His Kind of Woman (1951 USA 120mins)
Source: Filmstock Research Prod Co: RKO Prod: Robert Sparks Dir: John Farrow Scr: Frank Fenton, Jack Leonard Phot: Harry J. Wild Ed: Eda Warren, Frederic Knudtson Art Dir: Albert S D’Agostino Mus: Leigh Harline
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, Vincent Price, Tim Holt, Charles McGraw, Raymond Burr, Jim Backus.
His Kind Of Woman belongs – as far as a Hollywood film of the ’50s can belong – with such classics of narrative perversity as Seijun Suzuki’s Branded To Kill (1966) and William Richert’s Winter Kills (1979). Even the title is perverse – not because it’s irrelevant (most things are in this jaw-dropping movie) but because it’s misleading, the woman in question (Jane Russell as Lenore Brent) being a disappointingly marginal figure.
We first meet her in a dusty cantina near the airfield at Nogales, belting out “Five Little Miles From San Berdoo” as she flicks her hair sultrily (cue lustrous, screen-filling close-up). “I’ve heard better, but you sing like you do it for a living”, notes Robert Mitchum – and the film, alas, treats her with a similar lack of gallantry, even locking her in a closet, out of harm’s way, when the shooting starts. As if Jane Russell couldn’t take care of herself, for goodness sake.
She is indeed ‘his kind of woman’, but only in the sense that she complements him. Was Mitchum’s persona ever more remote and untouchable than in this bizarre semi-parody? He’s like a sponge, strong and passive, absorbing whatever Life throws at him the same way he matches Russell’s brassy sex appeal – with an amused aloofness, tinged with the eternal misfit’s resigned dejection. How’s he doing? asks someone on the phone. “Just getting ready to take off my tie”, he replies pleasantly. “Wondering if I should hang myself with it.”
Movies never really knew what to do with Mitchum – at least till the ’70s, when his world-weary mien could be used as nostalgic shorthand for an age to which, ironically, he never quite belonged. His early films often cast him as an outsider: in family fare like The Red Pony (Lewis Milestone, 1949) or Rachel and the Stranger (Norman Foster, 1948) he was never of the family, standing for another, more free-spirited way of life – he was a temptation, sent to test the family. He could never be a conventional hero (capable of heroism, but only on his own terms) or conventional sex symbol – far too existentially-wrapped in himself for that. You couldn’t ‘reform’ him; you’d never even get through to him.
His Kind Of Woman may be his most Mitchum-like movie, the film most congenial to his own loose-limbed brand of je m’en fous: a film where hardly anything makes sense, everything falls apart – and nobody gives a damn. It’s a series of loosely-connected ‘film noir’ / ‘exotic melodrama’ moments, near-abstract tropes to be enjoyed mostly in themselves. A song, a poker game, a piece of banter. “If that wasn’t so funny I’d laugh”, sneers a thug. “I’ll see ya all of a sudden, Sammy”, says our hero, taking his leave. Half the film is about people waiting for something to happen rather than anything happening: to travel hopefully, in this world of red herrings and non sequiturs, is (at least) as much fun as to arrive.
Mitchum is Dan Milner, who receives an unusual proposition: $50,000 just for spending a few days at Morro’s Lodge, a remote but luxurious Mexican resort, pending further instructions. “I’m not knocking it, man, I’m just trying to understand it”, he says, sounding like a proto-beatnik (the film often seems to be evoking memories of his then-recent marijuana bust). But he duly goes to Morro’s, where Mr. Morro himself (swarthy, unctuous Philip Van Zandt) tries to draw him out. “I’m a professional gambler”, admits our hero. “Who isn’t?” shrugs Morro cynically.
The whole film takes place at Morro’s, its first hour casually meandering through the various intrigues being cooked up by the various characters. Russell’s Lenore is there, of course, as are various weirdos, suckers and nogoodniks – like Teutonic Dr. Krafft, who looks like Dr. Strangelove and sits by the pool playing chess with himself all day (“Maybe he hates to lose”, offers our hero). Then there’s narcissistic Hollywood star Mark Cardigan (an irresistible comic performance by Vincent Price), who enjoys gourmet cooking and showing everyone his latest movie, gazing at his onscreen self like a lovelorn teenager. Not to mention Jim Backus as a hearty investment broker, drifting in and out of the action at irregular intervals. “I suppose you’re wondering what a man like me is doing in an odd place like this”, he says. “No”, replies Mitchum equably.
Does anything actually happen? Yes, eventually – though it’s not quite what you’d expect. Our hero is in fact the prospective patsy in a fiendish scheme hatched by a psychotic gangster (Raymond Burr, apparently channelling Jonathan Brewster from Arsenic And Old Lace [Frank Capra, 1944]) – and the film, in a gloriously loopy second half, cross-cuts between Mitchum undergoing extravagantly sadistic tortures on the gangster’s yacht and hammy Price organising a rescue party amid much broad comedy and Shakespearean declamations (“Now may I drink hot blood.”). All the tight-lipped intrigues of the first half go up in smoke, giving way to a raucous irreverence; surprisingly, the film was a hit, proving perhaps that old-time audiences weren’t quite so uptight about deconstructed genres as moderns (and post-moderns) like to think.
Who to thank (or blame) for this wonderful mess? Auteurists will obviously claim John Farrow, the Australian-born, too-little-known director who wrote a biography of Sir Thomas More in between Hollywood assignments – and the film does indeed reflect the amused contempt of an intelligent person sending up a routine assignment. Price, a cultured man and noted art-collector, also fits the bill; Mitchum too, for the reasons already mentioned. But perhaps the most appropriate Presiding Spirit is producer Howard Hughes, whose money financed everybody’s fun and games: rich, eccentric, misanthropic and – like the film – curiously adept at the art of creative self-destruction.
“That was one of the finest movies I’ve ever seen”, blusters Backus after the end-credits roll on Price’s latest swashbuckler, “they oughta make them all like that. None of this nonsense about ‘social matters’ – people don’t go to the movies to see how miserable the world is, they go there to eat popcorn and be happy”. Dr. Krafft is admittedly less enthusiastic (“It had a message no pigeon would carry”) – but, as Backus points out, “you can’t take his opinion about anything: he’s an intellectual”. Few films can appeal equally to the world’s Kraffts and Backuses; His Kind Of Woman is that kind of movie.