best film:   Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) is an essential western. Red River is Montgomery Clift’s best film but it is also a landmark film as far as film acting goes. This is Montgomery Clift’s second film (The Search came out just months before) and a breakthrough for a new school of film acting. Clift would distance himself from the word “method” when he was asked – but he was from the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan and of course broke through before Marlon Brando and James Dean. So, to see this new, moody, more natural, more method (and less stagey) style of acting that differed from their predecessors like Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney – and yes – for Red River – John Wayne – made for quite the important moment and shift in cinema history.  Still, this is a category of weakness for Clift. The case against Clift is that he simply was not in enough of the truly great films – at least Red River is one of them.


best performance:  Red River. Clift’s Matt Garth is sensitive and, in many ways, could not be more different than John Wayne’s Thomas Dunson. Clift’s Garth is softer, and it is a massive testament to Clift as an actor that Wayne’s performance does not swallow him up whole because Dunson is a whirlwind. Clift is just about equal to his work here in his top four performances below but with the acting on display dueling with Wayne, Howard Hawks at the helm, and what this film means for the genre – this is Clift’s best work.


from Red River – a major work from Howard Hawks – and a stake in the ground for the newer generation of actors – led by Montgomery Clift (here aside John Ireland).


stylistic innovations/traits:   Montgomery Clift made 18 (eighteen) total films and, sadly, passed away at the age of 45. Of those eighteen, thirteen (13) are in the archives – a ratio any actor would be proud of. Clift, like Marlon Brando, was born in Omaha, Nebraska. Clift was four (4) years older than Brando. All of the big figures actors in his group were from the Midwest (James Dean was born in Indiana and Paul Newman in Ohio). Clift was a revelation in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  He is just a titan of screen acting. In 1956, he had a horrific car accident (apparently Elizabeth Taylor  his friend and costar for two archiveable films – saved his life) and had to have his face rebuilt.  The post-accident surgery would limit Clift and there are stories about how he could only really move half his face and the camera had to make due. Some commented that his life, after the accident, from 1956-1966 was a 10-year suicide attempt. He still acted a few times in those 10 years, but it was not the same Clift. The Clift before the accident rivaled Marlon Brando for acting talent (which puts him on that short, short list all-time). Clift was nominated four (4) times – three (3) of them coming in that same window as Brando’s run before 1955. Clift is the actor most often cited with a changing of the guard in cinema acting probably rightly so (others will talk about John Garfield’s approach years before Clift) – others sort of skip over Clift and focus on Brando.  But, Clift’s natural approach influenced (and pre-dated) Marlon Brando – and of course Brando changed everything. James Dean admitted his admiration for Clift openly. There are great pleasures to take from the quiet moments in a Montgomery Clift performance (which are often much bigger than the film itself).  It is a miracle of acting that he is somewhat sympathetic in A Place in the Sun and I Confess is just now getting its due for the monster of a performance that it is. The filmography is brief, but there are performances like The Misfits and Freud (both post-surgery and both with John Huston) that are worthy of many a great actor’s top five (5). Clift is perfect for the complex challenge of playing Freud in many ways – even if this is after car accident in 1956 – Clift was sued over delays in filming this with health issues.


Clift as George Eastman in 1951’s A Place in the Sun.


directors worked with:  Fred Zinneman (2), John Huston (2), Howard Hawks (1), William Wyler (1), George Stevens (1), Alfred Hitchcock (1), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1), Elia Kazan (1). Kazan would work with Brando, Dean and Clift (in that order chronologically).


The best picture winner in 1953 – From Here to Eternity. Clift made two archiveable films with Fred Zinnemann – this film here, and The Search in 1948 – Clift’s debut. Clift is one of only a handful of actors to be nominated in their first film.


top five performances:

  1. Red River
  2. A Place in the Sun
  3. I Confess
  4. From Here to Eternity
  5. The Misfits


Clift as Father Michael Logan in Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953).  Clift may be the finest actor at conveying subtext and vulnerability. The influences can still be felt decades later in everyone from Tony Leung to Timothée Chalamet. 


archiveable films

1948- The Search
1948- Red River
1949- The Heiress
1951- A Place in the Sun
1953- From Here to Eternity
1953- I Confess
1958- Lonelyhearts
1958- The Young Lions
1959- Suddenly Last Summer
1960- Wild River
1961- Judgment at Nuremberg
1961- The Misfits
1962- Freud