When I was 13 I bought a pair of purple DM’s, died my hair to match and spent too, too many an idle geography lesson tattooing ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ onto my knuckles with Biro. I think you could say I was trying to be provocative and it could have been worse. Another girl a few years above me used to sew her name in red thread into the skin on her fingertips, so in the greater scheme of teenage ‘fashion’ mistakes and general vile behaviour, I think I escaped quite lightly- well at least I didn’t need a cotton red reminder of my own name.
Most people ignored the four letter words scrawled across my fingers, teachers turned weary blind eyes, I guess grateful that of all the Anglo-Saxon words I could have fit across my knuckles, those were perhaps the mildest. In fact, the only person who ever commented on it was my friends Dad when he picked me up from school on one occasion. His daughter was one of my oldest friends and he always greeted me with a mixture of fondness and bemused hysteria. This time he took one look at me, let out a huge belly laugh and said ‘you think you’re in some kind of gangster film do you Ter-Berg’. The truth was, I had no idea where the love/hate tattoo came from. Previously, I guess I would have attributed it to all the old school punk we used to listen to (I grew up in a small, rural city. You will have to excuse us)but from that point on I kept my eyes peeled throughout black and white mafia films looking at the hands of all the knuckleheads. Still, I never found the origins of the tattoo until one day, root-ling around in the IFI bargain bin in Dublin, I stumbled across a very cheap copy of a black and white film called The Night of the Hunter starring Robert Mitchum as perhaps the most creepy villian I could ever dream of. The film is spectacular…think of a really sinister To Kill a Mockingbird and you are halfway there. I will always remember it however, because Robert Mitchum’s character, the reverend Harry Powell delivers a sermon at one point using his tatooed hands to demonstrate the eternal struggle between good and evil.
This was alleged to be Mitchum’s favorite role and it was undoubtedly an influential one. Jerry Seinfeld, Nick Cave and the Clash are amongst the many who make reference to this character and his bizarrely tattooed hands and perhaps this is why a 13 year old from a quiet English country town adopted it as her own without understanding its origins or its meaning but fully aware of it’s menace. I was after all trying to be menacing (or as menacing as middle class girls who play the violin can be). By the time Charles Laughton filmed The Night of the Hunter in 1955 Mitchum had already carved out a career for himself as a Film-Noir villain and there is always a good dose of darkness in the parts he plays. He looked like a more dangerous version of Kirk Douglas( I loved Sparticus)which is perhaps one of the more superficial reasons for me liking him too. Ranked as one of the greatest american screen actors of all time, Robert Mitchum is the kind of star that tempts people to say ‘well they just don’t make them like that anymore’ and unfortunately, when people say that I have to force myself to be wary. Wariness aside in this case I have to agree. ‘They’ really don’t make actors like Robert Michum any more and you only have to look at his biography to see why. A Hobo at the age of 14, he took work as a professional boxer before being forced to join a chain gang after being caught for vagrancy. Eventually he settled down, married his childhood sweetheart and moved to California where he worked as a ghostwriter for an astrologer. After taking on a job as a machine operator for an aircraft company he met an agent and it was only then that he began a career as an extra in cowboy films. His acting career burgened but he didn’t limit himself to that alone. He is also considered to be a composer, singer and author in his own right.
Mitchum never had any formal training but he did have one hell of a life experience. He was never precious about his acting and never limited himself to that alone, infact he is quoted as having said when interviewed by Barry Norman for the BBC that acting was a very simple job, all he had to do was ”show up on time, know his lines, hit his marks, and go home.” Brilliant stuff, I wish there were more actors like him today.
p.s I happened to stumble across these beauties the other day….for the uninitated, these are oven gloves. You can find them at Magma (below)