Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #1, Winter 1997-98]

Mitchum & Stewart

Jeffrey Corcoran
[The following piece on Robert Mitchum and James Stewart was adapted by Jeffrey Corcoran from his unpublished book, Unconscious Cinema: Repression and Romance in Postwar American Film.]
Robert Mitchum's narcoleptic acting style was perfected within the shadows of 1940s and 50s noir crime drama, where his existential resignation in the face of darkness (annihilation of the self) was an embryonic precursor to the sadistic ennui (rupture of the id) of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson in the 1960s and 70s. Cultural attitudes toward the urban landscape shifted over the decades, moving away from an appreciation of Mitchum's noble self-willed loner. A sizable segment of Vietnam War-era filmgoers seemed eager to grant Eastwood and Bronson blunt fascistic license to rid the streets of drug-dealers, pimps, and assorted crazies run rampant in a decaying inner-city. Such agitprop scenarios played handily into audience fears (particularly racial hostilities), and Hollywood's cynicism ran deep enough not to question the moral integrity of these increasingly violent productions. Mitchum's work, however, comes to us formed of a subtler -- or, if you will, more repressed -- aesthetic. If his early films evoke a kind of Hollywood innocence, it is in part due to the stylized nature of film noir, which seems to appeal directly to our unconscious anxieties and longings, rather than to our overt prejudices. Film noir is at heart a kind of Rorschach cinema -- the shadows are ink blots in which we all see something different.

The 40s city was a Freudian labyrinth of desire and instinct (re)pressed into concrete and steel. The postwar economic boom was real enough, but so were the postwar nightmares and shattered psyches. Mitchum walked the city's streets in the guise of a battle-weary survivor who'd long ago witnessed the worst of mankind's urges unchained, and whose soul was thus insulated against the petty machinations of criminals too stupid to realize the insignificance of their dirty deeds. This is a crucial point: the classic Mitchum character was never altered significantly by his scripted fate; he enters and exits the picture as the same man, monolithic and complete. The storyline, in essence, happens around him rather than to him. What some critics have derided as "one-dimensional" acting was in fact an almost Buddhist impassivity: the studied calm of the bodhisattva -- transcendent, poised, fully integrated.

The essential Mitchum performances are to be found in a handful of sui generis B-movies: Crossfire (1947), Out of the Past (1947), The Big Steal (1949), His Kind of Woman (1951), and The Racket (1951).[1] Although his two celebrated performances as violent sociopaths in The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962) are as vivid as anything assayed by Brando or DeNiro, they function more as displays of acting "chops" than as emblematic Mitchum roles. Ironically, Mitchum's spirit seems a bit diminished in flashy roles. "Bad guys" or troubled characters -- such as his portrayal of an alcoholic in El Dorado (1967) -- are always victims of the storylines they must serve. Plot and characterization, indeed acting itself, all seem beneath the authentic Mitchum cool. He is an American original at his best when his own imperturbable aura is in a sense at odds with the melodrama surrounding him.

James Stewart, on the other hand, forged a long and healthy career as a well-directed team player. In smooth performance after smooth performance, he placed his hard-working loyalties at the service of the designated narrative and theme. And it is because Stewart served the storyline so assiduously that he represents a film presence much different from Mitchum's rebellious implacability. Stewart's screen persona became our most Jungian vessel: always jumping enthusiastically into the alchemist's fire to be transformed physically and spiritually into a "better" man, a more forthright and engaged citizen. As a standard-bearer of the country's self-flagellating moral mandate, Stewart's roles at any given time unfortunately tended toward civics lessons. Nowhere is this more forcefully brought home than in his films for Frank Capra, especially Mister Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946).[2] Regardless of how "beloved" these rather unhinged and over-the-top Stewart performances have inexplicably grown in the minds of mainstream movie fans, I am hard-pressed not to agree with Pauline Kael's famous bon mot in regards to Frank Capra: "No one else can balance the ups and downs of wistful sentiment and corny humor the way Capra can -- but if anyone else should learn to, kill him." [3]

