance and also draws on all the things he does best. Despite the film’s initial reception, it’s probably become the role he’s best known for.

“Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” (1957)
The first of Mitchum’s three onscreen partnerships with Deborah Kerr, whose somewhat prim classiness was always a delicious foil to his laconic masculinity, “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” is a surprisingly gentle film, considering its hardboiled star and notorious hellion writer/director John Huston. Relying on similar chemistry to Huston’s own “The African Queen,” the film follows a marine, Allison, drifting alone on a raft in the Pacific, who comes upon a desert island whose only current occupant is Sister Angela, herself stranded there when the old priest she had accompanied died unexpectedly. As the odd couple bond over survival tactics and escape plans and then go into hiding when Japanese forces set up camp on the island, the relationship between the pretty novice (she has yet to take her final orders) and the bootstraps marine is tenderly drawn, with an almost hushed respect for the sweetness of their friendship. It was Kerr who picked up a Best Actress nomination (the screenplay also got a nod), and in fairness a woman whose vows survive a tanned, semi-naked Mitchum falling for her is a tough role to sell (srs), but in retrospect it really feels like Mitchum’s film. Allison is a wonderful creation, a rough diamond, conscious of his own luggishness compared to Sister Angela, first inarticulate about and then embarrassed by his own feelings of protectiveness toward her. So many of Mitchum’s roles relied on the menace he could project, but here his charisma serves a character of bone-deep goodness, he wears this role as lightly and naturally as any other he ever played.

“The Sundowners” (1960)
Taking the grand Hollywood melodrama into almost untrodden territory for the time — the Australian outback — “The Sundowners” is resolutely unhip, not treasured by cinephiles in the way that “Night Of The Hunter” or “The Friends Of Eddie Coyle” might be. However, it’s still a remarkably effective and absorbing picture (if a little too long), with another sterling performance from Mitchum. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, it sees the actor play Paddy Carmody, an Irish shepherd in Australia (with basically an American accent), who loves his lifestyle, but whose devoted wife (Deborah Kerr) and son (Michael Anderson Jr.) increasingly want to put down more permanent roots. And… that’s sort of it: though there are some impressively photographed landscapes and sheep-drives, there’s not much in the way of major drama at play. The film is instead an admirably low-key portrait of a family and a community (an excellent Peter Ustinov and Glynis Johns among them). The dynamic between Mitchum and Kerr is key to the film — he’s a decent man, but a feckless gambler and an inveterate nomad with it. She loves him deeply, but is fed up with living in a tent. It’s a legitimately moving portrait of a marriage, and the film works because of the deep chemistry between them, and serves as a great example of Mitchum’s inherent generosity as an actor (he stepped in for Gary Cooper at the last minute, insisted on taking second billing to Kerr after they became pals on “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison,” and happily watched her — again — pick up an Oscar nod while he went unrewarded).

“Cape Fear” (1962)
Was ever there an actor less precious about his “star image”? Mitchum’s indelibly evil turn as Max Cady in J. Lee Thompson‘s “Cape Fear,” equalling and perhaps surpassing in depravity his iconic “Night of the Hunter” role, suggests not. The simple embodiment of malevolent revenge and inchoate violence, Cady is a serial rapist who upon release from prison tracks down Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), the man he believes is responsible for his conviction, and terrorizes him and his family, especially preying, given his victims’ knowledge of his prior offenses, on Bowden’s wife (Polly Bergen) and 14 year-old daughter. Due to the restrictions of the time, the word “rape” is never uttered and cuts were insisted upon before the film was passed by censors. Yet perhaps because of those restrictions, the haunting horror of Mitchum’s Cady reverberates even more. He is so omnipresent that you find yourself searching the frame for his outline in the background, even in scenes where you know he’s not there. Thirty years later Scorsese remade the film, giving Peck, Mitchum, and co-star Martin Balsam tip-of-the-hat cameos, but that “Cape Fear” is an entirely different animal. The gruesomeness and sexual violence of Robert De Niro‘s Cady is less psychologically haunting for being so much more sinewy, tattooed, and graphic. Mitchum’s horribly naturalistic and underplayed turn, by contrast, is about inference and implication, a suffocating malevolence that wraps itself around the helpless family like a shroud. It is a masterclass in star power uncompromisingly and brilliantly corralled into the service of an utterly repellent character.

