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Nashville Scene Class Acting

By Noel Murray and Jim Ridley

JULY 28, 1997:  The deaths this month of Jimmy Stewart and Robert Mitchum have inspired numerous editorials about the dark side and light side of classic Hollywood, and about the fading aura of screen personalities. Both these approaches are too simplistic. To say that Stewart was the wholesome embodiment of postwar America and that Mitchum was its cynical underbelly--to assign them blindly to blanc and noir, without allowing for a little gris--is to diminish the passion and panic of Stewart's films with Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann and to deny Mitchum's dry, likable wit.

These men were actors, not characters in some Ayn Rand novel, and their work is as full of nuance and contradiction as their lives reportedly were. Similarly, it's needlessly sentimental to say that they don't make movie stars like Stewart and Mitchum anymore. What makes a star now is the same thing that made a star 40 or 50 years ago--the ability to take a charismatic personality and modify it slightly through the prism of a screenwriter and director's vision. Just as we always went to the movies to see Cary Grant or Spencer Tracy as much as who they were playing, so now we watch Tom Hanks and Jack Nicholson play themselves, with only the slightest variations.

Ultimately, one can only judge an actor by what he or she brings to the table once the cameras start rolling. Few movies are perfect--as Stewart and Mitchum, who made their share of duds, could attest. But when an actor is as potent and watchable as these two men were, he can rack up enough credits to make an audience ignore a film's debits. The following are some films that Jimmy Stewart and Robert Mitchum graced during their esteemed careers. Some are more flawed than others, but all were redeemed by their stars, and all, in their own ways, are essential parts of the film canon. They are the reason we mourn.

Jimmy Stewart

The Philadelphia Story Stewart's Best Actor Oscar for this film was widely regarded as a "make-good" for the previous year's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Still, Academy politics shouldn't diminish the fine work Stewart did here, in one of Hollywood's brightest moments. His turn as a cynical tabloid reporter ably completes a romantic triangle that also includes Katharine Hepburn as a stuck-up socialite and Cary Grant as her roguish ex-husband. The clockwork timing and chemistry of Grant and Hepburn, already well-established, is memorably shaken by Stewart's slow, knowing drawl and his sudden bursts of sentimental enthusiasm. (NM)

Call Northside 777 The true measure of a star is his ability to transform ordinary material into movie magic. Stewart's presence in this routine crime-drama gives a plain film a complex core. Once again, he's a reporter, working courtrooms instead of ballrooms, and he's tasked to help prove the innocence of a man jailed for murder. The film unfolds in the step-by-step "documentary realism" style that was popular in the late '40s, but Stewart's driven performance belies the story's inert pacing, turning a sober film into a vibrant, exciting one. (NM)

Anatomy of a Murder Stewart defends the innocent again in this oft-overrated Otto Preminger legal drama, which continues to catch audiences napping with its frank testimony about rape and human sexuality. That boldness of approach--combined with a fresh score by Duke Ellington and electrifying performances by Lee Remick and a young George C. Scott--sticks in the mind more than the film's sluggish midsection. Credit Stewart again for doing the film's dirty work: holding our attention as a sweet-natured defense attorney and then shocking us with how hard-edged and aloof he can become while discussing the condition of a victim's panties. That edginess startles Scott as well, and the war of words between the two attorneys provides some of the greatest courtroom sparks this side of Inherit the Wind. (NM)

Robert Mitchum

Pursued He may be best remembered for his villainous roles, but in this memorably bizarre 1947 Western, Mitchum is convincing as a sympathetic character, a rancher haunted by an unknown event from the past that makes him the blood enemy of the people he loves. (His surrogate mother is Judith Anderson, who's about as maternal here as she was in Rebecca.) The setting is the Old West, but the unusual structure is pure film noir, and director Raoul Walsh lays on the chiaroscuro, the paranoid atmosphere, and the erotic unease. What's most surprising, though, is how well Mitchum conveys the inner torment of a well-meaning man who's persecuted for reasons he doesn't understand. Those sleepy eyes always seemed to be holding back dirty thoughts; this movie shows they could also hold nightmares. (JR)

The Big Steal Mitchum the actor loved to paint himself as a hired gun with nothing more on his mind than a check. Watch him saunter through this slam-bang 1949 programmer, however, and see why he deserved the money. Mitchum plays a soldier framed for a payroll theft; he enlists the thief's spurned fiancee (Jane Greer) and takes off across Mexico with beefy William Bendix in pursuit. Mitchum, Greer, and screenwriter Geoffrey Homes (Daniel Mainwaring) had collaborated on the devastating 1947 noir drama Out of the Past, but this reteaming is more of a caper comedy, filled with single entendres, double crosses, and funny encounters, the best involving a sentimental Mexican road gang. Director Don Siegel keeps things moving at breakneck speed, but Mitchum's the whole show: Whether he's slugging Bendix or leering at Greer, he brings credibility and cool to this screwy tale. Don't pay any attention to his interviews--the man obviously loved his work. (JR)

Night of the Hunter When he died earlier this month, the image of Mitchum that flashed across the minds of most film fans was of two outstretched fists--one tattooed "hate" and the other "love." Night of the Hunter is a film buff's movie, beloved for its stark black-and-white imagery, its poetic script by James Agee, and its cult cachet--being both a commercial flop and the only film directed by Charles Laughton has simply bolstered its reputation. Anchoring the legend is Mitchum as a homicidal evangelist with a mellifluous Southern accent and an eerie cunning. If you hear cineastes discussing the film in hushed tones, it's only because Mitchum and Laughton have conspired to get under our skins and tattoo their story on our bones. (NM)

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