Robert Mitchum as The Face of Film Noir

blogeddie5A tough week for America. After a long, bitter election year, the end game is a divided and angry country. Disillusioned with both sides, I find escape—and solace—in a pair of moody film noirs in which a cynical, jaded Robert Mitchum encapsulates how I feel.

In The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Mitchum plays Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, a small-time gunrunner who is barely making ends meet on the margins of the underworld. The last of his luck runs out when he finds himself facing another long stint in prison. He weighs his loyalty to his criminal associates against snitching on them to the cops, which would keep him out of prison.

TV writer Paul Monash adapted the screenplay from a novel by George V. Higgins, a real-life assistant DA. Higgins captured a detailed, intimate view of the lifestyle of street criminals. The corrupt, dog-eat-dog world of the novel easily translated to film noir. Gloomy, with only a minimal amount of action, The Friends of Eddie Coyle wraps itself in melancholy, a tone that Mitchum could so easily express in his baritone voice, somnolent expression and minimalist acting style.

Mitchum appears for only a quarter of the movie, but the film is remembered for his role. Director Peter Yates used Robert Mitchum’s star image to add nuance to the character of Eddie Coyle and to set the tone for the film. Mitchum’s tough guy persona, enhanced by decades of stories about his anti-authority attitude and hard knocks life, had been constructed through his roles in classic film noirs. By the 1970s, that toughness was seasoned by cynicism and pessimism. His aging, world-weary persona seemed to suit the sense of disillusionment that permeated a society that had lived through Vietnam, generational divide, soaring crime rates and political corruption.

FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, THE (1973)

MOVIE STAR ROBERT MITCHUM ACTS ALONGSIDE METHOD ACTOR PETER BOYLE IN ‘EDDIE COYLE.’

Two years later, Mitchum starred as Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely (1975) in which the world’s most articulate hard-boiled detective is hired by the monosyllabic Moose Malloy to search for his long-lost love, Velma. Noir lovers know that the novel had been adapted to the big screen in 1944 as Murder, My Sweet, with Dick Powell as Marlowe. Powell’s snappy, wise-cracking interpretation of Chandler’s iconic P.I. is a far cry from Mitchum’s tired, aging Marlowe. While an old Philip Marlowe doesn’t sound like an enticing character, it is actually his weary, beaten-down existence that makes the film appealing. It suggests he has lived without compromise and has paid the price for not caving in to corruption. Plus, Mitchum’s legendary cool prevents the Marlowe character from being pathetic. When Powell notes that he is broke in the voice-over, it is amusing; when Mitchum reveals the same information, it suggests the price paid for playing it his way and existing on the margins of society.

FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975)

MITCHUM AS MARLOWE

Set in the 1940s, Farewell, My Lovely is rich in nostalgia, particularly for those classic film noirs from a bygone Hollywood era. The low-key and high-contrast lighting of old-school black and white noirs did not translate well into 1970s color, but director Dick Richards and cinematographer John Alonzo compensated in other ways. They depicted key scenes in a gritty yellow, like old, decrepit photos, which enhanced the nostalgia. And, like Peter Yates did in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Richards used Mitchum’s star image to enrich and expand the material. The star’s presence intentionally recalls the original cycle of film noir, while his aging face simultaneously suggests that that era has long past. Also, long gone are the values and ideals associated with that past, a time when noir’s anti-heroes came closer to saving us from darkness and restoring order to the world. Like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Farewell, My Lovely was a product of the dispirited 1970s, though the futility and disillusionment of both films are sadly relevant.

If viewers don’t quite catch that Mitchum’s Marlowe is supposed to be ineffectual in a world of overwhelming corruption and venality, then the reference to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio makes the point emphatic. The film is set in the year that DiMaggio experienced a streak of 50+ hits. Marlowe follows the sports hero’s achievement throughout the course of the film, only to be disappointed when DiMaggio’s hitting streak ends. Marlowe’s world—our world—has no place for heroes.

