Saturday, March 13, 2010

Montgomery Clift at BAM: The Big Lift

In mid-1948, the city of Berlin was in ruins. It hardly mattered to most American servicemen though. They visited often, but rarely stayed long. When the Soviets blockaded Berlin in the first nakedly aggressive power player of the Cold War, they assumed America would abandon its former German foes. Instead, for the next fifteen months the American armed forces delivered 1,783,573 tons of supplies, flying round the clock, to and from Berlin’s barely adequate airfields. One of several notable films set during the immediate aftermath of WWII that starred Montgomery Clift, George Seaton’s The Big Lift screens this Monday during a retrospective of the tragic method actor’s work the BAM Cinematek.

Sgt. 1st Class Danny MacCullough did not serve in the war, but his friend, the somewhat older Master Sgt. Hank Kowalski did. A former POW, he has decidedly painful memories of Germany and is less than thrilled to be returning. Of course, opting out is not an option, so both enlisted men quickly find themselves stationed in Germany and involved with German women.

Clift might be Lift’s lead, but the star of the film is the battle scarred city itself. Shot on location in all four sectors of the divided city by Seaton and cinematographer Charles G. Clarke in a Vérité-like documentary style, the sight of Berlin’s bombed out buildings is arresting. Indeed, as MacCullough and his girlfriend Frederica Burkhardt stroll through the surviving statues of a once grand but now de-foliated park, it looks like a scene from an end of the world film.

Aside from Clift and actor Paul Douglas as Kowalski (who tragically died before he could film the lead roles in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and an episode of The Twilight Zone for which he had been cast), all U.S. military characters are played by the actual active duty military personnel themselves. In fact, the coolest scene of the film is the closing roll call of the real life officers and enlisted men, getting some well deserved recognition for their service.

Writer-director Seaton obviously was also keenly interested in process, explaining in detail the difficulties of the Berlin runway approaches and the technical advances of air traffic control, which gives audiences a further appreciation of the magnitude of the air lift. Frankly, MacCullough’s romantic travails are not the most memorable in cinema history. However, the degree to which Seaton captures both the look and spirit of post-war Berlin makes Lift a film of legitimate historical importance.

Though Seaton is probably best known for the classic Miracle on 34th Street, Lift was arguably his finest technical achievement. Proving realism and patriotism are in fact compatible, Lift ought to be more widely celebrated. It screens at BAM this coming Monday (3/15), as part of their “That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!” and is also available for online streaming.