Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Montgomery Clift: A Career Appreciation

Montgomery Clift is my favorite performer to ever appear in film. He had a magnetism to him, a pain and vulnerability that still pours out of the screen. In 1948, most all American leading men were stuck in the alpha-male, tough guy persona. They delivered their lines stoically, they slapped their women, they robbed, they killed, they were “men.” And then a quiet, assertive young man from Omaha, Nebraska graced the screen for the first time, and film acting was never the same.

That year, Montgomery Clift appeared in Fred Zinnemann’s The Search, and Clift was simply... human. He played his character as kind, supportive, mildly sarcastic, and vulnerable. With this performance and subsequent roles, Clift pioneered the “method” style of acting, which completely changed the art form. It was an acting style that let men be real people, in all their flaws and sadness. Clift’s acting style helped inform Marlon Brando’s craft, which helped inform James Dean, then Paul Newman, Pacino, De Niro, Keitel, Nicholson, and on and on. Because of this, I’ve always considered Montgomery Clift one of the most important figures in cinema history. His acting influence is damn near without equal.

Clift always put material first, even to his detriment. He was the first major actor to ignore the studio system, choosing instead to pick his own roles, as opposed to having a studio pick them for him. Clift always insisted on autonomy in his performances, including changing his dialogue and having an acting coach direct him on set. He was thorough, meticulous, and exacting. And he was also a complete fucking mess.

Of course, one cannot talk about Montgomery Clift without noting the tragedy that followed him through most of his life. It’s hard to trace exactly where Clift’s demons came from. Many suspect it was because he was bisexual and feared that coming out would ruin his career. Whatever the reasons were, Clift sunk into a life of heavy drinking and drug use, often delaying production on his films so he could get himself together. After his nearly fatal car accident in 1956 outside of Elizabeth Taylor’s house, many suggest that Clift spent the next decade dying by suicide in slow motion. When he did eventually pass away in 1966 at 45, the world lost one of its all-time great tortured geniuses.

I’ve been wanting to write this post since I started this blog 13 years ago. To prepare for it, I have spent the past month watching Montgomery Clift’s entire filmography (he was only in 17 films) in order, tracing all the wonderful yet tragic steps of his career. I hope you enjoy the read and find some new amazing films to watch. If nothing else, I promise they all feature at least one incredible performer.

The Search (1948)
as Ralph Stevenson
I believe The Search is the earliest movie I’ve seen that uses the horrors of the Holocaust as its setting. It is definitely the earliest movie I’ve seen in which an electric razor is used, and it is absolutely the earliest movie I’ve seen that features such a vulnerable, sarcastic, real performance from an American actor. To explain, there’s a scene midway through The Search where Montgomery Clift licks an envelope to seal it shut. After he licks the envelope, he looks down and lets out the slightest “blech” sound of disgust. That is a gesture that I have seen dozens of people make in real life, but I have never once seen that in a movie before, let alone a movie made in 1948. What Clift did with this performance was single handedly usher in a new era of film acting. An era in which men could be soft, vulnerable, compassionate, emotionally tormented and confused. Men who could be real.

Historically, I’ve seen Marlon Brando get the credit for fostering this type of acting. And he was followed shortly by James Dean as Hollywood’s leading tormented man. But when you take in the full context of performances from this era, I believe this monumental shift in male screen acting started with Montgomery Clift.

The movie itself is about a mother and son who are split up in Auschwitz. They both survive but cannot find each other in post-war Germany. Clift doesn’t even show up until 35 minutes into the movie, and when he does, he isn’t given a grand introduction like, say, John Wayne in Stagecoach. Instead, Montgomery Clift’s first scene in a movie is him casually eating a sandwich in his Jeep. He’s just sitting there, being natural, waiting. Waiting to introduce himself to us not with a scream, but with a much needed whisper. Movie: A+, Clift: A+

Red River (1948)
as Matt Garth
Howard Hawks’ Red River is one of the finest westerns ever made. It’s a towering achievement with thrilling set pieces (How the hell did they pull off a massive cattle stampede?), John Wayne playing the protagonist-turned-antagonist, and a beautifully restrained Montgomery Clift. The film is about a once-successful cattle rancher (Wayne) who is forced to move more than ten thousand cattle from Texas to Missouri because of diminishing sales. His right-hand man is his adopted son (Clift), who has a fast gun and a mostly even temper. The two men work well together on their journey until the pressures of the job force them to square off.