“Ryan’s Daughter” (1970)
After a nearly unprecedented string of classics and blockbusters including films like “The Bridge On The River Kwai,” “Lawrence Of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago,” David Lean came a little unstuck with critics for the first time with “Ryan’s Daughter,” which received unusually mixed notices, and was mostly ignored by awards bodies. It’s both fair — it’s wildly overlong and a bit stodgy, and has some questionable performances, most notably Christopher Jones, who feuded withLean, was drugged by co-star Sarah Miles, and retired from acting afterwards — and a little unfair, with many of the film’s finer elements being overlooked. Most notably, a terrific and very atypical performance from Mitchum. A loose adaptation of “Madame Bovary,” it’s set in Ireland in 1916, and sees Miles marry kindly local schoolteacher Charles (Mitchum), only to fall passionately in love with British soldier Major Doryan (Jones), who’s opposed to the nationalist locals. Awkwardly fitting what should probably be an intimate little story into Lean’s mega-widescreen approach (it was the last film to be shot entirely in 70mm Panavision for nearly two decades), it’s uneven and sometimes ill-conceived (as with John Mills’ mentally disabled innocent), but it’s also gorgeous and powerful in places. And Mitchum, cast wildly against type as a mild-mannered, middle-aged cuckold, is absolutely superb. The actor had been in a deep depression,telling Leanthat “I was actually planning on committing suicide” when offered the role, and fought with the filmmaker. But the results speak for themselves, and he came to consider it one of his best performances… rightly so.

“The Friends Of Eddie Coyle” (1973)
An adaptation of a novel by George V. Higgins, who wrote “Cogan’s Trade,” the source material for Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly,” Peter Yates‘ terminally undervalued film was only middlingly received on release, but partly thanks to a Criterion release, its reputation has only grown and grown over time. Mitchum, in one of his greatest performances, plays the titular Eddie, a lifelong criminal with many years inside, who’s left facing another stretch after being caught for gun-running. Desperate to avoid prison, he reluctantly turns stool-pigeon, but he’s quickly found out, with friend and bar owner Dillon (Peter Boyle, equally superb) tasked with the hit, and his law enforcement pals apathetic about his survival. It’s a bleak, low-key film, not the kind of thing that suspense is usually made of, and it’s pretty clear from the off that Coyle isn’t going to be long for this world. But the trade-off is for a marvelous authenticity; Higgins was a crime reporter and deputy U.S. attorney, and clearly knew his Boston underworld setting back-to-front, and Paul Monash’s script is wonderfully terse in its rat-a-tat dialogue. More than anything else, there’s a heavy sadness that weighs over the film that means that, while it’s not the most pulse-pounding crime picture you’ll ever see, it lingers long afterwards. And among a cast of character actor greats like Richard Jordan and Alex Rocco, it’s Mitchum who’s right at the center — slow, dignified and hangdog, it’s a magnificent performance, and one inseparable from the film around it.

“The Yakuza” (1974)
Japanese-set, or influenced, action movies have become all the rage over the years, but few have been as smart, or detailed, or centered on such a great performance, as “The Yakuza.” Penned by a screenwriting dream team of Paul & Leonard Schrader (who sold their first screenplay for a then-record sum), and Robert Towne, and directed by Sidney Pollack (though only after Mitchum had Robert Aldrich fired), it sees the star play Harry Kilmer, a retired cop and military policeman, who served in Japan at the end of the war, who does a favor for an old friend (Brian Keith) and offers to track down his daughter, who’s been kidnapped by the Yakuza in Japan. His return to Tokyo draws him back into the orbit of both the woman he once loved (Keiko Kishi), and her brother (Ken Takakura), a former Yakuza member. More noir than shoot-em up, but featuring some strong action sequences nevertheless, the film’s occasionally a little clumsy in its culture-clash, but for the most part it’s steeped in a genuine respect for Japanese culture, arguably much more so than a later movie like “Black Rain.” Mitchum’s at his most grizzled and fierce here too, showing that even in his late 50s he could kick ass with the best of them, but it’s his semi-requited relationship that gives the film an elegaic, tragic note that elevates it above similar fare.

