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AT THE MOVIES

Saddling up with Mitchum

A UCLA series presents some of the iconic star's westerns -- some rarely seen and costarring big names -- at the Hammer Museum.

July 07, 2011|KENNETH TURAN | FILM CRITIC

Robert Mitchum westerns? The quintessential film noir actor, whose distinctly urban air of seductive menace galvanized films such as "Out of the Past," riding hell bent for leather on some galloping steed? There must be some mistake.

Of course, as all Mitchum fans know -- and as the new UCLA Film & Television Archive series "Tracking the Cat: Robert Mitchum in the West" starting at the Hammer Museum on Friday proves -- the actor had extensive western experience. So much so that, as he once famously told an interviewer, "I have two kinds of acting: one on a horse, one off a horse."

Looking at Mitchum through the lens of the western offers an intriguing window on his talent, on the easy naturalism of his acting style and the cool way he used those famously heavy-lidded eyes to project an intensely masculine presence. The series also offers the rare chance to see 12 westerns on the big screen. If you're interested in jangling spurs, perilous shootouts, speedy stagecoaches and men who say, "That's a chance I've got to take" when told they're risking death, this is the place to be.

It wasn't easy for the archive to get prints for these films. "Rachel and the Stranger," a charming three-hander written by Waldo Salt from a Howard Fast novel and costarring William Holden and Loretta Young, could be located only in 16 millimeter. The same was true of 1944's "Nevada," Mitchum's first starring role.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, July 08, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Robert Mitchum: An article in the July 7 Calendar section about Robert Mitchum's western films misspelled the last name of "The Lusty Men" co-writer David Dortort as Dortord.

A 35mm print of "The Lusty Men" was located in Spain with Spanish subtitles, but when Lowell Peterson, a cinematographer, heard the archive was interested in the film, he called to offer his non-subtitled print. And the splendid 35mm print of Howard Hawks' "El Dorado" comes courtesy of the Tim Hunter Collection at the Academy Film Archive.

Though these films are all nominally westerns, because Mitchum was Mitchum, because his look and sensibility could be unnervingly off-center, the man's westerns were almost never business as usual. That's plenty apparent in the opening night's crackerjack double bill of Raoul Walsh's "Pursued" (1947) and Robert Wise's "Blood on the Moon" (1948), dark, brooding westerns that do things differently.

One of the first of the psychological westerns, the Niven Busch-written "Pursued" featured Max Steiner music, memorable James Wong Howe cinematography (restored by UCLA) and Mitchum as a troubled orphan menaced by a vengeful Dean Jagger and wracked by claustrophobic nightmares. "Blood on the Moon," based on a novel by Luke Short, had Mitchum as the classic stranger drawn almost against his will into a savage, desperate range war.

Equally unusual was the series' title film, William Wellman's 1954 "Track of the Cat," which featured Mitchum as a born troublemaker, a full-bearded terror in a remote ranching family seething with rivalries and discontent.

One of Mitchum's best films (though burdened with a title that makes it sound like it belongs in UCLA's Radley Metzger series) is "The Lusty Men," written by Horace McCoy and "Bonanza's" David Dortord and directed by the probing Nicholas Ray.

Sensitively done and well acted, "Lusty" features Mitchum as a once-great rodeo cowboy caught between protege Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy) and his attraction to Merritt's loyal and intelligent wife, Louise (a fine Susan Hayward). Two of Mitchum's later roles made extensive use of the widescreen format. In "River of No Return," shot in the gorgeous Canadian Rockies under Otto Preminger's direction, Mitchum plays a guy who just wants to be left alone but has to face off against a wild river accompanied by a mining camp chanteuse played by none other than Marilyn Monroe.

Though it is in some ways a reprise of Hawks' earlier "Rio Bravo," 1966's "El Dorado," the last film in the series and the most recent, stands nicely on its own. Written by Leigh Brackett and costarring John Wayne as a veteran gunslinger and pal of Mitchum's heavy-drinking sheriff, this is a classic old-guy western, filled with breezy repartee and intimations of mortality. Casual, improbable and, like Mitchum himself, one of a kind.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

'Tracking the Cat: Robert Mitchum in the West'

Where: Billy Wilder Theater, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. Screenings at 7:30 p.m. unless noted.

When: Friday "Pursued," "Blood on the Moon"

Saturday "The Lusty Men," "Nevada"

Sunday "The Red Pony" (11 a.m.)

July 13 "The Sundowners"

July 17 "Track of the Cat" (7 p.m.)

July 23 "River of No Return"

July 24 "The Wonderful Country" (7 p.m.)

July 29 "West of the Pecos," "Rachel and the Stranger"

July 30 "El Dorado"

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