A few interesting things to note here. Red River was actually Montgomery Clift’s first movie role, but because the film spent more than a year in post-production, The Search was released first. Noting that, the innocence Clift has in The Search started with his performance in Red River. In my research, I discovered that Clift was nervous to work with such a commanding figure as Wayne, so Hawks advised Clift to not compete with Wayne, and instead underplay his performance. The result is a dichotomy that probably shouldn’t work (Wayne and Clift could not be more different, both personally and professionally), but ends up working really well. Their chemistry, along with the as-mentioned set pieces, Wayne’s revelatory dramatic work, and Clift’s playful sexual tension with John Ireland (as gunman Cherry Valance), make Red River a necessary watch. Movie: A+, Clift: A+

The Heiress (1949)
as Morris Townsend
First and foremost, William Wyler’s The Heiress is Olivia de Havilland’s show. She justly won her second Oscar for her work as Catherine, a well-to-do but timid young woman who finally meets a warm suitor in Morris (Clift). Catherine is na├»ve and rich, a dangerous combination to her emotional venomous father, who is weary of Morris because he believes Morris only wants Catherine for her fortune.

While Clift’s role is a decidedly supporting one, it’s a lot of fun watching him toe the moral gray lines of his character. Clift is so good at never revealing his hand; we genuinely don’t know if Morris loves Catherine, or just loves her money. And what a joy it is to watch Clift play buttoned-up and proper, all while a brooding intensity storms underneath. As mentioned, The Heiress belongs to Olivia de Havilland, and though the movie runs long, she and Clift are on fire together, resulting in a true bruiser of an ending that I did not expect. Some of these older movies really knew how to cut deep with those words, “The end.” Movie: B+, Clift: A-

The Big Lift (1950)
as Danny MacCullough
The Big Lift is the type of movie that takes too much on, and never really delivers on any of it. At its core, the film is about two Air Force pilots, Danny and Hank (Clift and Paul Douglas, respectively), dropping supplies into West Berlin during the Berlin Airlift. The film juggles many unfocused subplots, including life in post-war Germany, former POWs unable to adapt, mistaken identity, and a war-torn romance between Danny and a German widow.

Most interestingly, Clift was supposed to play the lead in Sunset Boulevard but dropped out shortly before filming began. In the time he had before he shot A Place in the Sun, Clift took on this role in The Big Lift. That context is especially important here, as Clift was known for meticulously researching his roles. But his Danny in The Big Lift feels rushed, and Clift seems uninterested in the material, which is not a characteristic I would normally attribute to his acting.

The aerial photography in the film is compelling for its time, but not enough to sustain the entire movie. And while I appreciate the film’s setting and cast (it was filmed in post-war Germany and exclusively featured real life military personnel playing supporting roles), I wish it would’ve focused on just one or two stories, as opposed to taking so much on. Movie: C, Clift: C+

A Place in the Sun (1951)
as George Eastman
The game changers are always the hardest to write about. I could fill 10 pages with the importance of A Place in the Sun. So important was this film to cinema, to acting, to censorship. So important was this film to my personal life; it helped inform my overall opinion on all of film. The plot of the movie is easy to describe. Its impact, however, can never have a period. A hardworking, well-intentioned poor kid, George Eastman (Clift), lands an entry-level job at his rich uncle’s factory. George works his way up through the professional and societal ranks, earning more responsibility at work, and learning how to blend in with his wealthy relatives. George begins a relationship with Alice (Shelley Winters), a kind, quiet woman he works with. Their relationship is emotionally rich and simple. If only that were enough. Concurrently, George falls for Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), a rich, outspoken family friend who falls in love with George, despite his lack of wealth. And so George is split—choose the safe, poor life with Alice, or the potentially lavish life with Angela.

I’ll never forget the first time I watched this movie. I was 15 years old, my parents had just split up, and I was staying at my dad’s place for the night. When deciding what to watch that evening, my dad held up his copy of A Place in the Sun and said that despite it being 50 years old, he thought I would really like it. He was correct. For the next two hours, I was completely transported as a new chapter of my movie-obsessed world was introduced before my very eyes. I had been in love with movies since cognitive thought (not an exaggeration), and I had seen plenty of old movies before, but I had never seen an old movie that felt as contemporary as a modern film. Nothing in A Place in the Sun felt dated. The pain, turmoil, flaws and sacrifice in the film were themes I had seen in cinema, but not in this early of a film. I honestly could not believe that a movie made in 1951 got away with everything A Place in the Sun got away with.

A Place in the Sun started my obsession with older films, and it introduced a new love in my life, the acting craft of Montgomery Clift. I couldn’t take my eyes off George Eastman. His earnestness, his flaws, his pain—what a truly tormented character. The anguish in Shelley Winters’ voice was just so heartbreaking, and Elizabeth Taylor’s Angela Vickers was so damn believable. It’s been reported that Clift and Taylor were genuine soulmates. While likely not romantically involved, they loved each other dearly, and that comes through in every second they share here.

Recently, I realized that A Place in the Sun had snuck into my top 10 films of all time. And as George Eastman, Montgomery Clift could, perhaps, give my very favorite screen performance. And for that, all I can think to say is: Thanks, dad. Movie: A+, Clift: A+

I Confess (1953)
as Father Michael Logan
It pains me to admit that I Confess is one of the most disappointing films on this list. On paper, it seems like the film should have worked so well. You have near-peak Alfred Hitchcock (he was coming off Notorious and Strangers on a Train, and about to make Rear Window). You have peak Clift, performing between his two most famous roles (A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity). You have a morally complex plot, and fine performances from Anne Baxter and Karl Malden, but ultimately, the movie does not come together. To be clear, I Confess isn’t a bad film, it’s just a weak Hitchcock movie.

