The Search barely qualifies as a dramatic piece. For the first thirty minutes, an uncredited narrator explains everything to the audience, going so far as to ask the characters rhetorical questions (thankfully they don’t respond). It’s filmed on location in post-war Berlin and–exposes is too strong a word–informs the audience about the situation of displaced children. There’s something unsettling about watching a bunch of kids pretend to be starving kids–probably in the same locations where the real starving kids once were–all for an MGM picture. The Search is a propaganda piece to some degree and a “docudrama” the rest of the way. It’s also Montgomery Clift’s first film.
Clift is good in the film, really good, but he doesn’t really have a character in it. He has a character in the individual scenes, one who has to do things, one who tries to accomplish things, but the audience never gets a sense of him. He’s a blandly American good guy, just one played by Montgomery Clift. The kid, Ivan Jandl, is all right. Unfortunately, his involvement with the film–Zinnemann picked him from a Prague schoolroom and The Search won him a special Academy Award–ended him up in a rock quarry, as the Soviets didn’t like him as a figure of Czech pride. As a child actor, he’s fine but not exceptional. His story, however, makes The Search’s reality a little too real and way too irresponsible. While Clift and Jandl are good together, since Clift’s character is so poorly defined, it’s impossible to really feel anything. There should be some important character relationship–something changing in Clift because of his involvement–but there’s nothing. When The Search isn’t playing hard for the heartstrings, it doesn’t work (except the scenes do move rather well, since they tend to be one conversation are another). It also has a real problem with delineating the passage of time. A month passes in a fade out and the audience gets nothing to help them adjust.
The rest of the cast ranges in quality. As the child’s mother, Jarmila Novotna is good. Her character too should have had a character arc, but it was ignored so The Search could show more footage of post-war hardships. As an American aid worker, Aline MacMahon is so bad I thought they were using real people in the beginning scenes, not actors. At the time, the New York Times praised The Search for its naturalism. Maybe MacMahon, who had a long Hollywood career, got confused by the approach.
Since one could get the same experience (save Clift) from a decent history book as The Search, it’s hard to get particularly excited about it. Zinneman’s not a particularly showy director, but he usually has weighty approach. The Search is too real for that filmic weight, but too filmic to be “real.” And that voiceover removes any naturalism, leaving The Search a confused film. A good idea, a well-minded idea, just not a good story.
Directed by Fred Zinnemann; screenplay by Richard Schweizer, David Wechsler and Paul Jarrico; director of photography, Emil Berna; edited by Hermann Haller; music by Robert Blum; produced by Lazar Wechsler; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Montgomery Clift (Steve), Ivan Jandl (Jimmy), Aline MacMahon (Mrs. Murray), Jarmila Novotna (Mrs. Hannah Malik), Wendell Corey (Jerry Fisher), Mary Patton (Mrs. Fisher), Ewart G. Morrison (Mr. Crookes), William Rogers (Tom Fisher) and Leopold Borkowski (Joel Markowsky).