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In the new Criterion special edition of Peter Yates’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, we have reprinted a lengthy and extraordinary profile of Robert Mitchum from the March 1973 issue of Rolling Stone. Reported from the set of Eddie Coyle by New Journalism trailblazer Grover Lewis, the article, “The Last Celluloid Desperado,” includes conversations with actors Peter Boyle and Richard Jordan, as well as Mitchum’s daughter, Trina. Most memorably, it also features extensive, idiosyncratic monologues by Mitchum himself, a sample of which follows.
* * * * *
When Mitchum returns from lunch, he has clearly been exercising his elbow, perhaps both of them. His gait is unsteady, his speech is thickly burred, and he is, in fact, distinctly one step over the fucked-up line as he draws two cans of Bud from the fridge, waggles a beckoning finger at the writer, and sags onto a clothing-strewn couch at the rear of the camper.
“Very seldom have I a trailer,” he mutters darkly. “On most locations, there is one, usually, yes. But there’s rarely room for me. Rarely room for me. People crowd in—friends, strangers. I try to tell ’em, but they won’t listen. ‘Stand back, jack. No?’ Ka-whap!” Laughing mirthlessly, Mitchum swigs a lug of beer and lets one eyelid droop toward a brooding wink.
Perching on a tiny edge of the couch, the writer relays the Great Writer Tom Wolfe’s admiration and curiosity about Thunder Road, filmed and released in 1958 but still a perennial favorite with the hot-rodding drive-in audiences of the South.
Mitchum nods gravely. “Yeah, it was received for true, for real. Still is. That was my original design, and I figured it that way. I wrote the story—the original story—and the title song. The screenplay I felt neither ambitious enough nor qualified to do, because those dissolve cuts and all that kind of shit are largely technical. Beyond me, and boring too.
“How come I haven’t done more of that sort of thing? How come I’m not out diggin’ a ditch between takes, you know? I choose not to work. I’ve got a gig goin’ that’s probably not the most satisfactory expression in the world—nor is anyone’s—but it’s the course of least resistance. It does me well, and everyone else well, so why should I belabor myself? I mean, I do my good works quietly and elsewhere, and I can’t make a profession of it. It’s denied me. I can’t make a profession out of doing better because I learned early on that if you do better, you do well, you don’t get to do better—you just get to do more. You know—‘While you’re resting, would you mind carryin’ this anvil upstairs?’ Like that shot. So, for me, it’s no strain—just the course of least resistance. Do it until it poops out, you know, and then maybe wheel in once a year like Lionel Barrymore and play Scrooge—wrap it up and go back to the Bahamas or whatever happens. Cure my arthritis and spike myself out—whatever.
“Yeah, it’s true, I work a lot of pictures. I guess I do. I guess I do because we’ve gone through a period of some flux and change in our industry, and the effect has become somewhat boring. The effect per se—just that, you know. The innovative or innovative effect has become boring because it’s so obviously designed as effect. Those anal shots up through somebody’s wisdom teeth and all that whirling-light jazz, you know, is not too much fun. The main thing that we lack now is writers. We’ve developed some really serious current speakers as actors, mainly because of the import of British slum morality into this country and the reawakening of the children to the fact of what goes on beneath the Victorian collar and bosom. Not so with writers, though. They’re mostly still hung up on the tickity-pop-poop kick.
“Sure, I like [Eddie Coyle author] George Higgins as a reportorial writer—actually, as a novelist too. I was impressed by his book largely because I think that work like his is necessary for people to understand something about the humors of the criminal mentality. I know a little something about the criminal mentality. I think I comprehend the freakers, too, and very well. I know enough about the criminal mentality to know that it is so designed only by the stricture of the statutes. I mean, if a certain act wasn’t illegal, those guys wouldn’t be criminals, dig? Like that. But they get away with it or don’t, right? Or they bargain for it or don’t. Now, Mr. Higgins is a very ambitious fellow, a man of very strong opinions, and he’s on the staff of public protection. He warns Peter Yates that I’m associating with known criminals, warns him that I’m going to get busted or tainted or something. Well, fuck, there’s hardly anyone you can talk to in Boston without—you know. Anyway, it’s a two-way street, because the guys Higgins means are associating with a known criminal in talking to me. A point is a point. If somebody wants to cock his finger and rap on the table in a court of law, the point remains. So if they want to bust you for a faulty taillight, daddy, you’re busted.”