Clift plays Father Logan, a noble priest who listens to his caretaker confess to killing a man. When the police question Father Logan about the murder, he refuses to give them any information, as it would break the vow of confession. But because of his silence, the police assume Father Logan is the murderer. And round and round Hitchcock goes.

That plot has the makings of a fine Hitchcock thriller, but it’s clear early on that I Confess can’t find its footing. The movie is 91 minutes long but feels much longer, and Clift seems somewhat absent. Apparently, there was a lot of tension behind the scenes of I Confess, namely with Hitch being unable to work with Clift’s method style of acting. Clift and Hitch each had huge personalities, and polar opposite approaches to telling a story. They didn’t align fully, and the film suffered as a result. Movie: B-, Clift: B

Terminal Station aka Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953)
as Giovanni Doria
Similar to I Confess, Terminal Station is often regarded as a mediocre film that could’ve been great. But much to my surprise, I loved Terminal Station and think it’s a somewhat hidden mini masterpiece, despite its clear flaws. Mary (Jennifer Jones) is a married American who has recently indulged in an affair with an Italian teacher, Giovanni (Clift), in Rome. As Mary prepares to board a train back to her family, Giovanni shows up at the station and convinces her to stay awhile. What unfolds is really interesting, as director Vittorio De Sica (fresh off The Bicycle Thieves) goes to great lengths to ensure that Terminal Station is told in legitimate real time. Mary has about 90 minutes to catch the next train to Paris, and that is precisely how long the total narrative of Terminal Station lasts.

I’m a huge sucker for movies that take place in real time. I think it’s a challenging gimmick that, if done right, can have thrilling results. And while Terminal Station appears to be remembered for its flaws, I found the film to be a great exercise in narrative restraint, thanks in part to Clift and Jones’ dedicated and believable performances.

Now for the drama. Famed Hollywood producer, David O. Selznick, created the film as a star vehicle for his wife, Jennifer Jones. But Selznick and De Sica did not get on well. Selznick would send De Sica mountains of notes, and De Sica would just ignore them, as he didn’t speak English. De Sica eventually delivered his 89-minute film, Terminal Station, and Selznick was so unsatisfied with it, that he cut 26 minutes from it without De Sica’s input and released the 63-minute version in the states with the title, Indiscretion of an American Wife. The bastardized version is currently available on Amazon Prime, but I implore you to seek out the De Sica’s intended cut. Not all the material holds up well (Clift plays a misogynistic asshole), but damn if I didn’t appreciate the hell out of this movie. I watched both versions back to back and then rewatched the longer cut the following day. It may not be the most polished film, but Terminal Station works far better than people remember. Movie: A-, Clift: A-

From Here to Eternity (1953)
as Private Robert E. Lee “Prew” Prewitt
Every movie freak has the eat your vegetable movies to get through. The “classics” that we’re told we must see. When I was a teenager, I figured one of the best ways to mitigate this would be to spend a summer watching every movie that had won the Best Picture Oscar. From Here to Eternity was one of the greatest surprises that summer. I had foolishly judged a book by its cover and was thrilled when I realized the movie was the classic I always heard it was.

Clift plays Private Robert E. Lee “Prew” Prewitt, a considerate soldier who transfers to a base in Hawaii on the heels of World War II. It is well known that Prew is an exceptional boxer, and commanding officers want Prew to take part in an upcoming boxing tournament. Prew refuses, having turned his back on boxing, and he is mercilessly bullied by men in his company as a result. Prew befriends alpha-male First Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster) and likable Private Maggio (Frank Sinatra), all while the impending dangers of December 7, 1941 loom in the background.

From Here to Eternity is a great film, and Clift is great in it. He’s young, fresh, and determined. Besides being an ex-fighter, Prew is an ace bugler who uses his music skills twice to great effect—first in a bar to gain respect from his men, and second in a moment of tear-stained remembrance.

Many have speculated that Lancaster and Clift canceled themselves out for the Best Actor Oscar that year (they were both nominated, but William Holden won for his Stalag 17 performance). And while both men are great in the film, Lancaster is still doing the tough guy macho thing that dominated male screen acting for decades, whereas Montgomery Clift is playing a real human being. One method isn’t right and the other isn’t wrong, but I’ll take Clift’s craft over just about everything else. Movie: A+, Clift: A+

Raintree County (1957)
as John Wickliff Shawnessy
Clift in Raintree County, before the accident
Raintree County is a film that will always be marred in infamy. On May 12, 1956, while filming Raintree County, Clift attended a party thrown by his good friend and co-star, Elizabeth Taylor. Clift was tired and hungover and left the party early. Shortly after leaving Taylor’s Beverly Hills home, Clift fell asleep at the wheel and his car slammed into a telephone pole, nearly killing him.

