The Most Beautiful Man in the World: Montgomery Clift in Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess and Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity

By Daniel Garrett

I Confess, directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Warner Bros., 1953

From Here to Eternity, directed by Fred Zinnemann
Columbia Pictures, 1953

In the films I Confess and From Here to Eternity, Montgomery Clift plays men of difficult integrity, the kind of men who are obviously able, attractive, and intelligent, with the potential for social success, but whose personal principles give them an eccentricity, mystery, and tenacity that make it likely that they and their actions will be misunderstood: men who might be seen as angels are read as rascals if not demons. Montgomery Clift was the most beautiful of men, making it easy for him to embody an ideal; and in Alfred Hitchcock’s black-and-white film I Confess, Montgomery Clift plays a man nearly too good to be true, and the very worst is thought of him. Michael Logan is a war hero who returns to become a priest, and when he hears a confession of murder from a church servant, Father Logan maintains the sanctity of his vows and of the confessional and keeps that secret—which means that he himself becomes the target of the police probe. Clift’s performance is austere and sensitive, and he is so deep inside his character that one cannot see a false moment or move. Michael Logan seems like a man who has found a way of being himself by being a priest: he is alert, direct, frank, moral, and sensitive, contemplative, sacrificing, and of service. When Clift as Father Michael Logan is interrogated by a detective played by Karl Malden, the friendly but suspicious and stern detective tells Logan very directly that the priest’s withholding information creates a mystification in which Logan is ensnared, and the detective and priest have a calm conversation about the danger of jumping to conclusions with inadequate evidence. It is one of those times that most viewers can relate to, when you point out the lack of evidence or logic and expect that to be the end of the matter—and then it is not. The police cannot tolerate their own ignorance, and open cases, and they construct a narrative that explains the crime, just as other characters in the film construct false narratives involving the priest: the police think the priest killed a corrupt lawyer to protect a married lady friend, the woman who was his lover before he went to war and whom the lawyer was blackmailing; and the priest’s former lover believes that the priest is still in love with her despite going to war, despite becoming a priest; and the murderer, a married church caretaker who wanted to steal money from the lawyer he killed and has confided in the priest, predicts to his wife that the priest, out of fear of arrest, will betray the murderer’s secret guilt to the police. None of them understand the character of the priest; that is, they disbelieve what he says about himself, and discount his actual behavior, and misinterpret him. The film is one of suspense in that the viewer does not know what will happen; and as the priest is sought by the police and himself walks to the police station, he passes a film theater showing a crime picture in which a criminal is arrested (we see a film photograph), then passes a store with a man’s suit in the window (if the priest left the priesthood, leaving his vows, he would be freer to tell the police what he knows of the murder), and then the priest passes a sculpture of Christ carrying his cross, an emblem also of the priest’s martyrdom. Tormented consciousness is vivid. It is terrifying to perceive how alone, how misunderstood, an honest man can be.

From Here to Eternity, the black-and-white motion picture directed by Fred Zinnemann, is set in Hawaii during the twentieth-century’s second world war, and in it Montgomery Clift plays a soldier, Robert E. Lee Prewitt, who is a talented boxer and bugler who refuses to box once he has blinded another man, and asks to be transferred to another military unit after a less talented musician is promoted before him, although transfer means losing his corporal status. Robert Prewitt, sometimes called Prew, is a man immediately seen as a figure of personal pride, even rebellion, a hard head, but as he comes to be known, it is clear that he is actually a man of integrity, an integrity that actually includes his relationship to others. The smart, tough and efficient sergeant, M. Warden played by Burt Lancaster, instructs the soldier, Prewitt, to follow the demands of leadership and fellowship, to conform, but as the sergeant observes how hard the private works, well and without complaint, and sees the younger soldier’s consistent resistance to fighting even though his unit captain requests it, and then hears Prewitt play a sensuous, soulful wail on the bugle, the sergeant is impressed. It is possible to think the sergeant is charmed by Prewitt, watching how when the private returns a dropped knife to the sergeant, Lancaster leans against a building column and watches the private—and later, drunk, the sergeant and private sit on the ground and Warden moves his hand through Prewitt’s hair—and after the private is shot, the sergeant acclaims him the most committed, the best, of soldiers. Yet, Prewitt is not too good to be true—he is willful and can be jealous and murderous, but those things come out of genuine feeling and can be understood. The sergeant has been both liberated and tormented by his own affair with the wife of his captain, though he resists her encouragement to apply for a promotion. Burt Lancaster as M. Warden, the sergeant, is, by turns, admiring, authoritative, confused, lusty, mocking, and sympathetic.

