Robert Mitchum retrospective anchors New York Film Fest's revivals slate

ScreenerBlog

For films fans, one of the hidden secrets of the New York Film Festival is its series of revivals and retrospectives, opportunities to see recent restoration and conservation work from archives around the world.

In addition to its slate of 15 revival titles, this year's festival is offering a 24-film salute to Robert Mitchum on his centenary. With a career that stretched over six decades, Mitchum strode serenely through movies big and small, bad and good, maintaining his popularity through passing fads and scandals. His best work set a tone and style that can still be felt today.

According to Dan Sullivan, who co-programmed the retrospective with Kent Jones, Mitchum is "among the most iconic, immediately recognizable actors of his time."

The retrospective covers the actor's work with directors like Vincente Minnelli (Home from the Hill), Otto Preminger (Angel Face) and Howard Hawks (El Dorado). It also includes several examples of Mitchum's work in the western and film noir genres.

Born in Connecticut in 1917, Mitchum had a troubled adolescence that included time on the road and a stint on a chain gang. While working in a defense plant, he got small parts in low-budget westerns and signed a contract with RKO.

Mitchum made a strong impression in William Wellman's The Story of G.I. Joe, earning his only Oscar nomination playing a thinly disguised version of Captain Henry T. Waskow. The retrospective also includes Raoul Walsh's Pursued (Sept. 30), a combination of Western and film noir.

The actor became a leading figure in film noir right at the height of the genre's popularity. Viewers could sense the authenticity in his acting, the feeling that he had lived something very close to the down-and-out characters he portrayed. Mitchum was a big man, physically imposing, and when he employed his heavy-lidded, sullen glare, he could intimidate anyone.

"For me, Mitchum is like the most confident, the most knowledgeable guy in film noir," Sullivan says. "He's a man of experience, one who's not surprised by any situation he finds himself in. But he's not a superhero, he's subject to the same host of chaotic variables that we all are."

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Out of the Past (Oct. 9), for buffs one of the best examples of the genre. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, it's one of the most hopeless and bitter films of its time. "If I have to, I'm going to die last," Mitchum's character announces, and screenwriter Geoffrey Homes doesn't give him or anyone else much choice in the matter.

Mitchum was busted for possession of pot the next year, and spent a few weeks in prison before settling a not-guilty plea. The arrest enhanced his standing with fans, and his subsequent movies were box-office hits. Part of Mitchum's appeal as a celebrity was his indifference. He didn't care about being a star, didn't care that much about most of his movies.

Like Macao (Oct. 5), an absurd piece of hokum directed in part by Josef von Sternberg and Nicholas Ray. Mitchum drifts through the picture, resistant to the charms of frequent co-star Jane Russell and to the incendiary Gloria Grahame. It's a piece of Far Eastern escapism sodden with sex appeal.

Mitchum is back with Russell in His Kind of Woman (Sept. 29), an equally ridiculous, equally fun adventure set partly in Mexico. Writing and directing on this level are almost irrelevant. Mitchum's mere presence is enough to entertain, something studio head Howard Hughes realized. By helping to fashion such heavy-breathing vehicles for his star, Hughes should be considered one of his prime collaborators.

The actor went out on his own as Hughes withdrew from the studio (and life in general). He grappled with Marilyn Monroe in River of No Return (Oct. 2), had an unforgettable turn as a preacher in Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (Oct. 9), and fought the law as a moonshiner in Thunder Road (Oct. 4).

As Sullivan points out, "One of the reasons his reputation has endured is because he made remarkable films late in his career, a pretty rare thing."

In The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Oct. 2), Farewell, My Lovely (Oct. 14), and Martin Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear (Oct. 4), Mitchum won over a new generation of filmgoers.

The revivals program incudes 15 features from some of cinema's most important directors, including two by Kenji Mizoguchi: A Story from Chikamatsu (Oct. 5) and Sansho the Bailiff (Oct. 11), the latter "a plausible candidate for the greatest film ever," according to Museum of Modern Art curator Dave Kehr.

Rescued from several decades' worth of badly duped prints and bootleg tapes, James Whale's The Old Dark House (Sept. 30) returns in a striking restoration from Cohen Media Group. A story of travelers stranded in a spooky mansion, it set the standard for the gazillion haunted-house mysteries that followed. Whale would use a similar comic approach in his later Bride of Frankenstein.

With cinematography by Sven Nykvist, Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice is a visually stunning parable about World War III. Tarkovsky died from cancer months later.

Agnès Varda's influential One Sings, the Other Doesn't (Oct. 1) opened the 1977 New York Film Festival. The director will receive an honorary Oscar in an Academy Award ceremony this November. The series also includes two films by director Philippe Garrel: Le Révélateur (Oct. 11) and L'Enfant secret (Oct. 10).

Rialto Pictures' release of Bob le flambeur (Oct. 13) marks the film's return to the Festival after a screening in 1981. Jean-Pierre Melville's first gangster outing had a huge influence on the French New Wave, as well as on later Hong Kong directors like John Woo and Johnnie To.

"He proved you didn't need a big studio to make movies," Rialto founder Bruce Goldstein explains. "A lot of those critics like Jean-Luc Godard were just sitting there admiring Hollywood movies. Melville showed you could do it yourself. It's actually quite astounding that he decided to create his own studio."

The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Oct. 1) is another Rialto release. Directed by Jean Renoir and written by Renoir, Jean Castanier and Jacques Prévert, it was made in collaboration with Prévert's theatre collective Le Groupe Octobre.

"It's never been considered one of the major Renoirs," Goldstein acknowledges. "It's not Grand Illusion or Rules of the Game. However, a lot of people consider this among his best. [André] Bazin rated it close to Rules of the Game, which had the same cinematographer, Jean Bachelet, by the way. Lange is almost a dry run for Rules of the Game in the way he used the camera."