Clift lived that night, but his life was not the same. His face required extensive surgery, which, by 1956 standards, looked pretty remarkable, but evidence of the accident was clear. Clift’s cheeks were swollen, and his face looked noticeably older, but the real proof was in his eyes. His eyes that were once filled with so much innocence and vulnerability were now sunken and hollow.
Clift (with Elizabeth Taylor) in Raintree County, after the accident
Clift had already filmed more than half of his scenes for Raintree County, and MGM, realizing it would be more expensive to recast and reshoot Clift’s scenes, waited two months for Clift to recover and resume filming. Noting all this, I’m almost ashamed to admit that watching Raintree County becomes a cruel guessing game of Clift’s health. Was this scene pre or post-accident? Oh wow, his face looks so swollen there. And truthfully, the physical toll of the accident wasn’t apparent right away. That transformation became clearer within a few years, as Clift drowned himself in alcohol and drugs.

As for the film itself, Raintree County is a weak Gone with the Wind knockoff that runs too long and doesn’t do its great cast justice. However, the movie is a Technicolor marvel to look at (Clift’s pre-accident scenes are the only time Clift appeared in a color motion picture before his accident), and early in the film, Clift has a playfulness that he hadn’t displayed since The Search. While Raintree County is far from the best film on this list, it was genuinely exciting to see Clift having a little fun again. If ever so briefly. Movie: C+, Clift: B

The Young Lions (1958)
as Noah Ackerman
The Young Lions is a mediocre film that contains a perfect Montgomery Clift performance. Of his work in the film, Clift famously said, “Noah from The Young Lions was the best performance of my life. I couldn’t have given more of myself. I’ll never be able to do it again. Never.” Clift maintained that position until he died, hailing his work in The Young Lions and Judgement at Nuremberg as the two best performances of his career.

The Young Lions follows three characters simultaneously: Marlon Brando as a bleach-blonde Nazi with a heart of gold (he has a stereotypical German accent and everything), Dean Martin as a Broadway star who enlists in WWII, and Montgomery Clift as an emotionally tortured Jewish man who also enlists. The Clift and Martin characters intersect occasionally (though Martin’s story is far less interesting), while Brando’s story feels like it should be in an entirely different movie. What’s the overall purpose of this character? To show that not all Nazis are bad? This sympathetic Nazi character must have been a bold choice for 1958, and it is one that has not aged well. We’ve seen the caring Nazi as a sub character (notably in Le Silence de la mer and The Pianist), but putting him front and center, even if he’s played by someone as charming as Marlon Brando, is off-putting. However, I appreciate the film showing the horrors that incurred inside a concentration camp, even if censors insured that these scenes from The Young Lions were surface level. But in 1958, this is what the world needed to be talking about, and maybe movies like The Young Lions helped.

If the film is worth seeing now, it is surely because of Clift’s fearless performance. It feels like Noah is an aged and older version of Prew from From Here to Eternity. Both men are kind solders who can fight and are bullied mercilessly by men in their companies. But watching The Young Lions, one does not forget the scene in which Clift hesitantly beats one of his aggressors to the ground, screaming, “Don’t fall! Don’t fall!” with every passing punch. Noah is a performance of complete immersion; with Clift’s demons manifesting themselves in the most profound way on screen. Movie: B-, Clift: A+

Lonelyhearts (1958)
as Adam White
The only remotely negative thing I can say about Vincent J. Donehue’s Lonelyhearts is that it is damn near impossible to find. The film was adapted from a stage play; it’s long sequences of complex verbal warfare never feel stuffy, and its dedicated cast never backs down. This movie is so damn hard to find that it is just begging for the Criterion Collection treatment. If only.

Adam White (Clift) is desperate to write for the Chronicle newspaper, so much so that he stalks a popular nightspot where many Chronicle staff hang out. At that bar, Adam impresses the Chronicle’s Editor-in-Chief, William Shrike (Robert Ryan), who hires Adam to write the advice column, Miss Lonelyhearts. Adam isn’t exactly keen to write for the column, he finds the assignment cheap and below him, but he soon starts taking his work seriously.

Clift is on fire in this film. His gestures, mannerisms, and way of speaking were so singular to his talent; he has a grace and intensity that a young Daniel Day-Lewis must have been influenced by. Ryan proves to be a great antagonist for Clift, his character is a ceaselessly talking, tirelessly cynical blowhard, and it is such a thrill to watch Clift and Ryan spar together. It’s unfortunate that this movie is so hard to track down because it contains a great, unseen Montgomery Clift performance. Movie: A, Clift: A

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
as Dr. Cukrowicz
What’s most interesting about Suddenly, Last Summer is that Clift plays the straight man to Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, who respectively give two of the most unhinged performances of their careers. Violet Venable (Hepburn) is a wealthy woman who believes that her emotionally tortured niece, Catherine (Taylor), would benefit from a lobotomy by the famed Dr. Cukrowicz (Clift). Violet maintains that Catherine has been suffering from a breakdown since the death of Violet’s son/Catherine’s cousin, Sebastian, and that a lobotomy is the only way to help her. But because the procedure is so final, Cukrowicz wonders if Violet is attempting to erase some damaging evidence about Sebastian from Catherine’s mind.

