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July 11, 2008

Mitchum in the Middle

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Man in the Middle
Guy Hamilton - 1963
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

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El Dorado
Howard Hawks - 1966
Paramount Region 1 DVD

A couple of weeks ago, I read Lee Server's biography of Robert Mitchum. If there was ever an example of "too much information", it could be found in this book. Based at least in part on the kind of public persona Mitchum displayed, Server thought that Robert Mitchum should have been a more significant star in the the Sixties. Seen together, Man in the Middle and El Dorado serve as a double feature with Mitchum playing characters with a limp. The characters also provide an unintended symbolism of Robert Mitchum's career in advanced middle age.

Man in the Middle is one of those films that suggests greater potential than what was realized on screen. The World War II begins with an American officer shooting a British soldier point blank, in front of several witnesses. Robert Mitchum plays the Lieutenant Colonel asked to defend the officer, portrayed by Keenan Wynn. Mitchum is assured that Wynn is to get a fair trial even though his guilt is assumed as about a dozen soldiers witnessed the act. In attempting to get evidence to defend Wynn, Mitchum finds a variety of obstacles created by army bureaucracy. Mitchum eventually realizes that the trial is mostly for show, and that any dreams of promotion are tied up with his playing the game.

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Mitchum gets his first big clue from France Nuyen, the beautiful nurse with a sense of integrity. The film tips its hand pretty early in suggesting that Wynn may be capital letter CRAZY. Even worse, Wynn's character is a racist. The question may be, is Wynn crazy because he's a racist, or a racist because he's crazy? One could also view Man in the Middle as a kind of companion piece to Crossfire, with Mitchum also taking on the Robert Young role. In the older film, Robert Mitchum could not possibly have been the murderer of the Jewish soldier, primarily because he's Robert Mitchum and too damn cool. In Man in the Middle, it is axiomatic that Mitchum will prevail without much sweat. Considering the literary source, a novel by Howard Fast, with a screenplay by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, there is little of the tension between loyalty and idealism that another actor might have conveyed.

Marlon Brando had the film rights before changing his mind about being in the film. Might Mitchum have done Man in the Middle to dispel rumors of his own rumored racism that dogged him following his rejection of the starring role in The Defiant Ones? Man in the Middle is less incisive than it might have been. What remains is a gallery of effective supporting actors including Trevor Howard, Sam Wanamaker and Barry Sullivan to help make the film watchable if not overly meaningful.

Mitchum limps again in El Dorado. Server writes about how the original film was to be more serious until Howard Hawks and John Wayne pushed screenwriter Leigh Brackett to duplicate Rio Bravo as much as possible. By the time he made El Dorado, Mitchum's own aversion to acting became more pronounced. Second billed to John Wayne, Mitchum appears in half of the film. Mitchum's character is named J.P. Harrah, but the film is mostly Howard Hawks' last hurrah, one last attempt to reclaim commercial viability after that failures of Man's Favorite Sport? and Red Line 7000. I had forgotten that Hawks redoes the ending of El Dorado with his final image of John Wayne limping into the fadeout of Rio Lobo. I know there are some who love El Dorado. Too often, I got the feeling that Rio Bravo was a river that should have been best visited once.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 11, 2008 12:13 AM


Uncool people should be prevented from writing about the supercool Mitchum. These are the blandest reviews ever written. Why bother?

Posted by: Bob at July 11, 2008 09:18 AM

Thank you for providing Comment 666.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at July 11, 2008 11:29 AM

nice, definitely

Posted by: Arielsigma at August 14, 2008 12:54 PM