Burt Lancaster, an actor of animal magnetism, acts with his whole body, and, although a broad technician, he lacks neither mind nor feeling; and, while very much a man, he has boyish aspects but he is a ferocious performer. In another of Lancaster’s films, The Rose Tattoo, a work written by Tennessee Williams and directed by Daniel Mann, a film in which the power of eroticism is almost all, opposite the earthy, volatile Anna Magnani as a raging, grieving widow, a woman cherishing her late husband’s memory and protective of her daughter’s innocence, Lancaster selflessly turns himself into the muscular clown and prospective suitor specified by writer Tennessee Williams’ description. In Luchino Visconti’s masterwork The Leopard, a film about the Sicilian aristocracy, its virtues, its passivity, Lancaster as the prince of Salina is a man of dignity, honesty, intelligence, and restraint, as well as affection and humor.

Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster are two different kinds of actors and two different kinds of men in the dramatic military film From Here to Eternity, with a screenplay by Daniel Taradash, based on the James Jones novel, and considered an American classic: it is a work about what it means to be an American and what it means to be a man. Frank Sinatra is good—scrawny, wily, loyal, funny—as Prewitt’s friend Maggio, another man who finds conformity a foreign force to be resisted. The liberty the army cannot tolerate in Prewitt and Maggio is the liberty the army exists to defend against national enemies during war. Wounded, Maggio is held by Prewitt; one more moment of intimacy between men that one does not quite expect. The truest camaraderie in the film occurs on the margins. However, Deborah Kerr plays the neglected wife of the captain, Karen, the woman who transfixes Lancaster’s sergeant, a brittle, desirous, sad and childless woman who wanted to have children (Kerr has a free, girlish moment when she has an erotic frolic on the beach with Lancaster); and Donna Reed as Alma, known as Lorene, the self-assertive but affectionate club girl who befriends Clift’s soldier, a woman who loves the soldier but wants to marry someone established in society. One senses the richness of the book beneath the dialogue. The women are attractive but they do not have the vitality of the men, probably because women then were more decorative, and not expected to use much of their own energies. Of course, the women lack the violent stupidity of many of the men. The social atmosphere in From Here to Eternity is convincing, whether involving the soldiers only or their relation to the women at a private club, and the relationships are so interesting that when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurs the viewer is surprised.

