April 30, 2016

Montgomery Clift, The Search


When you watch Montgomery Clift in The Search, there’s an immediate sense that something is off about him. He’s not normal, at least...not so in the Golden Hollywood sense. His face, smoldering in its God-given beauty, is distorted in peculiar ways as he expresses his reactions to the people and scenarios around him. He doesn’t sound rehearsed, almost recklessly so, as he fills the space with mumbled, ad-libbed lines. In other words, he’s a revelation, a breath of fresh air and a bookmark of a new style of acting that would be further popularized in the next decade. 

On paper, this isn't the most complicated role, especially when compared to the one that won Best Actor that year. At this point, I've lost count how many times I've seen an actor play a mentor-like figure to a child. But Clift is such an interesting presence, so refreshing in his peculiarities, such that he commands attention in The Search with an inexplicable ease. He stands out like a sore thumb in the film - after a really hokey introduction, and with more old-school actors like Aline MacMahon to contrast Clift to, he is one of the most effortlessly watchable elements of The Search. So when Clift plays to this exhausted archetype, it's not so much something I've seen before again and again -- because he fleshes out a character that is so compelling and magnetic in spite of how plain Steve technically is. It's bizarre, because I wasn't expecting this performance to work, or at least make me feel as much as I did. Here you've got a young, energetic man of bachelor age, supposedly changed by the entry of a little boy in his life. Too often have I seen this types of mentor figures being played by Monty Woolleys or Bing Crosbys or Greer Garsons, but never anyone with matinée idol looks. And yet Clift completely and wholly showcases care and compassion in his scenes with Ivan Jandl, his monologues that he shares with Jandl, from the one in which he teaches "Jim" English words to the one where he talks about Jim's mother, are excellently crafted with paternal zeal. And it's a maturity and style of acting that transcends Clift's own age. But I feel like my appreciation for this performance is rooted in more than just this being a "Star is Born" moment for Clift -- it's an appreciation for his talent that deviates away from the usual sorts of performances we see, and it's a supreme appreciation for how much he does with so little. I could watch his parts in this film over and over.


  1. This performance completely surprised me when I finally saw it last year. I had seen Clift in "The Heiress", "A Place in the Sun", "From Here to Eternity", "The Misfits" and "Judgment at Nuremberg" to name a few. My favorite performance of his is on that list, yet what they all seem to share is a neurotic angst in which life is wearing him down.

    What a shock to see his naturalistic, centered and sensitive portrayal of a normal guy. I just didn't expect it. He shows range but also great sensitivity here and the performance is focused and restrained. It's depth without theatrics.

    The film itself appears almost like a documentary and that immediacy makes it so powerful. I think this is one of Clift's best performances and began pointing the way to the 'Method acting' era of American film, where honesty of emotion and psychology replaced star power and charisma (although not really ... both styles rely on stars and charisma).

  2. I haven't seen this performance yet, but I really love Montgomery Clift.

    1. I haven't seen very many of his performances, but I think I may very well end up loving him as well!

  3. I haven't seen him either but if you like his acting, you will love his next two nominated performances.