The second film Montgomery Clift made ended up being the first one released, and it was as soldier Ralph “Steve” Stevenson that most audiences first saw him. It was a smaller part than the one he’d had in Red River, and he doesn’t appear on screen until half an hour into the movie. However, he received top billing as well as an enormously appealing introduction to the public, portraying a goodhearted guy who takes care of a displaced young concentration camp survivor.
It’s one of his most likeable roles, one devoid of the angst and internal conflict so many of his other characters would embody. Amy Lawrence writes: “In The Search Clift establishes his image as a natural. Sui generis, transparent, Montgomery Clift is a figure of endless promise, seemingly inseparable in manner, tone, and moral character from the character he plays. It is no surprise, then, that The Search sparked many fans’ love for the star.” It was one of the first Clift movies I saw, myself, when I caught it on TCM years ago, and it remains one of my favorites.
The Search tells the story of a young Czech boy named Karel Malik (Ivan Jandl) and of his mother (Jarmila Novotna), who was separated from him at Auschwitz and is wandering from one dislocated persons camp to another in hopes of finding him. The movie was shot on location among Berlin’s bombed out ruins and was clearly influenced by neorealist films by directors like Rossellini and De Sica. The Search has an almost documentary style, and in fact begins with a somewhat melodramatic narration discussing the plight of Europe’s children, one which was added behind director Fred Zinnemann’s back. Even without the narration, viewers would have understood what they were seeing in the sad, terrified, and dull-eyed faces of the children on the screen.
The movie’s plot is a fairly simple one, as the mother looks for her son and the son, memories of his pre-war childhood wiped out by trauma, struggles to remember his past while being cared for by an American soldier. All the performances are wonderful – from Aline MacMahon as Mrs. Murray, the compassionate United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) worker who helps Mrs. Malik find her son, to Wendell Corey as Steve’s army pal and housemate Jerry Fisher, to Jarmila Novotna as Mrs. Malik, who refuses to give up the search even when it seems all hope is lost.
However, the heart and soul of the movie is the bond that forms between Ivan Jandl’s Karel and Montgomery Clift’s Steve, so that’s what I want to focus on. It’s a relationship that could easily have veered into mawkish sentimentality, or into a post-war “Aren’t Americans swell?” piece of propaganda. Instead, and thanks in large part to Monty Clift’s contributions on and off screen, we see something genuine and natural play out, something all the more touching for being realistic and unforced.
When the two first encounter each other, Karel has run away from the UNRRA transport vehicle that was to take him to a special camp where he could receive help. The one friend he had, a French boy, drowned in the river during their escape and he is all alone, his bare feet blistered, his clothes in tatters. Eating lunch in his Jeep, Steve spots Karel walking around in the rubble. The boy is frightened and skittish, ready to dart off at the slightest provocation, but he’s also starving so he doesn’t run away. Steve tosses the boy half his sandwich, which he quickly gobbles down. Steve then leaves the other half of the sandwich on the side of the road. “Nice to have met you, my friend,” he says, driving away.
A moment later he stops and looks behind him at the boy frantically eating. On his face you see that he’s wondering what he should do, then he turns around and drives back. You feel it’s the impulse of the moment – one of those times when you have a second or two to decide what the right thing is, and simply act on your gut. There’s no grand, beneficent gesture here.
Steve chases through the street to catch Karel, lurching after him and struggling to scoop him up in his arms. Panting, he deposits the boy in his Jeep and, holding on to Karel’s torn shirt to keep him from leaping out, drives to the house he shares with fellow soldier Jerry Fisher.
The scene that plays out there is chaotic, with Karel knocking over and breaking a fish tank in his frantic attempts to escape. Goldfish flop on the floor, struggling to survive out of water just as Karel is struggling to survive in yet another new and seemingly hostile environment.
At first Steve and Fisher try to be tough with the boy, holding him down so they can administer first aid to his injured feet. At one point Steve even waves a hypodermic needle at Karel, threatening to use it if he doesn’t calm down, only to feel horrified at what he’s done when he sees the concentration camp tattoo on the boy’s arm.
