As a lover of 1940s film and the noir mood in many films throughout the decade, I want to talk about a non-noir film, The Search (1948).
There are tangential noir connections, including mood and style. There is the darkness of the post-WWII “rubble film” setting, of which The Search is the first American example. The picture is filmed in part in the actual ruins of postwar Berlin, and its subject matter involves the fate of orphaned children, filmed for realism in bleak bombed streets and ex-Nazi barracks. The underside of winning a war is everpresent. (And, unlike the German rubble films, no actors or directors who were part of Nazi filmmaking are present in this picture — cf. The Murderers Are Among Us, which I love but didn’t realize featured Nazi-era celebrities when I wrote about it here.)
Of course, there are no hard-boiled dicks, corrupt cops, gangs or even Nazis. Our focus is primarily on caring members of the US armed services helping to keep children safe and return them to whatever semblence of a normal life is possible. Specifically, after heavy-handed voiceover that guides us through the aftermath of war, we follow one silent little Czech boy (Ivan Jandl) who is a survivor of Auschwitz, the mother who searches for him after surviving the camps (Jarmila Novotna), and the young American soldier (Mongtomery Clift) who takes the boy in and helps him to feel human and loved again.
Director Fred Zinnemann is the glue that holds the elements of this powerful film together. Born in 1907 in Galicia (Austria-Hungary) to Jewish parents, Zinnemann studied music then law, and then sought to be a filmmaker. After studying in France, he worked with fellow beginners Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak on Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday, 1929). Unhappy in seeing the economic disparity of Weimar Berlin (wealthy and poor living side by side, decadence beside depravation), he got his parents to approve his departure for the U.S. at age 21. This escape from what what in only a few years would become Hitler’s Germany brought him freedom and success, even as it brought the Holocaust, including the murder of his parents.
Zinnemann was an innovator, among the first directors to shoot in authentic locations and to hire civilians along with stars. We see this to potent effect in The Search, in which most of the hundreds of children shown are not actors, and where the bombed out remains of Germany are on show (as mentioned above).
Noir fans will know Zinnemann from his film Act of Violence (1949), the next film he made after The Search. The picture also deals with WWII soldiers, but with a dark, violent twist — and featuring some of noir’s strongest actors. Robert Ryan plays a bitter POW bent on vengeance against his former commanding officer (Van Heflin), who betrayed the men’s plans for escape from a Nazi prison camp.
And if you don’t know Act of Violence, you probably do know High Noon (1952), a Western with more than a touch of noir in its mood and style. Zinnemann was nominated for Academy Awards for directing both The Search and High Noon, and his wins demonstrate his ability to handle diverse genres and moods, including the war romance From Here to Eternity (1953) and the historical bio-drama A Man for All Seasons (1966).
Best Director was not the only nomination The Search received. Montgomery Clift, in his first lead, was nominated for Best Actor, and the film also got a nod for Best Writing, Screenplay by Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler. The duo did win the Oscar, however, for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story. And perhaps the most compelling of all, young Czech actor Ivan Jandl took the “Juvenile Award” for best juvenile performance.
Clift and Jandl are truly compelling in the film, and I also enjoyed the performances by both Wendell Corey and Aline McMahon. Noir fans won’t want to miss McMahon as Aunt Martha in the noir Guest in the House (1944), starring Ann Baxter as a crazy predatory female. Noir fans will also know Corey from several noir pictures, from supporting roles in I Walk Alone (1947) — just before The Search — and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) to the lead opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The File on Thelma Jordon (1950).
I want to close with two notes on The Search and its impact on me. First, I particularly loved that, unlike so many Hollywood war-era and immediate postwar films, Jews are directly mentioned in The Search, including a group of children who learn Hebrew — even sing it — before they are taken as a group to Palestine. We won’t discuss the politics of Israel; I just like that the fate of Jewish children is addressed directly.
The second note is a sad one. Both Montgomery Clift and Ivan Jandl died young and in lives far diminished from their amazing turns in The Search. Clift’s story can easily be found online, a tale far too typical in classic Hollywood dealing with drugs, diet pills, and sexual shame. Jandl, by contrast, simply wanted to act. When he did not understand the nature of his award, Zinnemann explained by phone the great honor of an Academy Award, and producers actually went to Czechoslovakia to pitch Hollywood contracts to the affecting but entirely unaffected child actor. His parents did not consent, and the government wanted him for a national star. Sadly, they only put him in three more films, and when, after high school, he wanted to study acting seriously, he was forbidden because he had accepted awards from America. The Cold War kept him from what might have been a long and productive career — or not. We will never know.
Clift died at 45 in his Manhattan brownsone after what some have called a ten-year suicide. And Jandl passed away at age 50 of diabetic complications in a Prague apartment.
The Search is a film absolutely worth seeking out. There is power in its form, content, style, performances, and production context. It’s focus on great tragedy and small triumphs is unforgettable.