Montgomery Clift could have become a much bigger star had he turned down fewer roles in major classics (Sunset Blvd., reportedly Shane, East of Eden) and accepted fewer roles in major duds (The Big Lift, Lonelyhearts, The Defector).
Clift has been a relatively frequent presence on Turner Classic Movies, but those unfamiliar with his work will be able to check him out – and compare him to fellow “’50s rebels” Marlon Brando and James Dean – on Saturday, August 20, ’11, as TCM will be presenting 11 Montgomery Clift movies as part of its “Summer Under the Stars” series. The one TCM premiere is the spy thriller The Defector (1966), which also happens to be Clift’s last movie. (See Montgomery Clift Movie Schedule further below.)
My favorite Montgomery Clift performance is his quietly ambitious George Eastman in George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951). Though Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire (also 1951) is much better remembered today, I prefer Clift’s less showy but just as effective characterization of a social outsider. Though somewhat bowdlerized, this film adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy happens to be one of the few Hollywood movies that show class divisions in the U.S. not only as a steep social obstacle, but also as one that turns out to be insurmountable. Though Shelley Winters was the one nominated for that year’s Best Actress Oscar, Elizabeth Taylor is at her very best as the prize that comes with material success.
In a previous role as another ambitious outsider, Clift is fine in William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949). This first-rate social-psychological drama, however, belongs to its Oscar-winning star, Olivia de Havilland, who delivers not only the best performance of her career but also one of the best movie performances ever. Ralph Richardson offers strong support as the heiress’ father, while Miriam Hopkins is always a welcome presence.
John Huston’s The Misfits (1961) is notable as the last film of both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. Raintree County (1957) is notable because Clift suffered a near-fatal car crash during filming. Understandably, this period melodrama is one of his weakest showcases. Lonelyhearts (1958) is another disappointment despite the presence of Clift, Robert Ryan, and Myrna Loy. Dolores Hart, who left films to become a nun, is the young leading lady.
Clift reportedly didn’t get along with either John Wayne or Paul Douglas while shooting, respectively, Red River (1948) and The Big Lift (1950). Directed by Howard Hawks, the former is deemed a classic Western; directed by George Seaton, the latter is now all but forgotten. As an aside: Clift and John Ireland compare pistols in a classic Red River scene reminiscent of a considerably more explicit one between Warner Baxter and Edmund Lowe in In Old Arizona (1928).
Montgomery Clift was nominated for four Academy Awards: three times in the Best Actor category (The Search, A Place in the Sun, From Here to Eternity) and once as Best Supporting Actor (Judgment at Nuremberg). Personally, I think his 1953 nod should have been for Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess (instead of Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity). In the Hitchcock thriller, Clift plays a priest to whom a murderer confesses his crime. Unable to tell the police what happened lest he break the sanctity of the confessional, the priest becomes a prime suspect. Anne Baxter co-stars.
Montgomery Clift, I Confess
Schedule (ET) and synopses from the TCM website:
6:00 AM RAINTREE COUNTY (1957) In this sumptuous Civil War story, a willful southern belle goes mad out of fear that she may be part black. Director: Edward Dmytryk. Cast: Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Eva Marie Saint. Color. 173 min. Letterbox Format.
9:00 AM LONELYHEARTS (1958) A sensitive young reporter assigned to write an advice column gets caught up in his readers’ lives. Director: Vincent J. Donehue. Cast: Montgomery Clift, Robert Ryan, Myrna Loy. Black and white. 103 min.
11:00 AM THE BIG LIFT (1950) Two Air Force sergeants find love while flying the Berlin Airlift. Director: George Seaton. Cast: Montgomery Clift, Paul Douglas, Cornell Borchers. Black and white. 118 min.
1:00 PM RED RIVER (1948) A young cowhand rebels against his rancher stepfather during a perilous cattle drive. Director: Howard Hawks. Cast: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Joanne Dru. Black and white. 133 min.
3:30 PM FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953) Enlisted men in Hawaii fight for love and honor on the eve of World War II. Director: Fred Zinnemann. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr. Black and white. 118 min.
5:45 PM THE MISFITS (1961) A sensitive divorcee gets mixed up with modern cowboys roping mustangs in the desert. Director: John Huston. Cast: Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift. Black and white. 125 min. Letterbox Format.
8:00 PM A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951) An ambitious young man wins an heiresss’ heart but has to cope with his former girlfriend’s pregnancy. Director: George Stevens. Cast: Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters. Black and white. 122 min.
10:15 PM THE HEIRESS (1949) A plain young woman’s money makes her prey to fortune hunters. Director: William Wyler. Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson. Black and white. 115 min.
12:15 AM THE SEARCH (1948) An American soldier in post-war Europe becomes attached to a homeless child. Director: Fred Zinnemann. Cast: Montgomery Clift, Aline MacMahon, Wendell Corey. Black and white. 104 min.
2:15 AM I CONFESS (1953) A priest suspected of murder can only clear himself by violating the sanctity of the confessional. Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, Karl Malden. Black and white. 95 min.
4:00 AM THE DEFECTOR (1966) A shady CIA agent recruits an American physicist to help a Russian scientist defect. Director: Raoul Levy. Cast: Montgomery Clift, Hardy Kruger, Macha Meril. Color. 100 min. Letterbox Format.