Hepburn and Taylor are all in here. They’re better than the movie, which runs too long and makes us endure each of its 114 minutes. Taylor is especially transfixing; her Catherine is lost, manic, desperate for a cigarette. Watching her scenes with Clift always proves to be a joy. The two so clearly loved each other (platonically, by most accounts), and the respect they had for each other’s talents is so evident on screen. The way these two used to occupy a room together is something that is rarely matched on screen today. You just don’t see natural chemistry like this anymore.

My initial take on Clift’s performance here was that he looked alert, sober, and happy to take on the challenging material. He seemed excited to play opposite Hepburn, and eager to act with Taylor again. But Clift was suffering badly during the making of this film. His addiction was swallowing him whole, and he was often late to set and unable to memorize his lines, which infuriated director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Taylor used her clout to demand that the studio hire Clift for the part, and Hepburn got so defensive of Clift while making the film, that she spit in Mankiewicz’s face as soon as the movie wrapped. All told, Cukrowicz is a restrained character by design, and Clift seems game to step aside and let the women shine brightest. Movie: B-, Clift: B+ (Hepburn and Taylor: A+)

Wild River (1960)
as Chuck Glover
It’s Garthville, Tennessee circa the 1930s and in a few short weeks, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) will open its new dam, flooding much of Garthville’s shoreline around the Tennessee River. TVA has purchased most of this land already, but the lone holdout is an elderly woman name Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet), who refuses to sell her small island—Garth Island—which her family has owned for decades. To convince Ella to sell her land, TVA sends in Chuck Glover (Clift), an understated working stiff who genuinely wants to please his bosses, without causing disruption in Ella’s life.

You know that sequence in There Will Be Blood where Daniel Plainview has to convince William Bandy to sell the Bandy land so that Plainview can have his oil pipeline? Stretch that sequence out for an entire film, and you’re close to Elia Kazan’s Wild River. The main difference is that Chuck enters Garthville as a Washington D.C. stooge with a political assignment, and slowly becomes empathetic to Ella’s plight, thanks much in part to Ella’s granddaughter, Carol (Lee Remick), who catches Chuck’s eye.

Wild River looks stunning in color CinemaScope, and was clearly made by a master. The film is classically constructed and acted to perfection. It’s a simple story, but every component of the story is told beautifully and without flaw. Clift is great here, infusing some of his playfulness into the role, and ultimately playing Chuck as relaxed and understanding. It’s a nice change of pace from the brooding intensity found in so many Clift characters.

There’s another aspect of Wild River that deserves mention. I couldn’t help but notice how unabashedly progressive this film was, especially racially. (Chuck routinely makes a strong case that every working man deserves the same wage, regardless of the color of their skin.) I wondered if Kazan hammered these liberal points home to save face for his controversial testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities a few years earlier. Whatever the reasoning, it’s great to watch such a well-made film, and see how it influenced works like In the Heat of the Night, Deliverance, There Will Be Blood, and countless others. Movie: A+, Clift: A+

The Misfits (1961)
as Perce Howland
One of the best scenes of Clift’s career is his first scene in John Huston’s The Misfits. This scene takes place 45 minutes into the movie (Clift is a supporting player in the film), and features Clift’s character, Perce Howland, talking on a payphone to his mother. The scene lasts for only two minutes, but it is a masterclass in Clift’s acting strengths. Describing a rodeo accident Perce was in, Perce says to his mom, “Oh no, my face is fine, it’s all healed up. Just as good as new. You would to recognize me.” Just watching the way Clift plays this scene, rubbing his face as if to convince himself that it’s still there, one has to imagine that Clift is talking about himself.

The Misfits is a damn near perfect revisionist western about an aging cowboy, Gay (Clarke Cable, who died before the film was release), who falls for a recently divorced woman, Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe, who died a year after the film was released). The two shack up in an old house owned by Gay’s friend, Guido (Eli Wallach), who has his eyes on Roslyn as well. Perce (Clift) shows up later to accompany the group on their homely adventures.

The Misfits is a simple tale about a few people who are tired, drunk, and probably on the tail end of their lives, despite being so young. Mostly, the movie is Gable and Monroe’s show. It was the last full movie they were both in, and it’s impossible to watch the film now without feeling nostalgic. Another great scene is when Clift and Monroe share an extended moment together, with Clift resting his head in Monroe’s lap. The scene feels natural and special. Because of this scene, Clift reportedly said that Monroe was the best actress he ever worked with, while she famously said that Clift was, “The only person I know who is in even worse shape than I am.”

