The caveat first: throughout this Hollywood Century project, I've been using a definition of "Hollywood' that limits us to films produced solely on money contributed by Los Angeles-based movie sturdios, or by independents working in the shadow of Hollywood. I'm now making a big exception for the first time, to accommodate 1948's The Search, a co-production between MGM (the most Hollywoodish of all Hollywood companies), and Praesens-Film of Zurich. A Swiss-American co-production shot mostly in Germany might be a dubious inclusion at best in a series like this, but I think it's justified on the grounds of what the film represents in a broader sense: how the American film industry sought to cope with the much smaller globe that had come out on the back side of World War II, and America's position as a newly-minted political and military leader, with a population of citizens who had in the recent past been unflaggingly isolationist (not to mention that, as time wore on, it became ever more clear that those citizens were much happier thinking about U.S. power and influence than in giving a damn about the people who lived in all those other countries for whom the U.S. claimed to be a leader).

It's one of the earliest attempts by any American film production company to work alongside a foreign studio, to take part in the great flowering of international cinema that was beginning to make itself felt in the post-war years, and to present to American audiences perspectives and stories that are explicitly European - not the Europeans who'd come to the States and absorbed themselves into the national culture there, retaining just enough of their native personalities for future film scholars to have fun teasing out the French and German and Hungarian and other influences on the films they made in a full naturalised idiom; the Europeans who'd stayed, to continue developing the cinema of Europe. And this consciousness of America's and American film's position within the world at large is reflected in the story of The Search itself, which is all about how the torn-apart slurry of Europe had to be redeemed by an international effort, with Americans throwing in with many other countries to under the damage of seven years of brutal fighting.

It is, in short, a film that finds the most lavish, indulgent company in Hollywood seeking for meaning somewhere in the ruins of the post-war world; Hollywood humbling itself in order to explore the role that America and Hollywood might play as time went by. And indeed, European-U.S. collaborations would become a great deal more common in the years to come, though typically in the form of U.S. film crews touristing their way through the photogenic places that continent made available, rather than following The Search and financing a predominantly native production looking to fuse the styles and impulses of American and continental movies.

For this is exactly what happens in The Search, from a script largely by Swiss writers Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler, with a largely Swiss crew, but with direction by Fred Zinnemann, who'd been in Hollywood for a decade at that point and was about to explode in prominence in the '50s. Though of Viennese extraction, Zinnemann was a fully assimilated filmmaker even by '48; while The Search possesses nowhere near volume of the sinewy, masculine sentimentality that marks virtually all of Zinnemann's prominent later films (including High Noon, From Here to Eternity, The Day of the Jackal, and the misbegotten film version of the musical Oklahoma!), it prefigures his impulse for giving the audience what we want, telegraphing emotional arcs maybe a little too bluntly and making it too clear that we are going to Feel Feelings. But it also prefigures the best of Zinnemann's visual sensibility; his keen sense of where to end the frame and how much distance at any moment to keep between the viewer and the character. And it showcases a skill with young actors exercised nowhere else in the director's career, but that puts us back on the European side of the equation; films about kids being generally a lot more important (and better) on the east side of the Atlantic than on the west.

The kid in question is Czechoslovakian Karel Malik (Ivan Jandl), who was separated from his family at Auschwitz, and was, as a result, thrown into a state of shock, able to remember nothing about himself including his name (we only know his identity thanks to a flashback). At the film's opening, he's one of many unaccompanied children dumped into the lap of Mrs. Murray (Aline MacMahon), a worker at a Germany UNRRA facilty - United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration - with some dim hope that at least some of them might be sorted into the right pile to be reconnected whatever survivors might be looking for them. The children, not understanding English, are terrified to be shuttled around one more large bureaucratic compound by people speaking in clipped, official tones, and the American workers aren't equipped to convince them that things are better now; eventually, Karel flees across country, picking his way through the ruins of Germany and eventually ending up in the company of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recruit "Steve" Stevenson (Montgomery Clift), who takes a shine to the boy, christens him "Jim", and starts to teach him English. While this is going on, Karel's mother (Jarmila NovotnΓ‘) floats from one UNRRA site to another, never finding a trace of her boy, slowly giving up hope, till chance throws her into the arms of Murray, who encourages her to process her grief (Murrary inaccurately thinks she has proof that Karel died) by working to help the children who still remain displaced and hopeless.