CHARLOTTE RAMPLING AS THE FEMME FATALE IN 'FAREWELL MY LOVELY'

CHARLOTTE RAMPLING AS THE FEMME FATALE IN ‘FAREWELL MY LOVELY’

Then again, maybe I have it all wrong. Though Marlowe does not save his client or figure out the double-crosses in time, which is typical of film noir, his final gesture is an act of sacrifice for the only innocent character. As he embarks on this last act, he tosses a baseball in the air—a reminder of a time when DiMaggio was a hero who held America together with his winning streak. Perhaps, Roger Ebert understood it best when he wrote that film noir was “the most American film genre, because no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betrayal, unless it were essentially naive and optimistic.“

You can find The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Farewell, My Lovely under Neo-Noir on FilmStruck.

13 Responses Robert Mitchum as The Face of Film Noir
Posted By Flora : November 14, 2016 12:35 am

I am a big fan of Mitchum in film noir titles. I’ve seen both these movies and enjoy them. My favourite of Mitchum noir titles are from the studio system era.

As for what is airing on TCM, it is too bad that the guest programmer did not get aired before the election took place.

Posted By Paul Segedin : November 14, 2016 11:28 am

I saw him recently in “The Lusty Men”. Good performance in a good film. I need to see these two!

Posted By AL : November 14, 2016 7:35 pm

Where ya been, Susan? We’ve missed you. Although I love MURDER MY SWEET, it’s FAREWELL, MY LOVELY that talks to me. Talk about m o o d ! (I’ll never understand how they followed that great film with the execrable “re-make” of THE BIG SLEEP…) That reminds me–Why is HAMMETT so under-appreciated? Mitchum left us an amazing list of really good films. Pauline Kael always referred to him as “a beautiful man”…

Posted By George : November 14, 2016 8:11 pm

I escaped my election fatigue by seeing DOCTOR STRANGE. It was a total escape from reality, which was exactly what I needed.

Posted By Susan Doll : November 14, 2016 10:32 pm

HI Al:

We took a break while TCM and Criterion switched us over to the FilmStruck blog. Am glad someone else loves FAREWELL so much. Am thinking of showing it next semester in my film noir class.

Hi George:

I watched DR. STRANGE over the weekend, and I was not thrilled with it. I liked the story and especially the actors but I got a bit bored with the relentless CGI.

Posted By Lyndell Smith : November 15, 2016 12:04 pm

Susan, would it be possible for us to talk by email. I want to develop a Continuing Ed. Non-credit course for seniors, or some useful tool for enjoying classic film beyond just watching them in limbo. My large collection begs to be put to use, and this is one of my ideas.
Would also love to hear any other ideas that pop into your mind, and perhaps whether you know of some institution that would be interested in having my collection with a complete catalog I developed.
Knowing you must be extremely busy, do hope you can suggest a direction for use of my film library. Thank you so much for your time, Lyndell

Posted By robbushblog : November 15, 2016 12:50 pm

THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE is great. And I’m glad you made the distinction that these movies are “neo-noir”. Some of us are sticklers for what makes a film “actual” noir.

Posted By Susan Doll : November 18, 2016 12:15 am

Al: I am teaching film noir next semester. I have not seen Hammett in decades. Do you think it is a good example of neo-noir? Would students like it?

Posted By robbushblog : November 18, 2016 12:24 am

Isn’t it just a biopic?

Posted By Susan Doll : November 18, 2016 2:05 am

I have the memory that it was much more than just a biopic, but I don’t quite remember why.

Posted By swac44 : November 18, 2016 12:20 pm

Hammett is more of a fantasy where Dashiell Hammett (wonderfully played by Frederic Forrest) gets involved in a mystery of some sort. Can’t remember all the details either, but I recall Elisha Cook Jr., Royal Dano and Sylvia Sidney are in it, which is as nice an homage as you can hope for. Cinematography is by the great Joseph Biroc (It’s a Wonderful Life, Flight of the Phoenix), which is another plus.

Posted By Susan Doll : November 18, 2016 12:26 pm

Swac44: Thanks for the info. I am going to preview it as a possible choice for my class. I can always depend on my readers for help. it’s like having my own focus group. I hope most of them find their way to the FilmStruck site. I miss some of them, though my stalwarts seem to have found me.

Posted By Dan Day : November 22, 2016 11:54 am

Thanks for highlighting these two film noir featuring Robert Mitchum. Until I view them, my favorite Mitchum film noir is “Out of the Past” by Jasques Tournier, co-starring Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.