Was it Elizabeth Taylor who called Montgomery Clift, with whom she starred in A Place in the Sun and Raintree County and Suddenly Last Summer, the most beautiful man in the world? I cannot remember, but I have no cause or reason to argue with the conclusion. Clift was someone who seemed sophisticated without seeming less a man—he did not appear to be ethereal or fragile; in fact, though he was obviously sensitive, masculinity is one of his most perceptible qualities. Perhaps that strength had something to do with his Nebraska origin. Montgomery Clift (1920–1966) was born in Omaha, and his father was a Wall Street stockbroker and his mother took Monty and his siblings to Europe and the Caribbean with private tutors. Monty became part of a theatrical group when he was thirteen, and was on Broadway by seventeen, and sought by Hollywood, which he resisted for a dozen years. He appeared in The Skin of Our Teeth and Our Town, two celebrated plays. Clift was quoted as saying that for an artist failure is the most vital source of energy, but for the longest time he had significant success. He starred in the films Red River and The Search, both in 1948, before appearing in The Heiress, A Place in the Sun, I Confess, From Here to Eternity, Raintree County, Lonely Hearts, The Young Lions, Suddenly Last Summer, Wild River, and other films. Montgomery Clift was respected by his peers, and seen with Marlon Brando and James Dean as an exemplar of a new, honest acting style based on the examination of motive, the recall of personal experience, a respect for improvisation, and the intimation of the inarticulate. However, Montgomery Clift was no mush-mouthed mumbler, and he was not a self-satirist like Brando, and his technique was more precise than Dean—Dean was a gorgeous, wild thing in Giant, but I am not sure what he was doing was acting or that he presented a shaped performance. Clift was ambitious but conflicted and his private life was considered troubled; he became involved with a talented but manipulative acting coach (Mira Rostova), and he drank to excess, and was bisexual with a stronger erotic preference for men. Monty was in an automobile accident, in the midst of filming Raintree County (1957), after leaving a party that Elizabeth Taylor gave, and his injuries and their pain would mar his beauty and lead him to a dependence on drugs. However, his damage would be used to good effect when he performed in the 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg, for which he received an Academy Award (Oscar) supporting actor nomination. Montgomery Clift died of a heart attack when he was only forty-five. Elizabeth Taylor would call Montgomery Clift her brother and friend. Clift has been portrayed in public—in books and articles—in a way that has made him seem a figure of beauty and pain, of promise and loss, a martyr to society’s limitations for its focus on commerce, fame, and sexual convention. (I first saw Montgomery Clift in Raintree County and read the Patricia Bosworth biography when I was quite young but forming my ideas of what it meant to be an individual and an artist; and I thought of Clift as someone similar to Billie Holiday, the kind of person who bore the weight of the world and was crushed by it.) However, one watches films such as I Confess and From Here to Eternity and sees a living man who knew what the world was like, knew risks, and made his own choices and lived with them, knowledge and strength the actor must have known to portray them so well.

Montgomery Clift was an antecedent to Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as well as Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Clift had a great smile, but he did not use it much in movies—just as his character Prewitt refused to brag to impress a girl he likes, the actor refused easy charm. The films I Confess and From Here to Eternity, thanks to Clift as well as the stories in which his characters exist, are now among my favorites, along with All About Eve, An American in Paris, Away We Go, Bella, Bobby, Camille, Casablanca, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Chameleon Street, Cold Fever, The Constant Gardener, Daughters of the Dust, Days of Heaven, Dead Man, Dogville, Easy Rider, Edge of the City, The Fountain, Frances, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Debaters, Happy Together, Harry Potter, Hurricane, Lady Sings the Blues, The Last Station, Local Color, The Lord of the Rings, The Magnificent Ambersons, Margot at the Wedding, The Matrix, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, My Beautiful Laundrette, My Own Private Idaho, The Others, Pather Panchali, A Raisin in the Sun, Reds, The Rules of the Game, Sidewalk Stories, Strange Days, and, among other motion pictures, The Tree of Life, The Trouble with Harry, 2001, The Way We Were, What Doesn’t Kill You, Wild Reeds, and Wild Strawberries. It is natural that one has preferences regarding films or music or books, and that one would prize some over others, but what makes film culture, and what cultivates a genuine film sensibility, are the diversity of works playing one against, or with, the others. In Hitchcock’s films alone, in which confidence, decency, reason, safety, and wealth are challenged, stories in which personalities deepen and expand into character and character becomes fate, there is entertaining instruction in both craft and humanity. Films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess and Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity, though intended for a large audience, do not disrespect the intelligence or feeling of anyone. One can draw energy from watching Montgomery Clift in I Confess; and that is the inspiring, transforming power of beauty, intelligence, and strength.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.