Steve then unlocks the door and tries to show Karel that he isn’t being kept prisoner and is free to go if he wants to. The boy makes a run for it, but when he realizes the soldiers aren’t going to chase after him he pauses in the street, turns around, and slowly hobbles his way back up the steps and into the house as the two men watch.
You can see the whole sequence below – it’s well worth checking out. Fred Zinneman often told the story that after a screening of The Search, an audience member approached him and asked “Who’s that soldier you got to act?” In this brief nine minute segment you can understand why that might have happened. Photographer Richard Avedon told Monty’s brother Brooks Clift “The first time Monty came on the screen [in The Search] I cried because he was so realistic and honest and I was deeply touched. He seems to be creating a new kind of acting – almost documentary in approach. It has the style of reportage.”
As I mentioned when talking about Red River, there are so many small actions and moments in a Montgomery Clift performance that are such a joy to watch – the loose-limbed way he runs after the boy to catch him, the way he struggles to catch his breath, the little “Phhhht!” sound and arm motion he makes when he wants Karel to scoot over in the jeep. The stricken look on his face when he sees the tattoo on the child’s arm and realizes he’s only terrified him further, and the endearing way he demonstrates that the door really is unlocked. (“So long! Hello!”) Clift once said that he learned from Alfred Lunt that acting is an accumulation of subtle details, carefully selected, and in this short segment alone we see that Monty learned that lesson well.
Later we see Steve teach the boy English while writing a letter to UNRRA in hopes of learning something about who he is and where he came from. Since Karel can’t remember his real name, Steve gives him a new one, Jim. It’s a lovely, funny scene in which you see that young Jim is becoming more comfortable in his new surroundings and is forming a bond with Steve.
“Wait here,” Steve says when he leaves the room to find an envelope. Up pops Jim to follow behind him like a baby duck trailing his mother. The boy munches on bread and butter, his eyes never leaving Steve as he wanders around the room and talks. He smiles when Steve seems especially silly or wound up, and when he gives him a chocolate bar. Here’s a clip. It’s a charming scene, and one that makes me wish Clift had been given more of a chance to do comedy. His timing and delivery are perfect.
Steve continues to teach Jim English, and the two of them grow closer. Steve reluctantly postpones his return trip to America so he’ll have more time to sort out Jim’s status. Once word comes back from UNRRA that the boy’s mother was almost certainly killed by the Nazis, Steve determines to jump through whatever hoops he has to in order to bring him back to the States and raise him.
We see Steve’s increasing attachment to Jim more through actions than words, in the way he surprises him with a pair of new shoes, helps him put on his coat and tie for dinner, and paternally rests his hands on the boy’s shoulders when introducing him to strangers.
When Fisher’s family arrives from America – a pretty wife and a young boy about Jim’s age – Jim’s memory is jogged and he starts to piece things together. He wants to know what a “mother” is. He remembers a fence like the one he’d seen earlier in a photograph. Suddenly he realizes he has a mother, and he runs away into the dark Berlin night to try and locate her.
One of the most beautiful scenes in the movie plays out when Steve, having searched for Jim all night, finds him and must tell him that his mother is dead. Exhausted from his wanderings, Jim sees Steve and runs to hug him. Steve comforts the boy and gently explains.
Steve: Jimmy, I gotta tell you, it’s best that you know. Your mother is dead.
Steve: Yes. Terrible that it should be so, but there isn’t anything you can do about it.
Jim: Then…then I can’t find my mother ever?
Jim: And my mother won’t ever come back?
Steve: No, dear, she won’t. See, if you look for her, you won’t find her. If she were alive, she wouldn’t want you to torture yourself. It’s through you she lives on. Your heart is part of hers, you’re a part of her always. You must know that.
Steve’s “no, dear” gets me in the heart every time! It’s a quiet, tender, and very honest scene, one Clift worked over and revised, as he did all his scenes in The Search. Without his input – cutting down any wordiness, toning down what he called the “Boy Scout” nature of his character as originally written, and injecting more realism – the film wouldn’t have had the impact it did.
Official credit for the screenplay went to Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler, with additional dialog by Paul Jarico. However, Clift’s contribution was integral in making his dialogue sound more spontaneous and in making his character less “goody-goody.” He told his friend Kevin McCarthy that the original version of the script was “like The Yearling with sugar added.” Monty’s changes made the film better and added a freshness and honesty that wasn’t there before, but David Wechsler was so unhappy about what the actor had done to his words that he threatened legal action.
