Montgomery Clift didn’t depart fast and beautiful like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, nor did he enjoy the long and varied career of Marlon Brando. Instead, this postwar icon’s career unglamorously petered out, the matinee idol and Method trailblazer losing his looks, suddenly, in a 1956 car accident and his reputation, more slowly, to the drug and alcohol dependence that would leave him uninsurable in the final years of his life. Then, in 1966, Monty Clift died, unremarkably, middle-aged and with a modest 17 films to his name, at the end of what Clift’s Actors Studio teacher Robert Lewis called “the longest suicide in Hollywood history”.
In his brief heyday, however, Clift was one of the most exciting actors working in film. An authority in playing vulnerable young rebel types prior to Dean’s arrival on the scene, he was also a purveyor of the Method before Brando had even made his screen debut. At his peak Clift was considered such a formidable performer that Burt Lancaster shook with nerves at the prospect of sharing a scene with him – and such an uncommon beauty that cinematographers shot him in soft focus just like they would one of his leading ladies. Even post-crash, and all through his decade-long so-called ‘suicide’, Clift continued to deliver performances of fragile power.
The Search (1948)
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Filmed in the remnants of postwar Germany, The Search’s quasi-documentary feel is only heightened by the casually naturalistic presence of Clift, making an Oscar-nominated debut as a cocksure military engineer determined to locate the mother of a young Czech refugee (Oscar-winning child actor Ivan Jandl) lost in Berlin. To find his character, Clift moved into an army engineers’ unit and rewrote his scenes based on his observations of real American troopers. The result was a performance so genuine that following one showing of The Search, an audience member apparently asked director Fred Zinnemann: “Where did you find a soldier who could act so well?”
Red River (1948)
Director: Howard Hawks
One of the western genre’s immutable classics gifted Clift a star-making role in Matt Garth, the adoptive son of – and increasingly disapproving second-in-command to – John Wayne’s authoritarian cattle driver Tom Dunson. Red River thrives on the tension between generations, with the friction between Matt and Dunson no doubt informed by the real-life animosity between the film’s 2 stars: Clift was “repelled” by Wayne’s machismo, while Wayne thought Clift an “arrogant little bastard”. A landmark scene for queer cinema, in which Matt and rival cowhand Cherry Valance (John Ireland) suggestively compare guns, acknowledges Clift’s own ambiguous sexuality while also announcing there’s a different kind of leading man in town, one unrecognisable from the rigidly macho likes of Wayne.
The Heiress (1949)
Director: William Wyler
Clift’s beauty was never as crucial to the story – and to his character, in this case an entitled young popinjay all too aware of his superficial charms – as it is in William Wyler’s caustic costume drama The Heiress. Softened to be less villainous than in Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s play so that Paramount could capitalise on their new star’s romantic image, Morris Townsend is a mystery; as played by Clift, he could be interested in Olivia de Havilland’s shy heiress Catherine Sloper for her money, her simplicity or both. Clift hated the performance, but The Heiress features some of the most haunting work of his career, particularly a final scene in which Townsend hammers on Catherine’s locked door, desperation setting in as he realises a life of fortune is slipping away.
A Place in the Sun (1951)
Director: George Stevens
There’s a severe loneliness to so many of Clift’s characters, but George Eastman, A Place in the Sun’s naive would-be social climber, might just be the loneliest of them all. Marketed on release as a great love story, with emphasis placed on the undeniable on-screen chemistry between real-life chums Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, A Place in the Sun plays best as a bleak satire of American capitalism, with Clift’s Eastman the blue-collar nobody doomed to always be on the outside looking in. No less than Charlie Chaplin called it “the greatest movie ever made about America”, while Clift received his second Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a lost soul driven to madness in his bid to finally taste the good life.
