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"It's my right to cross any man's fence when I'm hunting."
-- Robert Mitchum, Home from the Hill
Robert Mitchum made an early transition to character roles when he starred in Home from the Hill, a high-pitched 1960 melodrama from director Vincente Minnelli. It hardly marked the end of his days as a leading man -- he still played a rebellious trouble-maker, only this time as a powerful Texas landowner -- but for the first time on screen he would have two grown sons, played by newcomers George Hamilton and George Peppard in roles that marked them both for stardom.
MGM had picked up the rights to William Humphrey's debut novel as a vehicle for Clark Gable, but when the King proved unavailable, they seized on Mitchum as an inspired second choice. The star had just bought a farm in Maryland and was happy to spend his winter shooting in the warmer climes of Hollywood, Mississippi and Texas. He was a bit surprised, however, to find that Minnelli, best known for such sophisticated musicals as An American in Paris (1951) and Gigi (1958), had been assigned to the film. When they arrived at the film's location in Humphrey's hometown of Paris, Texas, Mitchum even quipped to the press that "Minnelli shoots all his pictures in Paris."
But though Minnelli was still best-known at the time for his musicals, Home from the Hill represents another genre in which he would win critical acclaim, particularly in later years -- the melodrama. Like his first picture with Mitchum, Undercurrent (1946), and Some Came Running (1958), the film demonstrated his ability to mine the emotional resonance in tales of tangled family lives. The saga of Capt. Wade Hunnicutt (Mitchum), who finds himself drawn to an unacknowledged illegitimate son (Peppard) after years of estrangement from his wife (Eleanor Parker) and their child (Hamilton), provided him another opportunity for depicting repressed passions that burst forth in often startling acts of violence and betrayal.
Helping greatly with this was the script by husband-and-wife team Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch. The two had already scored a hit with another tale of twisted family life in the South, The Long, Hot Summer (1958), and had a special talent for capturing the cadence of Southern speech. They also made some astute changes in Humphrey's original story -- creating the role of Mitchum's illegitimate son and making his wife a still desirable if bitter woman instead of the aging crone from the book -- that played up the story's conflicts. Minnelli would later call it "One of the few film scripts in which I didn't change a word."
Location shooting started in another landmark of the literary South, William Faulkner's home base in Oxford, Mississippi. From the start, the two younger actors were star struck in Mitchum's presence and turned to him for advice. Peppard, who had studied at the Actor's Studio in New York, was rather shocked, however, when he asked Mitchum if he had studied the Stanislavsky Method, and the star replied, "No, but I've studied the Smirnoff Method." Peppard's highly emotional approach to his work created problems on the first day of shooting. When he couldn't muster the appropriate emotional reaction for a cemetery scene, claiming he needed more time, the actor was told by Minnelli that they were losing the light, and he would have to deliver fast. Peppard told Mitchum he was going to walk off the production, only to have Mitchum warn him, "It'll be a very expensive hike. I'm sure the studio can sue you. I'm certain it will be your last job. Even though you think Minnelli is wrong, do it his way."
Once the production moved back to Hollywood, where electricians rather than nature controlled the light, Peppard had the luxury of more time to prepare for his on-camera performance. He also learned that Minnelli had a few things to teach him about acting. When he complained that his lines in the scene in which he and Hamilton compare notes on their childhood were too self-pitying, Minnelli advised that he play them in a simple straightforward manner. It was one of his most effective scenes in the film.
One of the film's highlights was the hunt for a wild boar during which Hamilton's character tries to prove himself as manly as his father. The scene was actually shot in two different locations, with two different animals. The chase itself was filmed in the sulfurous swamps outside Paris, but because of budget problems, the production had to move back to Hollywood for the hunt's grand finale. Minnelli had the original boar flown in from Texas, only to find it dead the morning of shooting. The wild creature actually had a delicate constitution and had died from the shock of being transported. Instead, they had to use a large pig with tusks attached. Minnelli skillfully shot around him for the first part of the scene, in which the boar holds off Hamilton's hunting dogs. He only showed it at the end, when a healthy dose of tranquilizers created the illusion that Hamilton had killed the beast.
Home from the Hill opened to strong reviews, even winning a slot at the Cannes Film Festival. But although critics praised Mitchum's work, most of the initial reviews said Peppard overshadowed him in what would turn out to be the best performance of the young actor's career. At year's end, however, the film, along with the The Sundowners (also 1960), would become the only one to win Mitchum a major acting award. He was named Best Actor by the National Board of Review (one of the industry's oldest awards-granting organizations), with Peppard receiving their Best Supporting Actor nod. Sadly, neither would receive an Oscar® nomination. In Mitchum's case, it's possible the voters couldn't choose between his two strong performances that year.
Producer: Edmund Grainger, Sol C. Siegel
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Screenplay: Irving Ravetch& Harriet Frank, Jr.
Based on the novel by William Humphrey
Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner
Art Direction: Preston Ames, George W. Davis
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Principal Cast: Robert Mitchum (Capt. Wade Hunnicutt), Eleanor Parker (Hannah Hunnicutt), George Peppard (Raphael "Rafe" Copley), George Hamilton (Theron Hunnicutt), Everett Sloane (Albert Halstead), Luana Patten (Elizabeth "Libby" Halstead), Anne Seymour (Sarah Halstead), Constance Ford (Opal Bixby), Denver Pyle (Mr. Bradley), Dub Taylor (Bob Skaggs), Guinn "Big Boy" Williams (Hugh Macauley).
C-150m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller