Certain actors have a knack at playing the villain. Sometimes it’s their wild intensity. Sometimes it’s a cool, collected, and composed aura. Sometimes it’s just what they look and/or sound like. However, one of the best villain actors of all time is Robert Mitchum. He easily exhibits all three of these attributes in his films. I’m not sure if it’s his smooth, southern demeanor, or his relentless characters, but any movie with a Mitchum villain in it is automatically an intense film to watch. Of course, he was recognized by the American Film Institute for this skill at portraying villains: he is listed as #23 on the list of the 25 greatest male actors of all time. Even though he never won any awards for his antagonist roles, he is easily one of the most unnerving actors in all of cinema. This week’s two films examine his two best villain roles.
The Night of the Hunter
Length: 92 minutes / 1.53 hours
Skill with a switchblade. Finger tattoos that spell out “Love / Hate”. Disguising himself as an innocent preacher. These attributes, along with many others, give Robert Mitchum’s character in The Night of the Hunter an obvious, but also extremely sinister, feeling that he is an iconic villain. It’s no wonder that the Reverend Harry Powell comes in at #29 of the American Film Institute’s best villain list. The character’s murderous tendencies are only made more eerie by his calm demeanor, along with the lyrics of his favorite hymn: “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. When you can’t see a villain, but can only hear the refrain of a traditional hymn indicating his presence, the intensity of the film suddenly spikes. While the finger tattoos are often replicated in popular culture, they hardly match Mitchum’s performance in this movie.
Despite his guise as a preacher, Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) ends up in prison with a man who murdered two people during a successful bank robbery. This man is Ben Harper (Peter Graves). Before he was carted off to prison, he hid the stolen money in his daughter’s doll. Because they share a cell, Powell tries his best to learn the location of the loot, but can only ascertain that Ben’s kids know where it is before Harper is executed. Now a free man, Powell moves in on now widowed Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) in an attempt to get close to the children and their knowledge of the mass of money. After Willa eventually catches Powell in his web of lies, he murders her and chases after her children who have escaped. Now all that stands between him and the children is a kindly woman who has taken them in, protecting them from the preacher’s greed.
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 105 minutes / 1.75 hours
Only four other actors made the AFI’s “top 50 villains” list more than once: James Cagney, Jack Nicholson, Bette Davis, and Faye Dunaway. Robert Mitchum, having already placed at #29 with his role in the aforementioned The Night of the Hunter, could only outdo himself with the next entry: Max Cady in Cape Fear. Coming in at #28 on this list, Mithcum continues to show that persistence is what makes a proper villain a frightening force to behold. An interesting fact with this film is that Robert Mitchum went on (along with his co-star, Gregory Peck) to appear in the 1991 Martin Scorsese remake, albeit not in the same roles as their classic 1962 performance, which were filled by Robert DeNiro and Nick Nolte, respectively. Those who are familiar with The Simpsons will recognize the plot of this film from the Season 5 episode “Cape Feare” (with Sideshow Bob as Mitchum’s character).
As was the case in The Night of the Hunter, Robert Mitchum’s character, Max Cady, has just been released from prison after serving an eight year sentence. Now that he’s out, the criminal is out for revenge on the lawyer who put him behind bars: Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck). Making sure to do nothing against the law, Cady begins to stalk and threaten Bowden’s family. Even though Max kills the family dog, Sam cannot prove this, and thus the local law enforcement is powerless to help. Now Bowden takes to the offensive and tries to catch Cady in the act, which almost costs him his job as a lawyer. In a last-ditch effort, Sam takes his family to their houseboat in Cape Fear. Through a diversionary tactic, Sam hopes to finally settle the score with Max, but the criminal catches wind of the plan and the lawyer has to work quickly to defeat the menace against his family.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Mitchum masterpieces
Bacon #: 2 (The Longest Day / Robert Wagner -> Wild Things / Kevin Bacon)