Mitchum laughs, this time with genuine amusement, and rises to fetch two more cans of beer. Sprawling back on the couch, he rumples a hand through his already tousled hair and lights one Pall Mall from the butt of another.
“I don’t know. I’ve known a lot of cops. When I was in Vietnam, I met a lot of cops—fighting cops. They were humanists—actually humanists. And they died for it, didn’t they? A lot of them died for it. They felt that people really deserved a chance, that everyone deserves to live, and they were going to fight for that. But then they died, a lot of them.
“I went to Nam in ’67, I guess it was. To find out what was happening. Some people in the Defense Department kept nudgin’ me—‘Why don’t you go find out?’ Next thing I knew, I was fallin’ off an airplane at Tan Son Nhut—February 3, and it’s 117 degrees. I went, ‘Waughhh,’ and they said, ‘Wait’ll summertime, man. It gets hot.’ It was hot all the time, and I was very impressed. I was very encouraged, enormously encouraged by what I saw. You get semi-sophisticated or cynical, you know, and it’s quite humbling to find that there are still people of high purpose and straight direction.
“I dealt mostly with Special Forces—the Green Beanie. I saw people teaching people—trying to teach them, oh, the legend about the chicken and the egg, and not to drink out of toilets, all kinds of very basic things. They were truly concerned, totally concerned. They’d come back from long search or battle stretches and immediately check into the village to see how the school was progressing. No, sir, it definitely wasn’t set up for my benefit. No way. No way for my benefit. I came in hot. They didn’t know who was comin’ in. I ended up thinking, Well, they still make good people. Good, honest people who give of themselves for other people. Like somebody’s grandmother, like that.
“Sure, they were over there to fight a war, which is wrong in principle maybe, but that wasn’t their doing, was it? Not their doing at all. There are always the advantagists, the opportunists who make a lot of money out of other people’s misery. Then, of course, there’s that French combine which controls the rights to the rice supply which feeds five-eighths of the whole world, which is the main reason for the whole caper anyway, why everybody’s hassling. And there are all the individual people who wake up in the morning and say, ‘Hey, a war’s on—let’s go get a piece of the action.’ Same way on both sides. Little slant-eyed people wake up and say, ‘Let’s grab something. Why not, as long as it’s happening.’ Get a bicycle or something. And ultimately, of course, there’re all the manufacturers who build battleships and airplanes and stuff like that. All of which is not wasteful, because it employs people—it’s just a different form of commerce. It’s a form that I don’t endorse, but there it is.
“The single thing that I’m grateful for that’s come out of the whole war mess has been some recognition of the need for communication. I’ve gone sometimes on dangerous waters in the interest of communication because I believe in it. I believe that everyone in the world should at least have the privilege of knowing what’s happening all at the same time. One thing I’ve learned is that the greatest fuckin’ slavery is ignorance, and the biggest commodity is ignorance—the dissemination of ignorance, the sale and burgeoning marketing of ignorance.
“Nah, I didn’t bother to vote yesterday. I’m an anarchist, anyway. I haven’t really been interested in voting since they took Norman Thomas off the ticket. I don’t think it makes any difference who has his duke in the till, really. I mean, you can bring on Liberace or somebody simpering about the idealism of the hardworking miners, and ‘My brother George who plays the violin is a Jew,’ and so forth and so on. Well, the idea is marvelous—really marvelous. And as I say, people go out and fight and die for it. But life is life, you know, so the new leader of Bangladesh goes to London to have his gallbladder removed, and takes over a whole floor at Claridge’s, and has a private entourage of two hundred people—two private jets he flies on. His attitude is, fuck those starvers. Fuck those starvers. Wise up, cranapple—right? Take your best shot. Well, what you do about it is do something about it. You put one brick on top of another—make it better. If you come to get it, get it. Like the Incas did to the conquistadores. When the Spaniards came for the Incas’ gold, the Incas pried open the Spaniards’ mouths and poured ’em full of the shit—all the molten gold they could fuckin’ hold.”
Mitchum drains his beer and gets another. . . .