Perce is Clift at his most pleasantly understated. For a great Monty Clift double feature, watch Red River and The Misfits back-to-back. Two acclaimed westerns—one traditional, one revisionist—containing two discreet Clift performances at the book ends of his career. Movie: A+, Clift: A+

Judgement at Nuremberg (1961)
as Rudolph Peterson
If there is a single scene that best represents Montgomery Clift’s strength as an actor, and torment as a human being, it is his scene in Judgement at Nuremberg. An hour into the film, Clift shows up for 20 consecutive minutes, and delivers a monologue of haunting power. It’s a deliriously tortured performance, as if Clift is almost possessed by anger and fear.

During the Nuremberg trials, Rudolph Peterson is called as a witness to describe his experience of being sterilized by the Nazis. As he retells the story, Clift frantically bounces back and forth within Rudolph, giving Rudolph a strange sense of detachment in recalling the events, and other times making it seem like Rudolph is reliving the pain of the experience all over again.

During these 20 minutes, Clift seems scared, drunk, and lost, which mirrored how he was during filming. Director Stanley Kramer originally offered Clift the bigger part of Col. Tad Lawson (played well by Richard Widmark in the film), but Clift thought Lawson was too dry, and he asked to play Rudolph instead. And because Clift was not needed on set for many days, he decided to not dry out from booze and pills (as he usually did before a shoot) and instead play Rudolph as Clift’s natural, fucked up self. Clift was in such bad shape when they shot, that he couldn’t even remember his lines, so Kramer told him to make them all up, which Clift did. And while it’s difficult to watch the pain that it took to fulfill this performance, there’s no denying that this is one of Clift’s crowning achievements.

Clift was nominated for four Oscars in his life: Best Actor for The Search (lost to Laurence Olivier in Hamlet), Best Actor for A Place in the Sun (lost to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, a criminal Oscar mistake), Best Actor for From Here to Eternity (lost to William Holden in Stalag 17), and Best Supporting Actor for Judgement at Nuremberg (lost to George Chakiris in West Side Story). Clift had strong competition in his Best Actor years, but there is no compelling reason for him losing to Chakiris. Clift said that his performances in The Young Lions and Judgement at Nuremberg were the best of his career, and it would’ve been magical to see this performance awarded appropriately. Movie: A-, Clift: A+

Freud: The Secret Passion (1962)
as Sigmund Freud
More so than perhaps any film on this list, John Huston’s Freud is a movie that should have worked on most every level, but simply does not. The film traces Sigmund Freud’s life for a few years in the late 1800s, as he was trying to prove that mental hysteria is real and can be treated. But the movie is too slow, too misguided, too faux experimental to resonate. Clift gives an at-times wonderfully frenzied performance, but the movie doesn’t give Clift much more to do beyond sitting in a chair and talking at length about complex psychological concepts.

Monty Clift as the father of psychoanalysis could have completely rejuvenated Clift’s career, but instead, it helped tank it. Clift was in such bad shape during the making the film (the drink, the drugs) that Universal sued him for causing so many production delays. Additionally, Huston, who became a father figure to Clift on the set of The Misfits, started treating Clift poorly on the Freud set. This resulted in a difficult shoot, but Clift had a plan. He was so confident in his performance as Freud, that he assumed the movie would be a hit, he’d win the Best Actor Oscar for his work, and then the studio wouldn’t have any grounds to sue him.

And, minus the Oscar win (Clift wasn’t nominated), that’s exactly what happened. Freud was well received by critics and was a box office success, so Universal dropped the lawsuit. But while Clift did win that battle, he could never find his footing as an actor again. Movie: C, Clift: B

The Defector (1966)
as Professor James Bower
Montgomery Clift’s reputation took such a hit after his Freud antics, that he could not find acting work for nearly four years. It was during this time that Clift’s demons all but consumed him. Thankfully, Clift had a champion in Elizabeth Taylor, who vouched for him financially and insisted that he star alongside her in John Huston’s upcoming film, Reflections in a Golden Eye. The deal was inked, but before shooting on that film began, Clift thought he needed a warm-up performance to get back into it. And so represents Montgomery Clift’s performance in The Defector, which would ultimately be his last screen role, as he would die one month after filming wrapped.

The movie is a rough-around-the-edges Russian spy thriller that casts Clift as James Bower, an American professor forced to help the CIA get secret microfilm. The Defector is an otherwise carbon-copy spy thriller, notable for no reason other than it stars Montgomery Clift in his final screen appearance.

The movie does have one really cool scene though. Early in the film, James is forced into a hotel room that he cannot escape from. The door is sealed shut, and the walls of the room can change in a way that disorients the person inside. During this sequence, we aren’t sure if James is sleeping, dreaming, hallucinating, or maybe all three. At one point, his bed ends up on the street outside, surrounded by construction, but in a flash, we’re suddenly back in the hotel room. As the sequence is close to concluding, James looks around and mutters to himself that he will not let this room turn him insane. It’s a wonderfully disorienting scene that the rest of the movie can’t live up to.

