Film and Television Features

A Place in the Sun (1951)

Nothing fazed George Stevens. The political climate was dire when A Place in the Sun went in production. Cold War paranoia had taken a grip on America, by then in the midst of The Korean War and a communist witch-hunt that destroyed careers and reputations. Producers and directors were shying away from liberal-themed films, especially those that mirrored a troubled society. If Stevens carried a weight of worries, it was never shown in public, not even to those close to him. But this was a film he had to make, only his second since his discharge from the Army. His film unit had been the first to witness and document the death toll at Nazi concentration camps, which became crucial evidence at the Nuremberg trials. The Holocaust had changed Stevens, and he couldn’t go back to the light fare that had made him a successful director.

A Place in the Sun appealed to Stevens, although it had been filmed before. Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy was helmed by the prestigious Josef von Sternberg in 1931, but it failed to stir the Depression-era public. Both directors were masters of the visual medium, yet A Place in the Sun has become a perennial classic while Sternberg’s version is virtually forgotten. There are several reasons for this, starting with Michael Wilson and Harry Brown’s script, which captures the novel’s narrative points without giving short-shrift to its three main characters.

The story centers around George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), who we first see hitching a ride to the company town where the Eastman Swimwear factory is located. His uncle, Charles Eastman, has offered him a job there. George, the child of soup-kitchen evangelists, has grown in poverty, but he’s drawn to the material comfort of his rich relatives. In his cheap tweed suit, he becomes an awkward figure at their social gatherings. He is given a lowly position at the factory’s packaging station, where he meets Alice Tripp. Despite the company’s policy against fraternizing, George and Alice start to date, and their relationship becomes physical. Meanwhile, his wallflower days at the Eastman’s come to a close when he meets Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), a wealthy socialite.

Things begin to look up for George, with a promotion at the factory, a growing romance with Angela, and an acceptance in the social circle. Yet everything is placed in jeopardy when Alice declares her pregnancy. Their attempt to procure an abortion is unsuccessful. Alice wants marriage but George procrastinates, torn between nagging responsibility and his romantic yearnings for Angela. Desperation takes over on their trip to a marriage registry office. Relieved that it will be closed for the weekend, George suggests a side trip to a nearby lake. While canoeing there, his opportunity to fix a drowning accident is now at hand. I won’t reveal the rest of the plot, except to say that this is a story about moral quandaries. George fails to meet them head on, with harrowing consequences for the women who love him.

George hovers between two worlds. Blood ties allow him to move in society, but class distinctions remain strict. Steven’s staging of scenes brings this point across. For instance, his meeting with the Eastmans is staged with the family in the foreground as George walks towards them in the background, staying a small figure until addressed directly by the clan. Even the transition between scenes brings the point across. The dissolves linger on, allowing for the juxtaposition of images, particularly the transition between George’s workingman life and the luxury and leisure enjoyed by the Eastmans.

Stevens’ directorial style is the opposite of John Ford’s, who only shot enough footage to ensure that editors and producers wouldn’t mangle his vision. Stevens had a purpose in shooting enormous amounts of film. He began his directorial career helming Laurel and Hardy two-reelers, so he knew how to shoot economically. Now, as his own producer, he had the prerogative of final cut. It must be said, though, that few directors around that time, with exceptions like David Lean and Frank Capra, viewed editing as an essential tool, and only a small number had total freedom in the cutting room. Stevens made multiple camera settings in order to capture performance nuances in the editing. Take for example George and Angela’s first kiss: On paper, it would be a commonplace scene, yet Stevens gives it the emotional import that explains George’s psyche and his gradual transformation into putative killer. It’s a scene shot in tight over-the-shoulder close-ups, its flowing rhythm made with unobtrusive cuts. George has finally found his dream girl, their chemistry is strong, and nothing will come between them.

Stevens’ casting was unusual: Montgomery Clift was a Method actor, Elizabeth Taylor had been a child actress groomed for stardom by MGM, and Shelley Winters had been typecast in vixen roles. There’s nothing jarring in the performances, though. Clift immerses himself in the character, working from the inside out and projecting George’s tics, desires, and fears. He also had the uncanny ability to get in sync with other actors, no matter the acting style. Taylor wasn’t just a pretty face either. Her Angela Vickers is a complex character that transforms from carefree socialite to grieving soul. Winters may have been the wildest card here, but she eschewed glamour trappings to play homely Alice Tripp, earning her first Oscar nomination. There’s a remarkable scene at a doctor’s office, with a desperate Alice hinting her wish for an abortion, speaking with watchful hesitation, then breaking down as the doctor reacts with creeping uneasiness.

Stevens subverted the rigid Motion Picture Code, but the reason this film stays fresh is its honesty. It’s about what goes on in the world. George Eastman’s story could be our own. Romantic dreams are often dashed with the same violence, moral quandaries confound the best of us, and acts of infinite cruelty make our front pages. It’s not a nice world, but it’s the world we live in.