To watch the films of Robert Mitchum – the Golden Age Hollywood star whose 54-year career was the subject of a major retrospective at the New York Film Festival this October – is to grow acquainted with a style of acting that has all but ceased to exist, on- or off-screen. His baritone drawl, puffed-out chest and ever-burning cigar now seem like an over-the-top parody of machismo, not an idealised version of it. When he hosted Saturday Night Live in 1987, ten years before his death, he could still get some mileage out of the bad boy reputation he’d earned as a much younger man, but only by implying that his days of revelry were no longer good for anything but a punch line. “Let’s face it,” he boasted in his opening monologue, “there’s not much I haven’t seen in this world, and there’s even less that I haven’t done.”
The Lincoln Center retrospective raises the possibility that Mitchum’s hyper-masculinity always flirted with self-parody. Certainly, the original version was wilder and weirder than any skit (compare, if you don’t believe me, Mitchum’s two feature-length performances as the private eye Philip Marlowe with his turn in “Death Be Not Deadly”, the Raymond Chandler riff he did for SNL). To understand why Mitchum is so often described as larger than life, one need only study his face: his jaw was a little too broad, his eyelids were a little too heavy, his cleft chin was superhumanly prominent; overall, he bore more of a resemblance to a Mad Magazine version of a tough guy than to an actual human being. And that voice! – deep and strong, the way a child imagines a grown man’s; musical even when there was no music. Mitchum sang in dozens of his own films, most famously at the end of The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955) when, as the evil Reverend Harry Powell, he gave a chilling rendition of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. Shortly afterwards, he recorded a surprisingly accomplished calypso album, Calypso is Like So; nearly two decades later, as Marlowe in the 1975 adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely, he sang a few melancholy bars of Frank Sinatra’s “Sunday”. In his acting, as in his music, he could go from sinister to sexy to mournful without seeming to try too hard at any one.
Mitchum was nearly 60 years old by the time he starred in Farewell, My Lovely, and well past his heyday in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Though he continued acting right up until his death, many have interpreted his Marlowe as a career swan song, as well as an elegy for the film noir genre in which he first became a big star. Paradoxically, though, Mitchum seemed tired and woebegone even at the start of his career. As the sullen ambulance driver in Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1953), one of the undisputed noir masterpieces, there’s a trace of real pain in his eyes, as if he’s seen more tragedy in a week than most people will in a lifetime. By the time Mitchum was 16, indeed, he’d lost his father in a train accident, gotten expelled from school for fighting, worked as a professional boxer, and spent time in a Georgia prison. Watching his films back to back, it’s hard to fight the feeling that these early tragedies bled into his onscreen persona, giving him a genuine world-weariness that other Hollywood he-men had to strain to convey.
At the simplest level, a Mitchum male is someone who’s experienced a great deal of pain and lived to tell about it. In some of his most memorable roles, this pain makes his characters frightening and seemingly invincible. In the 1962 version of Cape Fear, Mitchum’s Max Cady delights in telling Gregory Peck’s Sam Bowden – the man he blames for his conviction for rape – about the eight years he spent in prison, savouring the rictus of terror on Bowden’s face. When Bowden finally lashes out, Cady doesn’t try to fight back; he’s already experienced more pain than most people could imagine, and this gives him all the power over his genteel, upper-class victim. Like many another Mitchum film, Cape Fear gets markedly less interesting after it veers into outright violence; Mitchum excelled at creating menace with the bare minimum of words and actions, to the point where any literal display of physicality was usually disappointing. There are points in the first two-thirds of that film when Mitchum’s performance feels like a vicious parody of Peck’s poise and self-righteousness. Cady is terrifyingly polite and, right up until he goes for the kill, more law-abiding than Bowden the lawyer. Much the same could be said of Mitchum’s two other scariest roles, in The Night of the Hunter and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). There’s rarely anything anarchistic about Mitchum’s characters – he was too slow and deliberate a performer for that. The villains he specialised in playing were cold-blooded angels of death enforcing their own twisted versions of the law.
Some of Mitchum’s most haunting characters, especially those he played after the ‘50s, have been crippled by all the pain they’ve experienced. You can see it in Eddie Coyle’s big, hollow eyes as he tells his less seasoned business contact how he got the scars on his knuckles (“They put your hand in a drawer, then somebody kicks the drawer shut”). Mitchum’s character, the marked man at the center of Peter Yates’s brilliantly bleak The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), is Max Cady’s opposite: a sad sack who’s still fighting only because he can’t bear another punch – a description that could apply to Mitchum’s two other great ‘70s roles, as Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely (Dick Richards, 1975) and as Harry Kilmer in Sydney Pollack’s underrated The Yakuza (1974).
Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952) was one of the earliest productions to delve into the weak, broken side of the Mitchum persona; a good way to interpret the film, in fact, is to see it as a rebuttal to the style of rugged masculinity its lead actor defined in the ‘50s. As the rodeo competitor Jeff McCloud, Mitchum is almost comically tough and terse. He knows that bull riding is incredibly dangerous, and the danger seems to be its own reward – “More bones you break, the bigger man you think you are,” another character tells him. By delving into gaudy cowboy culture, The Lusty Men presents machismo as a nasty little club that’s forever recruiting new members to replace the old, worn-out ones. In its own way, Ray’s film is as vicious a satire of show business as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard two years earlier, and Mitchum, then at the peak of his bad boy allure, gave a raw, unsettling performance exposing the self-hatred that sometimes goes along with acting tough.
Even in his bleakest performances, however, Mitchum doesn’t surrender to despair; there’s still a kind of cool dignity in his suffering. Perhaps, once again, it’s because of his remarkable face – the way his wry eyebrows and puckered mouth make him look ever so slightly amused, even when there’s nothing to laugh about. In Eddie Coyle’s darkest moments, there’s still a faint twinkle in Mitchum’s eye: he’s not Eddie, and he’s not really trying to be. He’s Robert Mitchum.
In the ‘50s, when method acting was revolutionising American theater and film, Mitchum’s screen persona was an easy target for ridicule. Unlike those other notable ‘50s antiheroes, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, he was never a critical darling, and despite his 133 film credits he only ever managed a single Oscar nomination. Seen today, however, Mitchum’s could be considered the purest version of classical Hollywood acting, whereby, as Richard Brody put it, the stars “seem not to become the roles they play but to turn the characters into versions of themselves.” For his 1991 remake of Cape Fear, Martin Scorsese gave Mitchum an ironic, scene-stealing cameo as a police lieutenant. But in a way, Mitchum’s greatest roles were always feature-length cameos, which he used to introduce his audience to another side of Robert Mitchum.
At a time when the Method has become the default style of serious film acting, and when the highest compliment a performer can receive is, “He could play anybody,” Mitchum is a glorious oddity. Because he seemed to treat acting as a form of play, not a rigid technique, he could distance himself from his own roles and project warmth and humour at the unlikeliest times. That’s what made him infuriating to so many of his Hollywood contemporaries, but it’s also what makes him fascinating to watch today. Since Mitchum was half-Irish, it seems appropriate to end the first part of my coverage adapting some lines from William Butler Yeats: We know that Cady and Powell are gay, gaiety transfiguring all that dread – Mitchum’s eyes mid many wrinkles, his ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.
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Each year, a sizeable number of the films at the New York Film Festival have premiered already at Cannes, Locarno and Sundance, hence New York’s reputation as a “festival of festivals”. In practice, this often means that NYFF is rocked by fewer controversies than its peers – in recent years, certainly, there’s been little at Lincoln Center to rival the brouhaha surrounding the world premieres of Irreversible, Nymphomaniac, or Blue is the Warmest Color or, off-screen, Lars von Trier’s Hitler rant, Roger Ebert’s feud with Vincent Gallo, or Salma Hayek’s feud with Jessica Williams. There’s also the fact that the Film Society of Lincoln Center doesn’t give out awards, meaning it avoids the backlash that arises when a crowd-pleaser like Toni Erdmann comes home empty-handed.
This is, to say the least, not such a bad thing. Some of the best recent films to play at NYFF have come and gone without creating much of a stir in between – they’re great and, for those who notice, that’s more than enough. Claire Denis’s Un beau soleil intérieur (Let the Sunshine In), the only new film I saw at this year’s festival that could be called a masterpiece, already played at Cannes, where it was overshadowed by Ruben Östlund’s longer, flashier The Square (which also played at NYFF this fall). Nearly everything about the 71 year-old Denis’s latest seems modest at first glance, from its 94-minute runtime to its understated tone to its disconnection from the kinds of hot-button issues that usually get critics talking. The closest thing to a controversy it’s courted so far concerns its source material: some early reports characterised it as a (very) loose riff on Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, something which the director and lead performers have since denied (the confusion seems to have stemmed from the film’s working title, Dark Glasses, an indubitable Barthes allusion). Intentionally or not, Let the Sunshine In evokes Barthes’s uncategorisable text in the way it touches on the sublime by avoiding pompous generalisations about society or human nature, instead exploring the endless little ways in lovers interact, whether via a licked finger, a quiver of the hand, or a slow, sexy dance.
That dance, scored to Etta James’s “At Last”, brings the film’s divorced, middle-aged lead, Isabelle (Juliette Binoche at her best), together with one of her many suitors, Sylvain (Paul Blain), and it also offers viewers a revealing example of Denis’s genius. Like Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”, “At Last” is one of those songs that’s too schmaltzy for any ordinary filmmaker to use un-ironically. Only an artist of Denis’s calibre, bolstered by the complete confidence that this song is right for this moment and these people, could pull off such a reckless gambit, let alone make that gambit the basis for the film’s most stunning scene.