By this point, Clift’s face was weathered and worn, and he looked 20 years older than he was. But as James, Clift seemed to enjoy himself, not taking matters too seriously, and not making a joke out of things either. He seemed ready to work with Elizabeth Taylor again. He seemed ready to show Hollywood what more he had to offer. He seemed ready to live. This performance only makes me yearn for what Montgomery Clift’s full career could have been. But I remain forever grateful for what his career was. Movie: C-, Clift: B

Further Reading
“Montgomery Clift” by Patricia Bosworth (1978)
Essential reading for any fan of Montgomery Clift, old Hollywood, or damn well written biographies. I’d say skip “Monty: A Biography of Monty Clift” (1977) by Robert LaGuardia, as much of that text was deemed false and sensationalized.

Making Montgomery Clift (2018)
I wanted to like this documentary more, which was co-directed by Clift’s own nephew, Robert Anderson Clift. However, Making Montgomery Clift is chiefly concerned with disproving rumors about Clift that appeared in the Clift biographies by LaGuardia and Boswell. Most of these rumors are focused on Clift’s love life (Was he gay or bisexual? Did he sleep with Elizabeth Taylor? Did he date much younger men?). There is very little insight into Clift’s craft or his characters. The exception is an extended recording between Clift and Stanley Kramer, in which they discuss Clift’s Judgment at Nuremberg character at length, before they shot the scene. It is a thrill to listen to. Imagine a documentary made up entirely of these conversations.

Hy Gardner Calling (1963)
This is an absolute must watch for all Clift fans. A 48-minute-long rare candid interview with one of cinema’s most elusive stars. The standout moments from the discussion are Clift talking at length about his car accident in 1956, and the fallout of the complex Freud shoot. I was also so taken with how kind and self-effacing Clift is here. He always made it clear when he was expressing an opinion, and not a fact, and he is first to give credit to his co-stars. Watch this interview on YouTube now!

Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Clift was signed and sealed to star in Billy Wilder’s iconic film noir, but just before shooting began, Clift dropped out. This incensed Wilder, who had to scramble to cast William Holden in the part at the last second. I love Holden in this movie, but just imagine Montgomery Clift in his prime taking on the role of Joe Gillis.

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
Elizabeth Taylor lobbied hard to have Clift in this film with her, even offering to put up some of her salary to cover Clift’s insurance. Clift’s role, which eventually went to Marlon Brando, would have been a repressed Army officer who begins falling in love with a male private, while his sexually mischievous wife flaunts behind his back. Brando tries, but is miscast here. He looks too buttoned up and nervous. There’s no fear or panic or dread. No anguish behind sunken eyes. But damn, can I think of an actor who could have played that part to perfection.

Final Thoughts
Top 5 Montgomery Clift Performances: A Place in the Sun (1), The Search (2), From Here to Eternity (3), The Young Lions (4), Judgement at Nuremberg (5)
Biggest Surprises: Lonelyhearts, Wild River
Biggest Letdowns: The Big Lift, Freud
Best Film Featuring Montgomery Clift: A Place in the Sun
Best Chemistry with an Actress: Elizabeth Taylor (A Place in the Sun; Raintree County; Suddenly, Last Summer)
Best Chemistry with an Actor: Ivan Jandl (The Search)

In Summation: Montgomery Clift’s Performances
The Search
Red River
A Place in the Sun
From Here to Eternity
The Young Lions
Wild River
The Misfits
Judgement at Nuremberg

The Heiress
Terminal Station
Suddenly, Last Summer

The Big Lift
I Confess
Raintree County
Freud: A Secret Passion
The Defector


Just Plain Bad


  1. I just finished watching A Place in the Sun yesterday (as I'm now working on my review at the moment) as Clift was just devastating to watch. Especially the shot on the boat as you could feel the conflict he's having from within as he is torn between these two women and lifestyles they offer. It was intense.

    So far, Red River is my favorite performance from him as he was the right counterpart to the more gruff and old-school John Wayne in that film as I also liked him in I Confess and On the Waterfront. He was indeed a gifted and an incredible actor. Based on the pictures you displayed, I noticed that before the accident. He looked youthful and full of life but after the accident, you could slowly see him age into an older man that is struggling to keep it together. The Misfits, Judgement at Nuremberg, and Suddenly, Last Summer are the ones I want to see next as well as The Search.

    1. And what's crazy about his appearance is that he was 45 when he filmed The Defector, but he looks so much older. What a tragic life, but an astounding career. Can't wait to read your review for A Place in the Sun.

    2. Great review, thanks for letting me know it was up!

    3. I disagree that he looked 20 years older in The Defector. 7 or 8 maybe, but in no way does he look 65 years old.

      Compare him to actors like Biran Keith -- who was indeed 45-49 when he starred in the saccharine 'Family Affair', yet truly looked closer to 60. And that's with that gawd-awful rug.

    4. Bit of an exaggeration for sure, but he looked aged. So so aged. I know 65 year olds who look young than he does in that picture. But either way, what an actor.

