Captain Wade Hunnicutt (Robert Mitchum) is introduced to us as a man of action. Out hunting, he crouches in the reeds waiting to take aim at the ducks flying overhead. But before he has a chance to shoot, a wayward bullet grazes his shoulder – the shooter, the husband of a woman Wade has been “messing” with. Wade, a married man, with a long history of infidelity, is also introduced to us as a man of profound flaws; a man who repeatedly asks those that love him, and us, to take him just as he is.

Having mastered the Hollywood musical, director Vincente Minnelli transferred his trademark emotional intensity and visual flair to melodramas later in his career. Based on the 1958 debut novel by William Humphrey, Home from the Hill is a family drama in the tradition of Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956) – operatic in its expressive scale and drama. Set in an unnamed East Texas town in the late 1950s, the film centres on the privileged Hunnicutt family, who have money and power, but are rotting with secrets and lies.

At the head of the family is brutal patriarch, Captain Wade Hunnicutt. He’s one of Mitchum’s strong men, but also a man of conflicting desires and aspirations. With his 40,000 acres, Wade owns most of the town. But he’s feared and despised more than he is respected, and nowhere more vehemently than in his own home. Wade was Mitchum’s first role as a father of grown children. Here he has a legitimate son, Theron (George Hamilton), who has been raised as a “momma’s boy” by Wade’s bruised wife, Hannah (Eleanor Parker), and an illegitimate son, Rafe (George Peppard), the product of, as Wade describes it, the sowing of “wild oats in my youth in a haystack one night,” a few years before his marriage.

Throughout Home from the Hill, Mitchum pontificates about what makes a man, smoking his pipe, shooting guns, and swaggering through the frame with his formidable physicality. Mitchum’s famous broad chest is on show early, but what makes him imposing is more than his big, muscular physique. Mitchum is a colossal presence. Whether sitting, open-legged, in his trophy-filled den, or pushing his way through a crowd, he plays Wade as a man who not only commands space, but fills it; a man, like the actor embodying him, who cannot be contained.

While Home from the Hill is certainly a critique of a certain tendency of postwar American masculinity to be aggressive above all things, it is also an exploration of its contradictions. Wade marks a shift in Mitchum’s career. His screen identity was initially shaped by the leading man roles he played in countless Westerns and film noir during the 1940s and early 1950s – robust, insouciant men. But a move towards more character-driven roles, with his chilling performance in The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), complicated and deepened this persona. If Wade has dimensionality it is because Mitchum plays him, and because of what Mitchum, specifically, brings to the part. In this way, Home from the Hill is also a vivid exploration of the contradictions of Mitchum’s star and screen personas, and of what made him such a compelling figure in Hollywood over his 50-year career.

To describe Mitchum’s qualities, as an actor, is to conjure a list of dichotomous descriptors: strong and vulnerable, sophisticated and wild, amoral and soulful, laconic and engaged. His best performances express these unresolvable contradictions of human experience. In his biography Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don’t Care (2001), Lee Server explains that the mythology of the actor’s life – the youth spent fighting authority, the drug scandal and short prison stint, and his frequent love affairs despite over 50 years of marriage to the one woman – regularly seeped into his screen persona. He was, as Server suggests, the brawling, womanising, tough guy he often played on screen, but he was also much more: “A man of many parts, few people ever saw or claimed to know how all the pieces came together”.1

Wade is also a character of contradictory parts. Mitchum plays him resolute in his hard masculinity. But it’s limiting to ascribe a one-note viciousness to Mitchum’s performance. His talent is his unpredictability – when playing a villain he retains warmth; when playing a hero, there is potential treachery. He’s a malevolent creature in The Night of the Hunter, yet patently charismatic; sinister and sadistic in Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962), yet still, unnervingly, dangerously sexy to watch. Mitchum’s greatest characterisations are never just one thing; never only black or white. Wade Hunnicutt is no exception.

Wade’s interactions with Hannah reveal these contrasts. Husband and wife effectively lead separate lives. We learn that Hannah agreed to stay with Wade only if she had total control raising their son, and that her bedroom door has been firmly closed since the day they returned from their honeymoon. They circle each other like sharks – battling for supremacy over Theron and their own wounded pride. Mitchum’s aggression takes the lead in most of his scenes with Parker – he taunts and torments her with an acidic sarcasm, looming large on screen and over her. When Hannah warns, “Someday some husband’s going to kill you,” Mitchum responds with well-practiced indifference, “Well, that shouldn’t cause you too much concern … I’m heavily insured.”

But there is also emotional rawness. Wade tries, repeatedly, to reconnect with Hannah. His passion for her remains unresolved. At the party to celebrate Theron killing the wild boar, Wade reminisces about the past, touches her, and tells her he loves her still. The toughness strips away. Mitchum’s tenderness is exposed; the camera pulls in, reducing his imposing frame so that we focus on his soulful face. Hannah remains cool, with reason, yet Mitchum lets us feel his wounds alongside hers.

By the film’s tragic conclusion, Wade has done little to truly redeem himself. On his knees before Hannah, he asks her, “forgive me – not all at once, just a little bit everyday.” While she takes a step towards peace, Hannah’s earlier rebuke that, “You’re too late Wade, with too little,” ultimately rings true. Wade’s fate is stained by sadness from the start. In Home from the Hill, Mitchum elicits empathy within severely constrained circumstances. He makes the scars show. Once again, the actor who liked to joke that he had “two acting styles – with and without a horse,” reveals he had significantly more than that.

 

Home from the Hill (1960 USA 150 min)

Prod Co: Sol C. Siegel Productions Prod: Edmund Grainger, Sol C. Siegel Dir: Vincente Minnelli Scr: Harriet Frank Jr., Irving Ravetch Phot: Milton R. Krasner Ed: Harold F. Kress Set Dec: Henry Grace, Robert Priestley Art Dir: Preston Ames, George W. Davis Cost: Walter Plunkett Mus: Bronislau Kaper

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Eleanor Parker, George Peppard, George Hamilton, Everett Sloane, Luana Patten, Anne Seymour, Constance Ford, Ken Renard, Ray Teal

 

Endnotes

  1. Lee Server, Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don’t Care (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), p. xvi.

About The Author

Joanna Di Mattia is a film writer and critic. She has a PhD in Women's Studies from Monash University where she researched gender and contemporary American film. Her writing on film has been published by ACMI, The Age, The Big Issue and Kill Your Darlings.