Classic Corner: His Kind of Woman

Robert Mitchum is the coolest movie star who ever lived because he didn’t give a damn that he was. In a profession overflowing with achingly needy performers desperate to be loved, Mitchum’s low-slung, sleepy-eyed insolence let you know you were lucky he showed up for work that day. He could be a hell of an actor when he wanted to be, and when he didn’t he was even more fun to watch. Mitchum mastered a look of mild amusement at the machinations of the Western and noir plots that followed his characters around. He sometimes seemed like he’d seen this movie before and was killing time until cocktail hour, unflappable in his commitment to effortlessness. The Rat Pack guys swaggered, putting a little too much of their backs into it. Mitchum sauntered. There’s little wonder why his most emblematic movie moment came in the 1947 classic Out of the Past, answering Jane Greer’s protestations of innocence with, “Baby, I don’t care.” 

Mitchum’s suave indifference gets a workout in 1951’s His Kind of Woman, a convoluted and calamitous production from the more eccentric end of Howard Hughes’ Hollywood run. Teaming Mitchum for the first time with voluptuous Hughes muse Jane Russell, the producer sought to sell it as the big screen’s two greatest chests, hiring Out of the Past dialogue doctor Frank Fenton to supply ample innuendo and John Farrow to direct. It begins with a fairly standard film noir setup in which Mitchum’s washed-up gambler is given the squeeze by some mysterious gangsters and falls hard for Russell’s gold-digging nightclub singer. But just when you think you know where things are going, the movie quite strangely segues into a breezy ensemble comedy at a Baja resort, where Mitchum and Russell hang around flirting for half the movie, waiting for the bad guys to arrive. It’s astonishing how little of consequence happens during the middle hour or so of His Kind of Woman, and I mean this as a high compliment indeed.

Who cares about some gangster plot when you’re watching this kind of chemistry? Mitchum and Russell take palpable pleasure in each other’s company, batting the banter back and forth like old pals who happen to be impossibly beautiful physical specimens in the unlikeliest of scenarios, as when she walks in on him ironing his money. (“When I’m broke I press my pants,” he explains.) The lackadaisically paced His Kind of Woman is full of such oddball digressions, languorous camera movements trained on women’s rear ends (“John Farrow’s signature shot,” Mitchum quipped) and an air of tomfoolery best exemplified by Vincent Price’s movie-stealing performance as a vainglorious Hollywood actor who was supposed to be Russell’s latest mark. Price’s hilariously pompous, Shakespeare-spouting prig went over so well in rushes Hughes decided to add more of him, and then more still.

Farrow was famously the only director who could outdrink Mitchum, and such a terror to the camera crew that a bunch of them broke into his trailer and urinated in his secret stash of single malt Scotch. Long after Farrow he’d thought he’d finished the picture Hughes hired Richard Fleischer to come aboard and restage a new ending, in which Price’s swashbuckling actor uses his movie training to lead a rescue effort at sea while Mitchum is being beaten and tortured on a boat by gunsels and a mad scientist plastic surgeon who intends to swap the star’s face with that of a deported organized crime boss, 46 years before Travolta and Cage did it in Face/Off.

As amusingly recounted in Lee Server’s excellent 2001 Mitchum biography, titled (what else?) Baby, I Don’t Care, the reshoots raged on for months, with Hughes adding additional, bizarre fetishistic flourishes to befall the shirtless Mitchum, filming miles of footage until eventually, one day the fed-up star got so snockered he picked a fight with three stuntmen and destroyed the entire set. When Fleischer finally figured he’d finished the damn picture, Hughes decided he didn’t like the actor cast as the main villain, and demanded all his scenes be reshot with Raymond Burr.

Such chaos is reflected in the final product, which veers between the lightly comic and shockingly brutal on a sometimes moment-to-moment basis, especially in that exorbitantly protracted final action sequence, which winds up comprising a full third of the movie’s 120-minute running time, during which Russell is unfortunately locked in a closet. Citing “the crudest, cheapest kind of sensationalized violence,” The New York Times called His Kind of Woman “one of the worst Hollywood pictures in years.” 

And yet this lurching, misshapen movie is somehow rather wonderful to watch, feeling adventurous and exciting in ways missing from other movies made by more stable individuals. There’s a mania to His Kind of Woman, a sense of recklessness I also get from pictures like Hudson Hawk or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where you feel like the train has long ago left the station and these filmmakers are gonna keep careening down the tracks no matter what. Even if they run out of tracks.  

“His Kind of Woman” is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.

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