“The last day an orgy of hate,” Monty wrote McCarthy when the movie wrapped. “After dubbing, I picked up the stillettoes off my back and went to the hotel. There awaited two letters from Wechsler…I better get to the border quick.” Weschsler and Schweizer would win an Academy Award for the screenplay Montgomery Clift had done so much to improve.
Even before shooting began, Monty was thinking about his character and suggesting changes to better the part. This excerpt from a letter he wrote to Fred Zinnemann about six weeks before filming started gives an interesting look into his thought processes as he prepared for the role.
Now – the film: I like it very much. Very much indeed. I look forward to what I shall read next.
The part: I’m perfectly happy with its size. A part built up might tend to deviate from the truth and then how should I play it? My being starred does not necessitate a bigger part in my mind. It is certainly the story of the mother and the boy and I think it would be dangerous for your sakes to alter this.
There is one place in the film that does disturb me…After Stevenson makes up his mind to stay and help the boy. I get the feeling of a kind of outward nobility. Somehow this spontaneous nobility is not very interesting. If one goes ahead and does whatever presents itself from day to day – this can be noble but only in retrospect. It’s the “volunteering” to stay and help that I object to in Stevenson…
He should long to go home, but – he’s brought this kid on himself (he obviously likes him) and when his friend points out he’s the only one who can help the boy – he stays – protesting – but he still stays.
Does this give some idea of what I mean? I don’t want Steve to anticipate the help he is going to be to the boy. If he does what he should do reluctantly – it widens the scope of the part – allows whole avenues of humour. This would be a great delight to act. If Stevenson teaches the boy English because he should – then finds himself intrigued against his will…well – this would be a fine relationship.
Mostly the end result would be to get away from doing “good” things for “good” reasons – which in a man is not very intriguing.
As with his preparation for Red River, to get ready to film The Search Monty immersed himself in the environment and activities of the type of character he was to play. Upon arrival in Europe before the shoot, he lived in an army engineer’s unit and dressed in fatigues. “He was particularly interested in developing a soldier’s gait,” writes Patricia Bosworth. “He believed that character could be defined by how a person moved.”
Monty also familiarized himself with the horrors European war survivors, in particular children, had lived through. He and Fred Zinnemann toured U.N. Relief and Rehabilitation camps like the one that would be featured in the film, meeting the Jewish children there. “Their dry-eyed little faces were gray with grief,” he later told a friend. Monty watched German movies filmed in concentration camps and found himself unable to sit through more than an hour without running from the screening room and vomiting.
Ivan Jandl, the Czech boy who played Karel/Jim, didn’t speak English and learned his dialogue by rote. Monty worked with him patiently, cueing him on his lines and guiding him in his performance. Monty had a good rapport with children. Amy Lawrence writes: “A former child actor himself (or at least a young adolescent), Clift was secure enough in his technique not to be intimidated by the unpredictability of young costars and welcomed the chance to ad-lib as the occasion warranted.”
The 21st Annual Academy Awards recognized Jandl with the Juvenile Award, honoring him for “the outstanding juvenile performance of 1948.” The boy would not be the last fellow actor Monty coached to an Academy Award. Frank Sinatra would later give his From Here to Eternity co-star a great deal of the credit for making his own award-winning performance possible.
Montgomery Clift was himself nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his role in The Search, and despite the dispute between himself and screenwriter Wechsler and the resultant “orgy of hate” Monty wrote about, he always considered the experience of making the film one of the most creatively fulfilling of his life.
Patricia Bosworth writes: “It was obvious to everyone attending the rushes, including Weschsler, that Monty was responsible for a startlingly original contribution to The Search.”
“His scenes bristled with life,” Fred Zinnemann said. “And he filled the screen with reverberations above and beyond the movie itself.”
Montgomery Clift by Patricia Bosworth, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978
The Films of Montgomery Clift by Judith M. Kass, Citadel Press, 1979
The Passion of Montgomery Clift by Amy Lawrence, University of California Press, 2010
Fred Zinnemann: Films of Character and Conscience by Neil Sinyard, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003