1948 / Best Director

Film #625: The Search (1948)

As I reach the final stretch of the Best Director stretch of the blog, I’m beginning to encounter several directors who’ve work I’ve covered extensively but who had one film that didn’t receive a Best Picture nomination. A case in point is Fred Zinnemann who earned two Best Director Oscars for directing Best Picture winners From Here to Eternity and A Man For All Seasons. Additionally, he helmed several nominees including High Noon, A Nun’s Story, The Sundowners and Julia whilst also earning a number of wins in the short film category. The first film for which he earned a Best Director nod was also the movie that Zinnemann credits for putting him on the map that being 1948’s The Search. The Search was also significant for featuring the big screen debut of Montgomery Clift who, like the director, earned his first Oscar nomination for portraying American engineer Ralph Stephenson best known to his friends as Steve.

Going into The Search I knew very little about the movie other than it was the film that saw Clift pick up a Best Actor nomination so I expected to see him early on. However, Clift doesn’t appear for the first thirty minutes of The Search and instead Zinnemann piles on a heap of exposition before getting into the film’s main story. The first portion of The Search features plenty of narration from Aline MacMahon’s Mrs Murray; the head of a transit camp who hope to find homes for or the families of children who’ve become separated from their parents during World War II. The depiction of these camps, a lot of them in military buildings in post-war Germany, are places where scared children are shepherded by American officials who are only there to help. Unfortunately, the children think that they’re still being held prisoner and attempt to escape especially when they’re bundled into an ambulance believing they’re being taken to a gas chamber. One of the children to escape is Karel Malik; a Czech boy who was separated from his mother and escapes the ambulance with a friend who later drowns. Karel is able to survive on his own before he encounters Clift’s Steve who offers him his lunch before dragging him back to his house. Steve quickly realises that Karel’s reluctance to stay with him is based on his experiences in the concentration camp and slowly the pair begin to form a friendship. Steve later bestows the name Jim onto the young boy, teaches him English and wishes to take him back to America with him especially after believing his mother perished in the gas chamber. In actuality Mrs. Malik has been conducting her own search for Karel but is always one step behind him, eventually deciding to take a job at the transit camp from which he escaped. However I, and probably the audience who were watching at the time, were waiting for that inevitable reunion between mother and son that occurred in the last thirty seconds of a film that had to have that happy ending in order to be successful.

Initially, I struggled to get invested in The Search with Robert Blum’s soaring score and Aline MacMahon’s twee narration making me believe that this would be a melodramatic picture. The flashbacks of the Malik family prior to the war did nothing for me although the depiction of the concentration camp children’s reaction to their new surroundings was well-executed. The Search significantly improved with the on-screen arrival of Clift; whose energy and screen presence immediately made me care about the character of Steve. Steve’s relationship with Jim was the heart of the movie and the burgeoning friendship between the engineer and his surrogate son never lapsed into sentimentality like it could have done. There was great chemistry between Clift and young Ivan Jandl which helped make this central relationship convincing and their growing friendship all the more touching. I believe that Clift deserved to win at least one Oscar during his career and his combination of emotion and charm in The Search being enough to win him the prize. Furthermore, I believe each year he was nominated in the Best Actor category he was better than the man who went on to win the prize with Laurence Oliver, Huphrey Bogart and William Holden delivering lesser performances than Clift did in The Search, A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity. Additionally, I enjoyed the subplot concerning Mrs. Malik as it separated the main story and gave the audience another reason to care for the final touching reunion scene.

In my opinion, Zinnemann’s nomination was completely deserved and I can understand why The Search is heralded as his first great picture. Zinnemann perfectly captures the post-war mood of the film thanks to the nervous behaviour of the majority of the characters as well as Emil Berna’s fantastic cinematography of a Germany destroyed by conflict. The authenticity of the story is really enhanced via the on-location shooting in Germany and Zinnemann also brings a personal touch to the film as both of his parents sadly died in concentration camps. Although Clift and Zinnemann both lost out at the Oscars, The Search did win an award for Best Story as well as a special statuette for the fantastic turn from juvenile lead Ivan Jandl. Whether The Search deserved a Best Picture nomination is a harder question to answer primarily as 1948’s line-up was one of the best that decade. The only movie from the line-up that didn’t receive a Best Director nod that year was The Red Shoes which I feel is a better film overall than The Search. However, Zinnemann’s movie could easily replace the patchy The Snake Pit in that year’s top five as ultimately, I found it to be an emotional yet saccharine-free tale of post-war friendship and belonging.

Next time another director whose had a stellar Oscar career and one of their movies that didn’t get into that Best Picture shortlist.

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