  2. What a great piece. Sadly, the only film of his I've seen is Judgement at Nuremberg but I agree he gives a very memorable performance in it. I had Suddenly, Last Summer on my Blind Spot list twice but someone at Netflix is hoarding that DVD so I've yet to get my hands on it.

    After reading all this, From Here To Eternity intrigues me the most. I should do what you did and watch all the Best Picture winners.

    1. Thanks so much! I had a blast making my way through all those Best Picture winners. There were some duds in there, but there was also some genuine gold, like Eternity. Why is someone hoarding Suddenly, Last Summer?! Sharing is caring!

  3. My God, he so should've won at some point in his career, especially -- especially -- for Judgment at Nuremberg. That's a hill I'm willing to die on.

    When I was introduced to him with From Here to Eternity, I knew almost immediately that he was an actor I would be indulging in more. And I haven't looked back since that day.

    It's funny. A while back, TCM's Twitter account was asking which of "the paragons of method acting" -- Brando, Clift, Dean -- deserved a day of programming. I sided with Clift because you always hear about Brando and Dean being the starting points when it comes to method acting but seldom with Clift, who's perhaps more obscure to modern audiences than the brutish Brando or the doomed Dean. (Thankfully, I was not alone in picking Clift.)

    Anyway, my hats off to you for this piece on a fine actor. (And in time for his centennial this October too!)

    1. Thanks so much for this comment! I wonder what a day of James Dean/TCM programming looks like. The three movie of course, but then what?

      And he absolutely should have won at least one Oscar! I watched Stalag 17 last night and do not understand how or why Holden won that Oscar. I like Holden, but I didn't think he did anything significant in Stalag 17. Feels like the Academy was trying to save face for not giving him Best Actor for Sunset Boulevard. Woof.

  4. As somebody who has not seen many classics in her life and probably won't either (I'm just not that patient), reading biographies of Hollywood stars is still very fascinating. The times were so different, yet so similar.
    This made me so sad. Greta talents wasting theirselves into alcohol and drugs always makes me sad. But still, fascinating read and if I had a hat, I'd remove it for you. Well done sir! Somebody some day will make their own post off Clift and add your post as "further reading".

    1. Thank you for this! If you like star bios, “Montgomery Clift” by Patricia Boswell is genuinely the best one I've read. Obviously I'm biased, but it's such a good book.

  5. I really need to start watching more older movies because i have not watched a single one of these films. There are some very interesting recommendations here though that i will definitely try to track down.

    1. I hope you have some time to check some of these out! Clift was a performer of immense intensity and vulnerability. Only person close to him today is DDL.

  6. It's strange. I've been familiar with the name Montgomery Clift practically all my life, perhaps because it's such an interesting to just say. However, his actual career is a giant blind spot. I think From Here to Eternity is the only movie of his I've seen. Yeah, I need to get on the ball.

    1. I would love to hear your thoughts on some of his work! He's been in a lot of really great films. Let me know if you watch any!

  7. Ugh I don't know what the hell is going on with blogger lately, but I've been having serious formatting issues on here recently.

  8. Hi, Alex! Longtime reader of your blog. I found it when I was looking for the best David Morse performances (loved those in character posts). In time, I devoured everything here (especially appreciated nobody talks about series).

    I wanted to comment in these post, because Monty Clift is also one of my favorite actors, and this is a great overview of his career.

    I agree 100% that place in the sun is the best movie with him. But his best performance for me is either in From here to eternity or Judgment at Nuremberg. He is simply magnificent in them both and in my eyes elavates both movies to higher level (which, I cannot say about that many perfomances).

    If I've had to rank them: 1. Eternity 2. Nuremberg 3. Place in the sun. 4. Misfits 5. The Heiress

    Also, I think he was never the same actor after the crash. Sure, he could still give a great performance, if it required a broken character (Nuremberg and Misfits). But I think he became a bit awkward and stiff after the crash (which is understandable, and still Clift operating at 70% is better than most actors at 100%). I think that if (of course that's a big if) the crash hasn't happened he would have a body of work stronger than Marlon, but I'm grateful that we had him as long as we did.

    So that's my five cents.) Thanks for this post and this awesome blog!

    1. Mad Mike! I'm sorry it took me so long to respond. I published this comment and completely forgot to follow it up. Thank you so much for this great comment! That's a really good point actually... that he needed a broken character to thrive post-accident. I've never really thought about that.

      Love your rankings, Eternity never gets old, I love him in that movie. Thank you again for your comment!

    2. Well, better late than never.) I appreciate that you took the time to reply.

      If I understand correctly, you mostly finished with this blog and your main outlet is the podcast. Or I am wrong?

    3. I'll never be fully finished with this blog. I put too much damn time into it to abandon it, you know? I love that this blog has a comment section that leads me to awesome people like you. But sadly, I just don't have time to regularly update this site anymore. And the Blogger interface makes it impossible to post something in any reasonable amount of time. BUT we are doing a Monty Clift pod sometime this year. I'll post it here when it's ready if you want!