The submerged narrative of It's a Wonderful Life is of course the all-too-familiar story of male midlife disillusionment and frustration. But rather than allow George Bailey the truth of his psychological breakdown -- i.e., the quite accurate realization that small town American life really is a morass of economic and marital despair, mean-spiritedness, and broken dreams -- Capra chooses instead to unleash Clarence, the pixellated angel of societal repression and sublimation, who convinces George to shut up, stop complaining, and get his sorry ass back home to the wife and kids.[4]

It wasn't until the 1950s that the true psychotic nature of Stewart's screen personality came to the forefront and cracked the veneer of innocence. Only in Hollywood, where absurdity reigns, could the nearly 50-year-old Stewart attempt to impersonate a fresh-faced and tireless 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957). Stewart's neon blond wig, garish rouged cheeks, and layers of pancake makeup are as frightening to behold as Bette Davis decked out as Baby Jane. It's as if we longed to forbid both Lindbergh and Stewart to grow up. Certainly Lindbergh's controversial WWII neutrality stance had long ago tarnished the unprecedented glory that trailed him for years following his 1927 transatlantic flight. Lindbergh once symbolized and distilled the essence of middle-class virtues: youth, indomintability, and the inevitable hero's crown born of perseverance; it seemed only fitting that the anointed Lindbergh had conquered the very heavens themselves. Such were the Boy Scout qualities that Stewart, too, embodied for a generation of filmgoers. In a sense he was ordained to play Lindbergh, just as Clark Gable had been the only acceptable choice for Rhett Butler. However, The Spirit of St. Louis is surely one of the eeriest representations of America's unresolved Peter Pan complex.

When Stewart the following year chose to play a character scaled to his own advancing age, how appropriate that the film was Vertigo (1958), the apotheosis of both Stewart's and Alfred Hitchcock's long Hollywood careers. Vertigo is the true endgame of George Bailey's "wonderful life": sexual hysteria and madness. Stewart's performance is powerfully closed off from any paths by which audience empathy might comfortably follow. Watching him desperately trying to insinuate himself into Kim Novak's life during the film's third act is as disturbing in its own way as Brando's assault and rape of Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire. Vertigo offers few of Hitchcock's patented crowd-pleasing thrills, and its morbid complexities were misunderstood or missed altogether by audiences and critics in 1958. (First-time viewers today are frequently disappointed that Vertigo isn't a higgledy-piggledy hybrid of Rear Window and Psycho). The film only gradually earned its current "classic" status, still eliciting critical reservations as late as 1982, when it was re-released to theaters along with four other then out-of-circulation Hitchcock films.[5 ] Painstakingly restored in 1996, Vertigo again played theaters, this time to critical huzzahs, but it remains a difficult film, and general audiences have yet to really embrace it. Hardly the ideal "date" movie, Vertigo might be better classed as a suicide-watch: the film's chilly and unsettling moral is that desire's true object resides not within those individuals we purport to love, but rather within the dark soul of our own obsessions.

-- Jeffrey Corcoran, Ph.D.


[1] Also worth including here is the atypical but charming A Holiday Affair (1949), starring Mitchum and Janet Leigh. The film is long overdue for reappraisal and enshrinement as an annual yuletide video and television offering.

[2] Stewart's first film for Capra was You Can't Take It With You (1938), based on the play by Kaufman and Hart. Joseph McBride provides an insightful revisionist critique of this film in his definitive biography of the director, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, published in 1992 by Simon and Schuster.

[3] The quote is from Kael's capsule review of It's a Wonderful Life in her book 5001 Nights at the Movies.

[4 ] Clarence disingenuously "stumbles" upon a means to scare the crap out of George Bailey. The game of "You Were Never Born" is similar to Fritz Perls's notorious Gestalt Therapy "hot seat" sessions, which employed confrontation and intimidation to supposedly cure neurosis.

[5] The others were Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble With Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Critical consensus in 1982 afforded only Rear Window with the encomium of "classic," while the remaining four were considered minor or flawed Hitchcock efforts. Stewart appeared in all but The Trouble With Harry. Since '82, Hitchcock's oeuvre has been subject to innumerable re-evaluations and re-shufflings as to where individual films ought to be ranked.


Jeffrey Corcoran lives in Belleville, Wisconsin, and works as a free-lance journalist and restaurant critic. From 1980-85, Jeff was an associate professor of English at Milwaukee's now-defunct Samuel Whittles College.

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