It was a strong year for French cinema overall, with impressive new works from Arnaud Desplechin, Agnès Varda and Philippe Garrel playing at the festival. Like Denis, these auteurs offered films that were more carefully constructed than their frequent digressiveness suggested. In Varda’s documentary Faces Places (Visages Villages), her first feature since 2008‘s Les Plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès), the 89 year-old Godmother of the French New Wave travels around the French countryside, accompanied by the 34 year-old street artist JR, best known for his striking, building-sized photographs of anonymous locals. Varda is as delightful as ever (she won over the audience of hardened critics at my press screening in all of 30 seconds), though I couldn’t shake the suspicion that she’d erred in partnering with the dashing, fast-talking, sunglasses-and-fedora-sporting JR (who shares a co-directing credit). More than once, Varda tells JR that he reminds her of her old frenemy Jean-Luc Godard, whom the duo tries unsuccessfully to visit near the documentary’s end. Too much the self-appointed populist to create something with the acerbic wit of Goodbye to Language, JR seems like the rosy, sensitive soul Varda always wished Godard to be. Perhaps this explains why his friendship with Varda delights but rarely surprises: the best onscreen duos are opposites, and Visages Villages might have benefited from more friction between its two leads.
Richard Linklater is easily one of the best directors working in the United States today, and my hopes were high for Last Flag Flying, based on Darryl Ponicsan’s 2012 novel of the same name and set in the early days of the War on Terror. While Ponicsan’s novel is a sequel to his first and most famous book, The Last Detail, Linklater has taken pains to stress that his new film isn’t really a sequel to Hal Ashby’s New Hollywood masterpiece, adapted by Robert Towne and starring Jack Nicholson. In Last Flag Flying, Steve Carell plays a Vietnam veteran who asks two old buddies, played by Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne, to help him bury his son, who’s been killed in Iraq. While there’s plenty to admire here – Carell gives the best dramatic performance I’ve seen from him, and Yul Vazquez plays one of the most subtly frightening embodiments of the military-industrial complex in recent memory – the film is a touch too sombre and self-important to be genuinely charming. The screenplay’s beats don’t always fit well with the plotless, shaggy-dog moments of male bonding that have been Linklater’s specialty since Dazed and Confused (1993). And the less said about Bryan Cranston’s performance, plainly and unsuccessfully modelled off of Jack Nicholson’s “Badass” Buddusky, the better.
Extended homage to the work of ‘70s auteurs has become one of the dominant modes of independent American filmmaking, as anyone who’s been following the careers of David Lowery and the Safdie Brothers can attest. There are times when the “‘70s throwback” genre can feel like a cheap grab at prestige, rooted in the belief that it’s better to borrow from acknowledged masters (e.g., Ashby, Friedkin, Scorsese and especially Malick) than to take real aesthetic risks. In his new film Wonderstruck, billed as the festival’s “Centerpiece Selection,” Todd Haynes tries something bolder and better. Though the film is largely set in New York in the summer of 1977 – the summer of Sam, the blackouts and Studio 54 – Haynes never really seems to be trying to recreate an historical period. Instead, the film’s most inventive stretches play out in spaces designed to stand outside of time; in particular, the Natural History Museum and the Queens Museum. This isn’t to say that Haynes is indifferent to ‘70s culture or history – Carter Burwell’s score teasingly riffs on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, and one of the movie’s best scenes features an obvious nod to another Ashby film, Being There – but in general he seems more interested in repurposing than reconstructing. In the finale, Haynes, working closely with his great cinematographer Ed Lachman, brings his film’s plotlines together in a setpiece featuring a cavalcade of dolls and dioramas, which at first illustrate events from the characters’ lives and eventually take on a life and poignancy of their own. In moments like these, Wonderstruck calls to mind Jonathan Rosenbaum’s definition of a great film: “It reinvents the world from the ground up.”
I kept returning to Rosenbaum’s definition throughout this installment of the New York Film Festival. In a year when the media’s demand for “woke”, zeitgeist-capturing art was at an all-time high, many of the new films that most impressed me seemed more concerned with creating a world than with mirroring the world. It’s a strange irony that the works of art that trumpet their originality and cultural relevance the loudest are often the same ones that wind up growing stale the fastest. The films I loved most at NYFF, on the other hand, felt almost like extensions of their directors’ quiet confidence, and I suspect they’ll continue to challenge and delight me for a long time.
New York Film Festival
28 September – 15 October 2017
Festival website: https://www.filmlinc.org/nyff2017/