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Robert Mitchum could afford to be picky. The indolent "Big Bad Bob" had, after a self-imposed hiatus, recently returned to the big screen in David Lean's 70mm epic Ryan's Daughter (1970). Now the 53-year-old actor was weighing offers for what would be his 87th film. One screenplay wanted Mitchum to play a jazz musician in San Francisco, and the other wanted him in the role of a murderous ex-con minding a trailer park in, as Mitchum recalled, "some godforsaken corner of McKeesport, Pennsylvania." Which movie would be a more pleasant location shoot was clear, but Mitchum was a little inebriated during the business meeting when it came time to put his name on the dotted line. "On their way out, I say I'll see them in San Francisco," he recalled. "I thought they looked [at me] a little funny. Do you know what I did? I signed up for the wrong f*cking movie."
That wrong movie was Going Home (1971), a dark drama redolent with sordid sexual menace. Written by Lawrence B. Marcus, a self-taught radio and screenwriter (his formal education ended in the 8th grade) whose previous claim to fame was the cult favorite Petulia (1968), the film is a father-son reconciliation drama with morbid stakes: Little Jimmy (Jason Bernard) witnessed his father Harry (Mitchum) slit his mother's throat with a broken bottle. Years later, the now adult Jimmy (Jan-Michael Vincent) goes to find Harry for reasons he can't quite articulate. Does he want his father back? Or is he looking for Oedipal revenge?
Director Herbert Leonard, a television producer who'd just moved to motion pictures after producing the Alan Arkin tragicomedy Popi (1969) so believed in this unusual, uncommercial project he agreed to work for a deferred salary. He rounded out the cast with Brenda Vaccaro as Harry's common-law wife (Vaccaro first attracted attention as the rich society lady who was Jon Voight's first paying customer in Midnight Cowboy ) and Jan-Michael Vincent, whose sunny California good looks were then in full bloom, as Harry's son. (A young Sally Kirkland also appears in a bit part.). The movie was shot in McKeesport, PA, suburbs of Pittsburgh, and, most prominently, in Wildwood, NJ, a seedy seaside town whose boardwalk housed the bowling alley and arcade featured in one of the movie's most pivotal scenes.
The famously noncommittal Mitchum always underplayed his own talent, saying that as an actor he had only three expressions, "looking left, looking right and looking straight ahead." But in Going Home, age hasn't dimmed either his sultry, off-kilter good looks (possibly a product of his part-Blackfoot heritage) or his trademark air of laid-back self-confidence. It's easy to see why Jimmy can't make up his mind about his dad when Harry displays both paternal and antisocial behavior, not unlike the character Mitchum played in The Night of The Hunter (1955). In scenes with young Jimmy, Mitchum is attentive and fun, carrying the boy on his shoulders and provoking giggles from the child actor. He's also tender and trustworthy in scenes with Vaccaro, and his lack of vanity in displaying his aging, imperfect body only adds to his enduring sex appeal. But scenes depicting Harry's capacity for violence (including an assault on a car with a lead pipe) are still full of unsettling menace.
Unfortunately, director Leonard's noble gesture of a deferred salary was all for naught when MGM honcho James Aubrey decreed Going Home too long and removed 12 minutes, unceremoniously dumped it into four cities and then pulled the picture from release after one week. Even a lurid poster campaign of Mitchum standing over a prone woman while a child moaned in the background, accompanied by the tagline "His son still wants to see him hang," didn't stimulate any interest from potential ticket buyers. (This poor handling of Going Home's distribution so incensed Leonard that the director bought an ad bemoaning how Aubrey had "unilaterally and arbitrarily raped the picture.") Critical reception was also poor, with Pauline Kael dismissing Going Home as "an empty suspense film that exploits its star for fake humanity." But Roger Ebert hit the nail on the head when he decreed Going Home was "worth seeing primarily for the presence of Robert Mitchum."
Producer: Herbert B. Leonard
Director: Herbert B. Leonard
Screenplay: Lawrence B. Marcus
Cinematography: Fred Jackman
Art Direction: Peter Wooley
Music: Bill Walker
Film Editing: Sigmund Neufeld, Jr.
Cast: Robert Mitchum (Harry K. Graham), Brenda Vaccaro (Jenny Benson), Jan-Michael Vincent (Jimmy Graham), Jason Bernard (Jimmy, age 6), Sally Kirkland (Ann), Joseph Attles (Bible Man), Lou Gilbert (Mr. Katz), Josh Mostel (Mr. Bonelli).
by Violet LeVoit
Ebert, Roger. A Kiss Is Still A Kiss. Andrews, McMeel, and Parker, 1984
Tomkies, Mike. The Robert Mitchum Story: It Sure Beats Working. Ballantine, 1974.
Lawrence B Marcus obituary