Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Montgomery Clift at Court - Sympathy in film and in life

In two of Montgomery Clift's academy nominated roles he appears in court.

In 1951, as George Eastman, Clift's final scenes are in court in in A Place in the Sun (1951). I'm not really sure how people in the 50s viewed Clift's character, the movie, billed as a romance, really carries with it the dimensions of crime thriller to me. Eastman in court is a very sympathetic character. To me the magic of director George Stevens' film is that it marginalizes evil. Despite Eastman's premeditated crimes, you feel sympathy for Eastman because his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor's character seems so great and such future, but the relationship with Shelley Winters' character is so stale and hopeless. (This film makes a great argument against the potential woes of pre-marital sex as well).

In 1961 a Clift character will take the stand again. The movie is the amazing court film Judgement at Nuremberg (pictured top). In this Stanley Kramer film, Clift's character, Rudolph Petersen, is a prosecution witness in a case against the judges of Nazi Germany. Petersen takes the stand against the judges in a chilling 7 minute scene where he describes the Nazi courts decision to sterilize him based on him (and his mothers) feeble-mindedness. At first Clift seems strong as a witness, yet once the defense attorney (Maximilian Schell in his Oscar winning role) begins questioning the witness Clift turns a sympathetic corner and his characters embarrassment on the stand is heart wrenching in a different way.

I think that Clift was a unique actor because he obviously could play a romantic-heart-throb role, but he wasn't the brave and in control Cool Hand Luke type. Rather he was weak, and influencable. He was a softer-type of love interest. The type a girl gets excited about taking care of like an abandoned puppy or something.

In 1956 (between A Place in the Sun and Judgement at Nuremberg) Clift was in a very painful and disfiguring car accident, which began a downward spiral of alcohol and drug addictions that I have heard refereed to as "the longest suicide in Hollywood." The details and trials of Clift's life between the accident and his death in 1966 are so sad. Even to read about the effort that Stanley Kramer and crew had to put forth to help Clift get through his one scene in Judgement at Nuremberg really is sad as well.

If Montgomery Clift were still alive, it would be his 87th birthday. Read other post written today about Montgomery Clift as part of The Film Experience's Clift blog-a-thon.


Edward Copeland said...

He was great in Nuremberg, but revisiting A Place in the Sun, the film didn't play as well for me because his character seemed like such a cipher to me (and the hamminess of Raymond Burr in those court scenes really undermind the mood of the entire film).


when i was writing my piece on it I skipped rewatching the court scene

now i wish i had. but i guess if you're going to have a through line between performances a day in court is a common enough one ;) so many movies go there.

though happily i think the television drama has usurped this subgenre

anyway. i love Clift so much but I can't watch that scene in Nuremberg. I don't know if it's just too honestly painful or too much acting or just too

but i have a difficult time with.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I think you hit the nail on the head as to the magic of Montgomery Clift. He was capable of being vulnerable but at the same time a sympathetic love interest. I am not sure that there was ever any actor like him.

Will said...

Clift was an emotionally moving actor. He seemed to me like a relative of James Dean, almost like an older brother.

No matter what the performance was - the ones you mentioned, or Suddenly, Last Summer or From Here to Eternity, I always felt like we were looking straight into his soul.

Lorna said...

I've just seen a few MC movies on turner classics and have renewed my belief in his solid ability. I can always remember his character in a movie, but I'm hard-pressed to remember what he looks like. Strange.