A quasi-documentary about World War II and concentration camp orphans, “The Search” (1947), is the movie that inspires the young Filipino whose parents have been ripped from him to envision Montgomery Clift as a patron in the Lavender Quill award-winning novel Letters to Montgomery Clift. Until I read Noël Alumit’s poignant novel, I had conflated “The Search” with “The Big Lift” in which Montgomery Clift also played an American soldier in occupied Germany. Having finally seen “The Search,” it is very clear why Clift would seem the kind of patron Bong Bong sought.
The young boy who survived Auschwitz, Karel (Ivan Jandl) believes that when he and his friend/protector/fellow orphan are put on trucks to move children from a processing facility to an orphanage that they are being dispatched to be killed. They escape. The friend drowns, and Karel’s cap found in the river leads the authorities to believe he must also have drowned.
The now mute and feral child is lured out of the rubble of what is supposed to be Munich (but is actually Nuremberg) by a sandwich G.I. Ralph Stevenson (Montgomery Clift) sets out for him. Gradually he wins the boy over, takes him to the house where he is billeted with a wry but supportive buddy Jeff Fisher (Wendell Corey), and is making arrangements to adopt the boy and take him to America—having taught the child fluent English in about a week.
Karl’s mother, Hannah Malik (Czech opera star Jarmila Novotna) meanwhile has found the facility in which her son was last seen and recognized the cap dredged out of the river. Aline MacMahon (Man from Laramie, Ah Wilderness!) as Mrs. Murray), the woman in charge of sorting orphans (and the voice-over narrator is more benign than bureaucratic, convinced Mrs. Malik to help with other children traumatized like her (thought-to-be) dead son.
Although Fred Zinnemann (1907-1997) got his start in documentaries (and had won an Oscar for a documentary short), after the quasi-documentary of the first three-quarters hour, the movie turns Hollywood heartwarming, and there is little doubt that there will be a joyful reunion of mother and son. Rather than the neorealism of Rosselini’s portrayal of children who survived the war (the Naples episode of Paisá, and Germany, Year Zero) or of the young boys in de Sica’s Shoeshine, Zinnemann provided neo-Shirley Temple, adding a slew of wise, caring, and nearly saintly adults. If pressed, I’d claim that the leitmotif in Zinnemann’s films (From Here to Eternity, High Noon, A Man for All Seasons, Julia, A Member of the Wedding, etc.) is individualism, lonely standing out/standing alone. Though many of his films were honored and continue to be held in high esteem, no one has made a case for him as an auteur. His films do not share a particular look, even if there is a recurrent shared theme in them.
Though ultimately cloying and conventional, there are some good reasons to watch this film:
(1) It is the first movie performance of Montgomery Clift that was released (though “Red River” was made first). (Zinnemmann also directed a quasidocumentary, “The Men,” which was Marlon Brando’s first screen appearance.)
(2) It is one of the few movies in which one may see Jarmila Novotna.
(3) It contains one of those striking child performances: Ivan Jandl received a special Oscar for Outstanding Juvenile Performance, and never made another film.
(4) Along with “Germany, Year Zero” and “A Foreign Affair,” “The Search” shows the devastation of German cities (records Sebald ignored in The Natural History of Destruction.
(5) Perhaps it is time to consider Zinnemann’s oeuvre as an oeuvre.
Although Fred Zinneman’s first feature-film (“Kid Glove Killer,” 1942) is only 74 minutes long, it drags some in the middle with didactic crime lab stuff. It’s also perplexing that the suave mob-paid special prosecutor (Lee Bowman) would undertake planting a bomb to blow up the cleanup mayor himself, but if that is swallowed the rest of the film with Van Heflin’s skinny forensic expert handicapped by the love interest (Marsha Hunt) being an unwitting informant about the investigation for the killer is taut. The fistfight at the end is a little hokey too, but Van Heflin’s poor dart-throwing ability has an amusing and crucial payoff. Whodunit or why are never in question. The audience knows who the fall guy will be at once, and who the killer is almost at once, but there is still the suspense of evidence collection and destruction and wondering how the lab assistant will react. (Plus looking for Ava Gardner: she has a brief scene as a car-hop.)
©2018, Stephen O. Murray