Last week I revisited Jacques Tourneur’s classic noir Out of the Past for the first time in 15 years, and I’ve had Mitchum on my mind ever since. I mean since 1995, of course. It’s an easy state to attain and a hard one to shake. (Just ask Mitchum’s first fan club: the Droolettes, dignity be damned.)
This time around, however, I found just as much of my attention fixed on Kirk Douglas’s nice turn as the elegant hood Whit Sterling. In his Mitchum biography Baby, I Don’t Care (yes, it is the best book title ever), Lee Server recounts a story from the set via Jane Greer. This, I find, accounts for quite a bit of the deliciousness of both performances.
The two got along well enough off the set, but the rivalry would flare as soon as the camera began to turn. Since Tourneur was not about to accept any obvious histrionics in his diminuendo world, Douglas was left to try and out-underact Mitchum, an exercise in futility, he discovered. He tried adding distracting bits of business during Mitchum’s lines and came up with a coin trick, running it quickly between the tops of his fingers. Bob started staring at the fingers until Kirk started staring at the fingers and dropped the coin on the rug. He put the coin away. In another scene, Douglas brought a gold watch fob out of his coat pocket and twirled it around like a propeller. This time everybody stared.
“It was a hoot to watch them going at it,” said Jane Greer. “They were two such different types. Kirk was something of a method actor. And Bob was Bob. You weren’t going to catch him acting. But they both tried to get the advantage. At one point they were actually trying to upstage each other by who could sit the lowest. The one sitting the lowest had the best camera angle, I guess–I don’t know what they were thinking. Bob sat on the couch, so Kirk sat on the table, then one sat on the footstool, and by the end I think they were both on the floor.”
Ebert’s review of the movie is well worth reading.