Monday, November 11, 2013

Film of the Week: The Search, 1948

Montgomery Clift had considerable success as a young man on Broadway. With his good looks and his subdued, natural performances, he was a refreshing sight to audiences who were becoming disenchanted with the ponderous melodramatic style which had dominated the stage for several years. Clift considered theatrical acting his first love and spoke contemptuously about the cinema amongst his actor friends. He once said disdainfully of Hollywood, “‘I’m not called an actor out there; I’m called a hot property. And a property is only good if it makes money at the box office.” He vociferously insisted—as many in his position do—that he would never go to Hollywood. But, also as many in his position do, he went.

Clift was always very particular about the roles he undertook. He made some excellent choices, but also some tremendous errors. He resigned from the role of Joseph Gillis in 
Sunset Boulevard, he passed on the role in East of Eden which would go to James Dean. He was stubborn and arrogant, but he could afford to be. He was Montgomery Clift.
In only his second film, Clift earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in what some consider his most exciting and natural performance. Clift was enthralled with the character of Ralph “Steve” Stevenson in 1948’s The Search—directed by Fred Zinnemann for Metro. He wasn’t, however, pleased with the script, and made many changes to the dialogue. As one would imagine, this didn’t go over too well on the set. But, given his brilliant performance, objections to his rewrites were silenced. Another source of frustration for all involved was Monty’s habit of locking himself away between takes and huddling studiously with his acting coach and friend, Mira Rostova, who would feed him direction line-by-line. Rostova’s influence was so deep that in later films, she’d remain on-set during shooting so that Montgomery could look to her—instead of the director—for guidance. In fact, during the filming of the 1953 Alfred Hitchcock thriller I Confess, Rostova positioned herself behind a column on the set so that Monty could see her at all times.
Regardless of Clift’s peculiarities (which had in no way reached their climax as of 1948), he delivers an exceptionally tender and moving performance as an American soldier in Germany after the Second World War who happens to find a homeless child. The child is unable to speak, but Clift, as “Steve,” can tell by the tattoo on the boy’s arm that he had been imprisoned in Auschwitz.
Steve begins an intensive search to find out information about the boy whom he calls “Jim” for lack of knowing his real name. Displaced persons—especially children who had been separated from their parents—were epidemic after the war and information was difficult to come by. “Jim” and Steve continue to bond as Steve teaches the boy English, buys him clothes and shoes and begins to act as his father. At one emotionally charged moment, another child asks “Jim” why he’s washing a jeep. Jim (Ivan Jandl) responds, proudly at first, but with an ingenious trace of confusion, “It’s my father’s.”
With his search being fruitless and his affection for the boy rising, Steve must make a decision. He must return to the States. He’s got a job waiting for him. But, he doesn’t wish to leave Jim. To make matters worse, the process of adoption is a lengthy one. Steve vows to bring Jim to the U.S. with him. Steve tells Jim that his mother is dead and that he will take the boy to America. Jim is, at first, relieved, but soon memories of his birth family flood back.
The film is divided into two stories, both of which are united by a documentary-style opening and an emotional convergent closing. In the parallel story, a young woman—Hanna Malik (Jarmila Novotná)—relates how her upper class family was torn apart by the Nazis. Her husband and daughter were deported while she and her son—Karel—were sent to Auschwitz where they were separated. Hanna is told that Karel is dead, but, in her heart she doesn’t want to give up her search for him. Hanna ends up living and working at the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) so that she can continue her search, but also help families in similar situations. On the day she decides to leave and actively seek out Karel once again, Steve is bringing Jim to the UNRRA where the boy must wait for the legalization of his adoption while Steve returns to the U.S.
The film’s conclusion is one of the most touching in film history.

Aside from Clift’s seemingly effortless and natural performance, the film is notable for its excellent supporting cast as well as its chilling use of real German locations which show the devastation left behind by the war. This is a film that is often referenced, but seldom seen. It has such an important place in film history and was such an influence on both directors and actors of many generations that I’m surprised it isn’t broadcast more.

Here’s a clip. Watch as Steve and “Jim” begin to bond. 

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