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The Sundowners

Robert Mitchum: The Signature Collection

Ah, Mitchum. How many hundreds of critics and film writers and biographers have grappled with his persona? How many directors from so many different generations have attempted to integrate him into their disparate visions? From the sleepy-eyed noir axiom of the 1940s to the irascible iconoclast of the 1970s, Robert Mitchum has defied easy categorization. That's because there is more than one Mitchum. He didn't redefine acting, like Brando, or announce a new generation of thespians, like Nicholson. Instead, Robert Mitchum evolved in resistance to the prevailing manifestations of respectable filmmaking (at least as much as he could and still have a career). He was a bad boy, a hipster, an unacknowledged precursor to Brando, and later, with the black sheen of his full hair a beacon of danger, something of an anti-Elvis, one who didn't say "sir" or "ma'am" in a contradictory pose of politeness, especially after 1949, with the whiff of marijuana clinging to him. But to paraphrase Noah Cross, politicians, ugly buildings, and actors all get respectable if they last long enough. So The Sundowners (1960), one of six titles in Warner Home Video's "Robert Mitchum Signature Collection," finds Mitchum in mainstream mode. It's a big, sweeping, lengthy tale of a year in the life of Australian "drovers," or freelance sheepherders. Paddy Carmody (Mitchum) is the patriarch, who drags his loving but sometimes-resistant wife Ida (Deborah Kerr) and their son Sean (Michael Anderson, Jr.) through the exotic terrain of the outback in 1920. In their adventures they pick up an Englishman named Rupert Venneker (Peter Ustinov), who becomes an unofficial uncle to Sean. They survive a brush fire, take time off as shearers and tarrers, brawl, and enter a horse race. Mitchum didn't have as rich a role again until Ryan's Daughter in 1970, and here he engages in actual acting, coping with a mostly adequate Australian accent in long-take scenes with Kerr and others. Director Fred Zinnemann provided the kind of Oscar-sanctioned epics that the studios thought they wanted at the time, but it is the smaller pleasures in this film that are the best. There is a wonderful moment about 42 minutes in when Mitchum does a modest double take of puzzlement over his wife's sudden inexplicable (to him) expression of comic sadness. In moments like these, ultimately, Mitchum showed how seriously, carefully, and subtly he took his job. Warner's DVD release of The Sundowners enjoys a fine, colorful anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) that mixes beautiful outdoor vistas and stagy interiors. The monaural Dolby Digital audio comes in English and French, with English subtitles. Extras are twofold. First is "On Location with The Sundowners," a five-minute black-and-white, full-frame "making-of" featurette narrated by the source-book's author, Jon Cleary, with candid shots of Mitchum, Kerr, and Zinnemann "back stage." This is followed by the movie's theatrical trailer. Keep-case, or slimcase in the box-set.
—D.K. Holm

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