By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Angel Face,” Warner, 1952]
Robert Mitchum, whose 54-year career in American movies ended with his death in 1997, is never mentioned when movieheads gather and ponder the Great American Movie Stars or Great American Actors, and he’s never included in the Oscar montages. It’s as if this masterful, unflappable, unpretentious, iconic demi-god wasn’t, in fact, the postwar years’ most consistent and resonant leading man, and true noir’s purest and coolest everyman. (Mitchum’s heroes were never weathered, flawed romantics like Bogart’s he never thought that much about the past.) He may have also been the era’s best line-reader you’d search in vain through his massive filmography for a misstep or clumsy moment, which is not something you can say for Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Marlon Brando, John Wayne or Burt Lancaster. Mitchum knew how to be on film in a way that eludes most actors; his massive bulk, sleepy eyes and laconic voice disguised a quick, quiet intelligence that always seemed to surprise his co-stars.
He worked in virtually every genre that required a morally centered man of action (musicals were out, thank God), and his best films have only become recognized as some of the mid-century’s all-out finest many years after they vanished from theaters: “Crossfire,” “Out of the Past” and “Pursued” (all 1947), “The Lusty Men” (1952), “Angel Face” (1952), “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), “Cape Fear” (1962), “El Dorado” (1966). The new Warner Mitchum DVD box set comes with at least one now-classic Mitchum movie: Otto Preminger’s “Angel Face,” a beautiful meta-noir set in the blazing California sun, pitting Mitchum’s guileless working-class driver against Jean Simmon’s gorgeous but, it is slowly revealed, psychopathic poor little rich girl. The ending is a throat-catcher, even for those days thick with noirish bile and cynicism. The box also includes the fabulous exotic mishmash “Macao” (1952), Vincente Minnelli’s “Home from the Hill” (1952), Fred Zinneman’s sunny Australian sheep-drover epic “The Sundowners” (1960), the negligible western “The Good Guys & the Bad Guys” (1969), and, take notice, Sydney Pollack and Paul Schrader’s “The Yakuza” (1974), in which the aging Mitchum plunges into the Japanese underworld and wreaks holy havoc.
Meanwhile, in another Hollywood, Kenneth Anger was growing up. Long considered the American avant-garde’s pioneer mythopoet, Anger started, briefly, as a child actor (that’s him as the Changeling Prince in 1935’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” alongside James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland), and began making non-narrative, proto-campy films as a teenager. By the time he made “Scorpio Rising” (1964) a half-hour mood piece that essentially defined authentic American gay iconography and nascent queer culture for several generations of horny guys Anger was underground cinema’s dark prince. Hanging with Anaïs Nin and Mick Jagger, channeling Aleister Crowley, getting mixed up with the Manson gang (Bobby Beausoleil buried the negative of “Lucifer Rising” in Death Valley, forcing Anger to reshoot it from scratch) these were the years to be a cool, counter-cultural experimental filmmaker. (Still, these were avant-garde shorts he’s still more popularly known as the author of the scandal-shop “Hollywood Babylon” books.) Anger’s films range in palette from bedroom amateurishness to Victorian nursery daydream to epic black mass, but they’re all frantic collages concerned more with your experience as a spectator than making conventional narrative order out of chaos. (Anger has agendas involving “magick” and so forth, but like most writing by and about experimental filmmakers, it’s pure blarney.)
The inaugural Fantoma disc of Anger’s scant oeuvre hopefully there will be at least two more saves the confrontational luridness of “Scorpio Rising,” “Invocation of My Demon Brother” and “Lucifer Rising” for later, and instead presents his earlier, more glitzy stage, beginning with his incendiary masturbation symbol-fest “Fireworks” (1947), made when Anger was 19. The films are little half-myths that live in an entirely symbolic sphere, boiling down “normal” movies to a fetishized bank of dislocated gestures and images. For me, Anger’s doomed “Rabbit’s Moon” (1950) is his early triumph, a fully realized fairy tale starring a Pierrot le Fou figure in a cardboard glade under a completely fake moon. It was never finished, and has only been seen in a truncated version until now. Climactically, so to speak, “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” (1954) is a grand, 38-minute, rainbow-candy costume party/pantomime, starring Nin, Anger, director Curtis Harrington, and “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” songwriter Joan Whitney. The lavish extras include wall-to-wall Anger commentary, supplements demonstrating the films’ restorations, production art, excerpts from Nin’s famous diaries, outtakes (!), and a sleek book of history and stills.
“Robert Mitchum The Signature Collection” (Warner) and “The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume One” (Fantoma) will be available on DVD on January 23rd.