To my generation, to the extent we knew of Robert Mitchum at all, it was as a doughy, baggy-eyed, sleepy-looking dude who showed up in the occasional miniseries and apparently had made a movie that Martin Scorsese remade called Cape Fear. The idea of him as a heartthrob seemed a little far-fetched by his 60s—even in his late 40s, as we’d find out when we saw Cape Fear after this.
But at thirty? Well, hubba-hubba, as the kids say. He was charismatic, dark, a little dangerous but deep-down, the right woman could change him. (The ladies love that, right?)
In this story, a remake of 2005’s A History of Violence (wait, what?) Mitchum plays Jeff, a small town gas-station owner who has the sweetest girlfriend in the area Ann (Virginia Huston, looking appropriately demure) and a local rival by the name of Jim who doesn’t much like his ways. Then one day an old war buddy, Joe (Paul Valentine, who’s probably best known for being married to stripper Lily St. Cyr) shows up looking for him.
But (shock!) Joe isn’t an old war buddy at all! He’s a thug working for a gangster named Whit (Kirk Douglas) who wants to use him for that One Last Job. Jeff starts to feeling guilty so he has Ann drive him to the rendesvouz so he can explain his sordid past to her in a glorious filmed noir flashback. Turns out he was consigliere to Whit until one day the boss sends him on a mission to retrieve his wandering girlfriend and the $40,000 she took from him. Jeff’s good at what he does and chases her down to Mexico where, you’ll be surprised to learn, he dsicovers she’s so freakin’ hot, he just doesn’t care about the consequences of maybe not returning her to Whit.
Jane Greer (as Kathie The Moll) is ridiculously good looking in this film, no doubt. And she plays the femme fatale to a tee, painting herself as the victim of Whit’s abusive behavior and innocent of any stealing of any $40,000. Jeff bites (natch) and the two end up on the lam. It’s only when they’re holed up in a cabin in the woods, and one of Whit’s flunkies has tracked him down, that her true character is revealed. She murders the poor bastard, leaving Jeff to bury the body in the woods. Jeff also gets a glimpse of a rather suspicious $40,000.
Well, that’s about the time when ol’ Jeff decides to hang up his gangster shoes. Flashback over.
The ridiculously virtuous Ann assures him that, like Vegas, what’s in the past stays in the past as if she hasn’t even seen the title of this picture! But he needs to get his feelings about Kathie squared away and come back to her. And the movie does a pretty good job of presenting Kathie—who has returned to Whit—as appealing despite the whole murder/larceny thing. But they don’t play it too clever: It’s pretty clear that she’s horrible and Jeff’s only going to be a little duped by her hotness.
This doesn’t last too long, though, when he realizes she’s spilled the beans to Whit about their relationship and, oh, also the dead guy Jeff buried in the woods who he’d totally get burned for killing. This leads to a typically noirish plot where he’s supposed to be getting this incriminating book from generic The Accountant and his hot secretary (Rhonda Fleming!) but it’s all a setup to frame Jeff because they kill The Accountant and call the cops but Jeff figures it out and moves the body and manages to come up with a plan to clear his name of both murders but it’ll be like walking a tightrope and…
Point is, Mitchum is a dreamboat here and you totally get why the ladies swoon over him and the guys seethe with resentment at their relative lack of masculinity. He’s really good here. He would be good in Cape Fear as well but 15 years of marijuana usage will have done zero favors for his looks.
This movie, though, is one of the greatest noirs ever. The kids dug it. The Flower had her suspension of belief challenged by the ending, which is a car crash, because the cars are so clearly models. But Cape Fear would present its own challenges, in the form of middle-aged Mitchum…