A Place in the Sun ★★★★

33 Films x 6 Decades: 1950s

A deeply psychological melodrama, George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun is a film that has curiously lost some of its luster over the years. Winning six Academy Awards upon release and being championed as, “the greatest movie ever made about America,” by the legendary Charlie Chaplin, A Place in the Sun seemed destined to hold its place in cinema lore. However, in the years since, critics have criticized its pacing, the melodrama, and the dated social commentary, all of which have held the film back from its rightful place as one of the stronger films from the 1950s. A film in which every beat works to perfection - direction that builds anticipation for the eventual reveal, Montgomery Clift’s introspective and reserved yet brilliance performance, the cinematography, and the film’s smart writing - A Place in the Sun is far more than its poster may suggest. In putting the film into the DVD player, it seems likely that it will be a romantic melodrama about a man and a woman falling in love with Clift and Elizabeth Taylor taking the lead romantic roles. However, Stevens’ shocking film is one that defies those expectations and it is not only due to the presence of Shelley Winters, who portrays a woman who has Clift’s baby and was his first love. A film indebted to religious ideology, A Place in the Sun asks the question: if one’s heart resolves to do something, is it still a sin (thus, are they guilty) if they do not actually follow through and commit the act?

This is a film that is ostensibly about a man. George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) is related to the incredibly rich Eastman family. Though poor, he is able to parlay his relation to the family into a job at their mill that eventually turns into bigger and better things. However, before his promotions arrive, he meets a girl there. Her name is Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). Though forbidden from entering into workplace romances, George tempts fate all the same. From dates at the movies to stealing minutes outside her window, the two are gaga for one another. Together, Clift and Winters make sweet music, playing perfectly off each other as their characters fall in love. Winters’ more exuberant and determined take on Alice perfectly communicates her inexperience in love. She is ready to dive in without even dipping her toes in the water first. George, however, is more cautious. Clift’s reserved nature perfectly lends to this role as he seems to pull away from Alice. The reasoning is Angie Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). A socialite with a friendship with the Eastman family, George first saw her months prior. In a scene in which he says nothing to her whatsoever, Stevens perfectly shows the bewitching nature of the moment. Angie Vickers’ entrance into the film and into George Eastman’s mind is one that says everything it needs to without words. From Clift’s facial expression to the slight utterances he makes as he attempts to form words, it is left without doubt that she has his heart in her hands. By the time she comes back to town, falls for George, and asks him to dance to celebrate his birthday, Alice is yesterday’s news and she knows it, as she frantically tries to recapture his attention once he returns to her to celebrate his birthday with her.

Yet, it is not only Alice that knows George is split and distant. He does care for Alice. Or, at least he once did care for, but he is leery to break her heart. He wants Angie, but feels immense guilt for wanting Angie due to the relationship he has with Alice. Thus, he winds up leading a double life. He hides Alice away, seeing her occasionally, and tries to give himself fully to Angie. He even begins making wedding plans with Angie, hoping to woo over her parents during a vacation trip. However, with news that Alice is pregnant with his baby out of wedlock and is threatening to blow everything up in his face by coming to confront Angie and her family, George is pinned into a corner. Desperately trying to figure out what to do, Clift nails the moral and mental panic of Eastman. From his facial expression, it is clear he thinks of murder. However, as Clift writhes, sweats, and scrunches up, it is clear that his soul is anything but sold on the matter. He wrestles with the moral implications of the matter, desperately trying to think of a way out of the situation, and even going so far as planning how he would do it. Done without so much as a word, Clift communicates so much through so little as he demonstrates the conflict within the soul and psyche of George Eastman. At his core, he is not a bad man. His mother is a missionary who had George in her employ before he went to work for his uncle. Thus, he knows about the seven deadly sins and what murder would cost him. He has already had premarital sex, so the last thing his immortal soul needs is another manila folder full of sins that he will be judged upon when his time comes. However, perhaps he can get away with it. As Alice does not know how to swim, perhaps he will hardly even have to do anything and she will die. Maybe just an innocent push, some mental gymnastics as he tries to convince himself he had no idea she could not swim, or perhaps a playful swing of an oar gone wrong. If it is true that only God and ourselves know of our sins, is it possible that it is not a sin if we do not know it as well? Surely, He cannot punish us for ignorance?