I Confess (1953)
Directors: Alfred Hitchcock
An oft-overlooked product of Alfred Hitchcock’s unbeatable 1950s – a masterpiece, if you’re to believe the French New Wave filmmakers who revered the film – I Confess finds the master of suspense working in the (relatively) austere fashion of The Wrong Man (1956). Matching Hitch for understatement is Clift as Quebecois cleric Father Michael Logan, a tortured priest in the Bressonian mould who wrestles with the knowledge, given during sacred confession, that a parishioner killed a local lawyer in a robbery gone wrong. The director was allergic to stars with their own ideas, but I Confess is more than most Hitchcock films a showcase for an actor’s personal craft. Clift, who spent time in a Canadian monastery as prep, delivers a masterclass in interiority, the film’s real conflict playing out on Logan’s face in micro-expressions.
From Here to Eternity (1953)
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Clift was ambivalent about being labelled a Method actor, but his legend as a detail-fixated performer in the Method style was confirmed by Fred Zinnemann’s multi-Oscar-winning wartime blockbuster From Here to Eternity. To play career soldier Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, whose stubborn individualism wins him reluctant admirers in Burt Lancaster’s company sergeant and Donna Reed’s call girl, Clift took boxing lessons, learned to bugle and spent exhausting hours studying both the script and the source novel’s author, James Jones. According to Zinnemann’s wife Renee, Clift was “almost worn out” before shooting even began, but his efforts amounted to a signature role and his most fully-rounded portrayal, one that hums with an intensity reminiscent of Brando.
The Young Lions (1958)
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Following his much-publicised auto accident, which left his face reshaped and partially paralysed due to nerve damage, Clift was reborn with the looks and nervy energy of a character actor. There would be less typically starry roles, beginning with The Young Lions, a both-sides Second World War epic that offers the spectacle of Clift and Marlon Brando facing off for the first (and only) time. Here at their peak, the 2 original Method men take wholly different approaches – Brando playful and coolly charismatic as sympathetic German officer Christian Diestl, and Clift, raw and runtish as Noah Ackerman, a Jewish-American GI whom Clift relished playing as a challenge to persistent attitudes of antisemitism. The film, cut down by some 35 minutes before release at the studio’s behest, often has the feel of a truncated miniseries, but there remain glimpses of a performance Clift called the best of his life.
Wild River (1960)
Director: Elia Kazan
Carelessly offloaded on release, Elia Kazan’s elegiac New Deal-era melodrama Wild River has long since been championed as one of the director’s great works. Kazan always thought it was, with one reservation: rather than Clift, Kazan wanted Marlon Brando to play Chuck Glover, the Tennessee Valley Authority agent tasked with convincing a farming family to make way for a dam, and ultimately felt the “unmasculine” Clift weakened the love story between Glover and Lee Remick’s lonely widow. Gadge was half-right: shot lovingly in full-colour widescreen around autumnal Tennessee, Wild River is stunning late Kazan, but his lead was no dud. Playing confidently against type as an uncomplicated government man, Clift also enjoys maybe his most deeply felt on-screen romance with Remick.
The Misfits (1961)
Director: John Huston
The cast of The Misfits – which includes Clift as well as fellow hard-livers Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe (both of whose final film this would be) – alone earns the movie its reputation as a spectacle of doomed Hollywood. But every frame of John Huston’s neo-western, about a gang of oddballs kicking around Nevada on their way to rustling mustang, positively sweats fading glamour, with its 3 stars giving among their liveliest performances, as though all were aware their time was running out. As buck-drunk rodeo rider Perce Howland, Clift for one often has the manic energy of an overgrown child playing cowboy, though his introduction – Perce calling his estranged mother from a phone booth, seeking approval, increasingly agonised – is so desperately sad as to be almost unwatchable.
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Director: Stanley Kramer
Legend surrounds Clift’s Oscar-nominated cameo in Judgment at Nuremberg. The courtroom disintegration of Rudolph Petersen, a German baker sterilised by the Nazi regime for “hereditary feeble-mindedness”, is so convincing that some at the time thought they were genuinely watching Clift having a nervous breakdown. In actuality, for his last great role (he would make 2 more films before dying aged 45), Clift as ever sculpted his character through exhaustive conversations with the director and his own precise dialogue rewrites. It made for a display of astonishing pain and confusion, and a performance, Clift’s shortest ever for the screen, that left perhaps the actor’s most lasting impression.