Robert Mitchum’s face is one of the most instantly recognisable of Hollywood’s golden age. It’s a handsome mush, for sure, but chiselled good looks were ten-a-penny in La-la-land back then, and Mitchum’s also had a certain oddness about it that distinguished it from others. He looks as if he was originally created by Chester Gould to be a hoodlum in the Dick Tracy comic strip, but somehow escaped from the page; he has what the French call a certain ‘I don’t know what’, a permanent x-factor radiating out from those haunting, narrow eyes and the raffish, rakish eyebrows. In photographs he always seems to be sizing up you, the viewer, and on screen his judgmental stare established him as the top dog in any scene of any film. The arched eyebrows betray a cynic, the eyes say ‘oh really?’ with mock surprise and the mouth stays tight-lipped, hiding a kind of nonchalant amusement. Mitchum could only ever have been a leading man with a face like that, and he exuded effortless cool in a way that would be unsurpassed until the dawn of rock n’ roll and the arrival of a certain Mr James Dean.
He’s one of my favourite post-war actors, and in His Kind Of Woman he manages to lift a muddled tale which sags at times due to the baffling decision to incorporate large doses of satire into what is otherwise a hard-boiled crime thriller. Essentially this is another Mitchum film noir, but the production was riddled with problems and went through two directors, re-writes, re-shoots, re-casting and a little too much interference by Howard Hughes, all of which makes for a slightly odd finished product. Still, while there are some problems caused by the shifts in tone, Mitchum turns in a great performance, aided considerably by good support from Jane Russell and Vincent Price.
John Farrow was the movie’s director, but Hughes was unhappy with some of his work and that of screenwriters Frank Fenton and Jack Leonard. The studio boss organised a screenwriting team to re-write the screenplay and they added a considerable number of pages to the script; the final version feels more than a little flabby as a result, with a pace that occasionally feels pedestrian and a two hour running time. A number of Farrow’s scenes were subsequently cut and then added back in when re-shot by the uncredited Richard Fleischer. Yet while this level of meddling can sometimes result in an all-round disaster, His Kind Of Woman isn’t too messy. Much of it is, in fact, great fun.
Mitchum plays down-on-his-luck professional gambler – is there any other kind of professional gambler? – Dan Milner, who accepts a mysterious job for a sum of $50,000 after being approached by a stranger. Milner is given some of the money up-front and told to fly to Morro’s Lodge, an exclusive resort in Baja California, where he will receive instructions about the nature of the job plus the payment in full. Along the way he meets sultry singer Lenore Brent (Russell), who turns out to be the mistress of a famous (and married) actor by the name of Mark Cardigan (Price). Milner arrives at Morro’s Lodge to find several of the hotel’s guests have hidden agendas, and ends up at the centre of a strange plot involving a previously deported underworld boss called Nick Ferraro (played with menace by Raymond Burr), who is aiming to re-enter the USA by killing Milner, stealing his identity and undergoing plastic surgery in order to look like the gambler.
To a certain degree this is classic noir: Milner is a cynical, world-weary loner with a shadowy past, and he soon realizes that a sizeable proportion of the other characters in the movie are out to cause him harm. Set largely at night, Morro’s Lodge is supposedly an exclusive resort hotel but it’s essentially a haven for card sharks, double-crossers, gangsters, cheating husbands, drunks, smart-talkin’ dames, gambling newlyweds and corrupt local policemen. There’s a healthy dose of gun-play as Milner is set-up, before he fights back with the help of other hotel guests, and all told there’s a strong and understandable sense of paranoia running through Mitchum’s performance.
Pleasingly, His Kind Of Woman doesn’t treat its romantic thread lightly, and the film’s longer-than-average running time is partly due to the fact it finds plenty of space for Milner and Lenore to get acquainted and develop a believable affair. Their flirtatious early scenes together are superb and the pair have a strong chemistry (that’s always a matter of personal perception, though; I thought Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt had very little during the recent Edge Of Tomorrow, for example, but the rest of the internet says otherwise). Their dialogue is filled with smart, quick-fire one-liners, and the prolonged way in which neither is able to establish an upper hand makes for some crackling old-school sexual tension.
Russell’s performance is very good and Lenore is an enjoyable character to follow; she’s feisty, witty and shows signs of independence, although unfortunately she also seems drawn to men who can act as sponsors for her lifestyle. That said, she isn’t just there to decorate the screen and bat her eyelids, and the film finds a small amount of time to give her a decent back story. One of the smarter ideas here is that Lenore has changed her identity for financial reasons in the past, which ties in well with the Milner / Ferraro scam that plays out.
While the crime and romance elements of the film work well together, I’m less keen on the attempts at humour, as much of it seems out-of-place. Generally the comedy revolves around the Errol Flynn-esque Cardigan, who is prone to Shakespearian statements and pulling amusing faces of disbelief, and to Price’s credit he just about makes it work, despite its incongruity and his hammy acting. There are plenty of times, though, when the presence of Cardigan really detracts from the main plot; during a tense scene where Milner is about to be given a lethal injection, for example, the action repeatedly cuts to Price’s character and a merry band of hotel guests, who are managing to sink a fishing boat by overloading it – a whimsical joke that reportedly ended up costing Hughes $150,000. At least Price gets involved in a couple of tense shootouts, but this film would have worked much better as a straight noir. (As the excellent Noir Of The Week blog points out: ‘In the end result, you can pick out Hughes’ contributions with near certainty: useless subplots, not one but two dashing aviators, and the endless scenes involving Vincent Price’s character, whom Hughes fell in love with.’) His Kind Of Woman also attempts to satirize Hollywood through the Cardigan character, who is a louche, lazy and ignorant playboy, but again this often serves as a distraction from the primary characters and, most irritatingly, the crux of the story.
When the movie does concentrate on Milner and Ferraro’s mob it’s gripping and well-acted. The showdown between the mob boss and his intended victim is excellent, taking place in the confined spaces of a pleasure-cruising yacht, and Burr makes for a worthy villain of the piece. It’s just a shame his character only appears briefly at the start and end of the movie; Howard Petrie and Robert Wilkie were both cast as Ferraro (and filmed) before Burr – something that Hughes may well have gotten right – but the lack of screen time for the character must surely be a direct result of all the tinkering. Despite adeptly handling the romantic scenes that precede it Mitchum is at his best here, convincingly desperate as he fights the gangster and his crew for his life.
This would have been a very good film had it simply appeared in cinemas as a lean, dark crime thriller, especially if it kept the romance intact, which is strong. It has been referred to as a ‘schizophrenic noir’ and an ‘anti-noir’, but at two hours’ long it’s over-cooked and the decision to incorporate comedy and a number of sub-plots revolving around various hotel guests ensures that it’s a frustrating stop-start affair which attempts to please far too many people. Luckily the comedy isn’t actually too bad, and a good ensemble performance – with Mitchum the highlight – rescues the film from the brink of disaster. (The actor later revealed that many scenes were ad-libbed.) The direction is good and the cinematography by Harry J. Wild is top class. Despite the meddling of Hughes His Kind Of Woman is an improbable success, but infuriatingly it could have been much better.
Directed by: John Farrow, Richard Fleischer
Written by: Frank Fenton, Jack Leonard
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, Vincent Price
Running Time: 120 minutes