“Farewell My Lovely” (1975)
Nearly thirty years after his initial foray into Chandleresque detective story/film noir with the sublime “Out of the Past,” Mitchum got the first of two chances to play the real deal, with Dick Richards‘ version of Chandler’s “Farewell My Lovely.” The second, Michael Winner‘s “The Big Sleep” would come three years later and be roughly a third as good, but it’s still worth noting that of all actors who essayed Philip Marlowe, even Humphrey Bogart, only Mitchum played the role twice. ‘Farewell’ is not the best film here, but it is one of the most interesting, a 1970s riff on 1940s noir after the manner of “Chinatown,” but never quite attaining that depth. In fact the levels it does boast are almost all due to the cast, especially Mitchum, who somehow parlays what should be a negative (at 58 he was significantly older than Marlowe as written by Chandler) into one of the most compelling aspects of the film: that air of weary brokenness, that look of a man who’s seen so much of life that it holds no more surprises, just disgust. Elsewhere an unbelievably gorgeous Charlotte Rampling is perfectly cast as the kind of femme fatale that men would happily die, or kill, for (and great pulp author Jim Thompson cameos as her aging husband), while Harry Dean Stanton and Sylvester Stallone enliven small supporting roles. Mostly though it’s a slow-paced yarn that wouldn’t quite have enough meat on its bones were it not for Mitchum’s effortlessly watchable turn — whatever about his acting, he was always one of the greatest re-actors, and so much goes on here as just a flicker in his eye or a tiny twist of his lips.

Honorable Mentions: We could probably go on for hours talking about great Mitchum performances that could have made the list, but to keep it brief, there are a few others that deserve particular shout-outs. “Crossfire” is a 1947 film noir atypically dealing with a real social issue in its anti-semitism themes, which along with Mitchum’s hardboiled turn and Robert Ryan‘s more deranged performance, elevated this B-movie to Best Picture nominee. Nicholas Ray’s 1952 rodeo picture Western “The Lusty Men” is almost as great as its title, and has an archetypal Mitchum blend of unfiltered masculinity and unexpected vulnerability. 1957 film “The Enemy Below” is something of a seminal submarine picture, as Mitchum faces off against German U-boat captain Curt Jurgens.

READ MORE: 5 Great ’70s Crime Thrillers

Sticking with WW2, the star was a stand-out in the epic, glittering cast of 1962’s D-Day landing dramatization “The Longest Day,” as Brigadier General Norman Cota, who leads the Omaha Beach assault that would be immortalized in Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” though the film is too much of a sprawling ensemble piece to figure in here. The third of his three pictures with Deborah Kerr, “The Grass is Greener” which also stars Cary Grant and Jean Simmons is a slight but fizzy comedy characterized by a witty, sophisticated script and typically bouncy direction by Stanley Donen. Howard Hawks’ 1966 film “El Dorado” isn’t quite as great as “Rio Bravo,” to which it’s very similar, but it’s certainly superior to “Rio Lobo,” which closed out the strange trilogy of Hawks/John Wayne Westerns with the same premise, and that’s in large part thanks to Mitchum, as a drunken sheriff. And finally, there’s Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man,” in which he plays an industrialist. It’s a bold and adventurous move for an actor like him to appear in an offbeat picture like this one, but it paid off: It’s Jarmusch’s best movie, and a tremendous final big-screen performance for the actor.

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.