For the Film Experience Blog Montgomery Clift Blog-A-Thon
Sometime during the night of May 12th 1956 one of the most beautiful faces of the century was being held in place by Elizabeth Taylor, after a tragic car crash all but destroyed it. The stories of Montgomery Clift, after the crash, in the last ten years of his life are legendary for how unbelievable sad and tragic they are. Through it all though he continued to give performance after performance that constitutes some of the bravest and most moving work in cinematic history. While a handful of these post crash performances are fairly easy to find, two of the greatest have become near impossible to see in this country. This is a short celebration of them, and of the man who was just about the greatest actor American ever produced.
Elia Kazan hadn't made a film in nearly three years by the time his lovely and near forgotten masterpiece WILD RIVER came out on 1960. The film, the follow up to his searing and prophetic A FACE IN THE CROWD, tells the tale of a lonely Tennessee Valley field administrator who is sent to a small community to head the building of a dam on the river. The film would open up in the spring of 1960 to a surprisingly muted reception from the critics, and would quickly disappear from the public eye. It is a shame as WILD RIVER is one of the best films the legendary Kazan ever made and it contains one of the great performances of Montgomery Clift's career.
There is something so resonate and poetic in Clift's role as the timid Chuck Glover in WILD RIVER. Clift had never seemed so completely exposed and vulnerable before, and Kazan films his expressive damaged face and slight frame with some of the most delicate touches of his career. Monty is extraordinary throughout the picture's entire running time. From the early scenes where he arrives in the small town looking completely alien, to later in the film where he has to force himself to be strong in attempting to evict an old woman from her home when it is obviously the last the he wants to do. No one could play a damaged man like Clift, and his role as Glover suggests a man who has experienced a lifetime of disappointment, fear, hurt and pain.
WILD RIVER is filled with so many subtle low key masterful moments that it is frankly baffling as to why the film has remained out of circulation in America for so many years. Key to its success was the casting of a young Lee Remick, who compliments Clift so perfectly in this film that it is hard to think of a better screen pairing from the early sixties.
Everything about WILD RIVER is haunting in how authentic it feels. From the incredible score by the great Kenyon Hopkins to the on location photography of Ellsworth Fredericks, WILD RIVER remains one of the most distinguished little seen films from the sixties. It is also a timeless work that has aged much better than many more popular films from the period. With its low keyed style, beautiful direction by Kazan and monumentally moving performance by Montgomery Clift, WILD RIVER is near the top of the 'must get released on DVD soon' list.
After small, but brilliantly played and rightfully acclaimed roles, in THE MISFITS and JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG (both 1961), Clift returned to a leading role with one of his strangest and most audacious performances in John Huston's astonishing bio-pic FREUD (1962).
The much publicised behind the scenes traumas marred FREUD before it was even released to mostly empty theaters right before the Christmas of 1962. FREUD was unjustly neglected from the get go, but viewing it today shows it to be one of Huston's strongest and most unforgettable pictures. It is a resoundingly successful work that captures Clift in his last great performance, which is all the more remarkable due to the documented personal demons he was battling.
With its stark black and white photography and haunting Jerry Goldsmith score, FREUD focuses on just a few years of Freud's notable life, and yet it has the weight of the great screen biographies ever made. Like WILD RIVER, it seemed to disappear almost immediately and outside of a rare television showing or bootleg copy it is near impossible to see today in the states.
Ironically both Kazan and Huston would question Montgomery Clift's strange and challenging work in both films. Huston and the studio even sued him after the premiere of FREUD, an act which would make him virtually un-insurable afterwards. The tragedy of Montgomery Clift's last years shouldn't take away from the art he left us though, and his near forgotten late period performances in WILD RIVER and FREUD are among his finest.
While he was no longer the beautiful and exotic young creature who inhabited A PLACE IN THE SUN and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, the diminished, broken and haunted Montgomery Clift of WILD RIVER and FREUD was no less majestic. Much like many of our great icons near the end, from Marilyn to Elvis, Clift at his most vulnerable was him at his most powerful. WILD RIVER and FREUD are major works in bad need of quality Region One DVD releases, they both deserve to be remembered as two of the great American films of the sixties.