By the time Alice does meet her demise, even if it was somewhat by accident, George knows the walls are closing in on him. Having panicked dreams, looking away from cops, shying away in the presence of Angie, and seemingly sweating at all times, George tries to balance his internal panic and guilt with his optimism for the future. Clift, for his part, seems to be looking around at every turn. He, again, never speaks to his internal strife, but his nervous energy perfectly communicates exactly how he feels. He, in his subconscious, knows himself to be guilty of something. Was it just the desire to kill her (which he claims went away as they spent more time on the lake) or was it his possible inaction when he knew she was drowning? Having to wrestle with this before and after his trial, George is forced to determine what he is truly guilty of and where his sins lie before he faces God following his execution. Stevens, in turn, posits the same question to the audience. It is clear that the jury and district attorney believed that his desire to kill Alice and his habitual lying in the lead up to that event determine that he is a killer. Even if he did not strike her or hold her down under the water, he wanted her dead in his heart and that was enough to make him guilty of a mortal sin. Furthermore, he not only strung along this girl who spoke to an abortion doctor, but he also committed the sin of premarital sex while hanging on the strings of a rich girl who he fell in love with as he cheated on his girlfriend. He is a contemptible man who, in the eyes of prosecutors, lost his soul long ago and thus must now reckon with God over what this means for the rest of eternity. Leaving his actions or inaction rather mysterious, Stevens leaves it up to the audience: is he guilty of thought or is he guilty in action? Did his subconscious prevent him from saving her and erase that action from his memory? Did he commit first-degree murder? This is an issue that drives at the very heart of 1950s America in which the Red Scare was going on and people were being killed or imprisoned for their thoughts. Is a thought enough to corrupt a soul or no? To the morality-led Christians of America who led the persecution of many a communist, a thought was more than enough to make one an atheistic communist. In the case of George, the same can be said. However, in 2018, the question is far more ambiguous and, in great foresight, Stevens saw this and played into it with the film’s rather undefined mystery sitting at the center of the film.

Visually, the cinematography perfectly matches George’s fractured psyche. While Clift’s reserved and greatly physical performance is one that captures the emotions experienced by Eastman, the cinematography of William C. Mellor is put in the unenviable position of having to take what Clift is doing and is experiencing internally and putting it to the screen. Mellor smartly then relies heavily on superimposed images and dissolves. As George sits on the beach with Angie, the film superimposes an image of Alice walking to a mailbox as George’s mind visibly wanders. During his trial, an image of Angie is superimposed as she sees a newspaper about his ongoing trial while she is at school. Both in his jail cell and as he walks down the hall, an image of George and Angie embracing and kissing is superimposed with George’s cold and contemplative face looming behind the superimposition. Each scene captures what is going on in his mind. At all times, he is torn mentally. He cannot help but think of Alice when with Angie and he cannot help but think of what is going on with Angie as he faces all of these issues. He looks forlornly back on his deeply passionate and very real love affair with Angie, lamenting the issues that arose that wound up driving them apart in the end. This reliance upon superimposition communicates a great deal, speaking to the attention to detail in the film that allows it to have the emotional impact it winds up possessing. It is a film that gives great reasons for hating the moral character of George, yet it is a film that winds up making you sympathize with his predicament. It is not wholly his fault, yet he is being held to task for it all the same. It is his fault he wound up in the situation, but not his fault for how it turned out in the end. Is he still, then, worthy of being vilified in the way that he is by the public and the district attorney?

A strong drama from George Stevens, A Place in the Sun is not quite the romantic melodrama I expected, but rather a take-down of the red scare and of the way in which the seven deadly sins guide public policy and legal conclusions rather than the letter of the law. It is a film that perfectly utilizes the incredible talent of Montgomery Clift, as well as both Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters. Playing two polar opposites - the confident and “knows she is pretty” Angie portrayed by Taylor versus the desperate and inexperienced Alice portrayed by Winters - the two women both assert themselves next to the masterwork by Clift. A truly emotional journey, A Place in the Sun far exceeds all expectations.

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