The Search is trying to serve three masters: it wants to be documentary, tragedy, and crowd-pleaser all at once. It wishes to depict the fallen-down state of Europe and demonstrate the way that Americans could contribute to its resurrection; and it wants to do this through the story of a psychologically broken little boy suffering, until he very abruptly isn't thanks to his new buddy Steve. That it manages to do all of this is something of a minor miracle, and it would be unthinkable without Jandl in the central role of Karel. It is one of the great child performances in film, simply put: in a role upon which every other aspect of the film is based (Clift ended up jumping into stardom off the back of his performance here, but he'd be nothing without Jandl as the prism through which we see him), to a degree that the film wouldn't merely be ineffective, but completely dysfunctional without him, Jandl navigates the turn from his empty-eyed soullessness in the beginning to the cheery, but occasionally haunted way he plays things later on, without ever letting it seem too fast or too unmotivated - a critical triumph, since the screenplay hustles us through that transition awfully quickly and arbitrarily.

I suppose credit should get spread around a little: Clift in particular is absolutely fantastic, solid and happily free of the neurosis that would be his calling card as an actor in almost all of his other performances (and let's not mince words: I adore Clift and think he was one of the best, maybe the best young American actor of the '50s; but this role called upon a vastly different skill set than all his later triumphs, and it's too easy to read backwards and be amazed by how bright and pleasant and warm he is here). Most importantly, he makes the relationship between man and boy seem sweet and mutually necessary, selling what is ultimately a kind of dubious writerly conceit (I gather than the '40s were a different time, but how many twentysomething men do you know that would jump at the chance to be a surrogate father to a foundling?) so well that it never even seems to come up that we might question it.

But it's Jandl's film, with Zinnemann always gravely privileging his perspective, even when we already know more than he does; the young actor gets more than his share of close-ups and there are many angled shots that stress his smallness and inability to do much to protect himself in this damaged, dangerous world. Staging all the visuals of Germany in decay through the eyes and mind of a confused boy without a past was a masterstroke for all concerned; it underscores the total inscrutability and horror of the environment in a way that only a guileless protagonist could appreciate, divorced from any knowledge of how things got that way, only appalled that they did (this is not a movie that leaves much of an opening for any late-'40s viewer to silently grouse that the Germans got what they deserved, after all; the Germans are nowhere to be seen in The Search, only collateral damage perpetrated by both the Axis and the Allies). Zinnemann and cinematographer Emil Berna do fantastic work of capturing the physical spaces of the ruined cities and situating Jandl within those spaces to seem especially helpless and terrified; it's a stark contrast with the studio-bound interiors, which are more comforting and closer and lit much softer.

For ultimately, The Search isn't a desperately depressing movie (its most American touch): it is a hopeful one, in which good people doing there best can make things better and more comfortable for the displaced persons unable to fight for themselves. It's not propaganda, really, but it fixedly presents only the tenderest kind of behavior from the American saviors it scatters throughout the adventure, even those whose tenderness is completely misunderstood by Karel. In one moment, Karel is learning English words, and is convinced that the word for "deer" is "Bambi" - a sweet but also surprisingly clever and insightful example of how American pop culture presents itself to the world as harmless, light, loving fun. And that's what The Search wants to be as well: a depiction of America that says to Americans "this is who we can be, true do-gooders in a world badly in need of good", and says to world at large, "we want to help; let us do it", and in both cases acknowledging that it's a matter of hard work and will to actually serve as a protector and world leader, not a right. As themes built around American exceptionalism go, they really don't get any more sincere and humble than that, and constructed on top of such a sensitive, haunting character study, The Search proves to be humane and earnest without sacrificing a certain hardness and grim realism that keeps it from ever being sentimental or idiotically gooey. Two-thirds of a century after the moment it was addressing has passed, it's still a rich, rewarding movie of a sort that they don't make any more, because they never really did in the the first place.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1948
-Bud Abbott and Lou Costello only meet Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man in Universal's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
-The independent docudrama/noir hybrid He Walked by Night helps to invent the police procedural as we now think of it
-Orson Welles makes Macbeth with Republic, his last American film before a decade of artistic exile in Europe

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1948
-Italian neorealism explodes into an international significance with Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves
-Release the year before the Communist revolution buried it for nearly a half-decade, Fei Mu's Spring in a Small Town is one of the most highly regarded Chinese films ever made
-Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes is the British duo's masterpiece and among the most indescribably beautiful films in the history of Technicolor