A Place in the Sun
Upon its 1951 release did Charlie Chaplain proclaim George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun as being “the greatest movie ever made about America.” Ignoring the achievements of Robert Altman’s Nashville and Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, that statement, while arguable, does hold a great deal of weight — addressing the setbacks that come along with trying to achieve the American Dream gracefully and commenting on the effects judgmental societal normalities can have on a damaged person, it’s a film discontent with glossing over the blemishes that overtake the life of its protagonist. What happens when you climb to the top of the social ladder, coming from nothing, only to crash and burn because of a past mistake?
While it leans toward melodrama and is visually benign in comparison to its marvelous content, A Place in the Sun is a thoughtful, sometimes scathing, tearjerker turned urgent by its powerhouse trio of leading performers. Stevens’s direction is conventional, and the screenplay, by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, is operatic and sometimes unconvincing (“I’ve loved you since the first moment I saw you. I guess maybe I’ve even loved you before I saw you,” our hero confesses to his romantic interest just forty minutes into the film). But Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters, all in the same league as the touchy-feely Marlon Brando (who broke out that same year with A Streetcar Named Desire), are electric, intense.
Some scholarly writers have damned A Place in the Sun as a crowd-pleasing studio plaything that won over the hearts of the Academy as more revolutionary works, like Strangers on a Train and Ace in the Hole, were pushed aside and frequently critically disparaged. But while it’s true that the film isn’t as artistically reviving as the aforementioned underdogs, to underrate its merit as an era defining film dishonors its ahead-of-its-time vivacity. Lastingly radical it isn’t. But still fresh is the appeal of its actors and its fascinatingly symbiotic relationship between romance and tragedy.
Adapted from Theodore Dresier’s classic 1925 novel An American Tragedy, A Place in the Sun concerns George Eastman (Clift), a lower-class twenty-something attempting to make a name for himself. The nephew of Charles Eastman (Herbert Hayes), a renowned entrepreneur, he travels to the city wearing his higher-up connection on his sleeve, quickly acquiring an assembly line job at his uncle’s factory. The work is tedious and tiring, but, determined to shed the skin of his blue-collar upbringing, George is grateful and begins the long process of trying to prove himself.
Soon after his rookie rep starts to wear out its welcome, George starts dating Alice (Winters), a good-natured blonde drawn in by his looks and his name. There’s a feeling in the air that Alice likes George a great deal more than he likes her, but before things can be broken off and forgotten as a fling of the past, a sinful, hasty rendezvous leaves Alice pregnant.
Too motivated by his personal goals to let this life-changer of a revelation step in the way of his moving forward, George drifts away from Alice in favor of Angela Vickers (Taylor), a sultry young socialite whom possesses everything Alice doesn’t: poise, a sense of humor, and fresh-faced sexiness. It doesn’t take long for George to decide that the girl was made for him, and it doesn’t take long for Angela to decide that this man was meant to marry her. A bright future awaits him. But with Alice and their soon-to-be child consistently tugging on his coattails, threatening to out him for his indiscretions and therefore destroying his potential, George considers committing the unthinkable.
With its aura of definitive tragedy looming in the foreground at every given moment, akin to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, A Place in the Sun ceaselessly bears an atmosphere of cruciality. Its scenes of romance, already enlivened by Clift and Taylor’s incredibly potent chemistry, render the heart with their passionate bittersweetness, and its scenes of conflict, oftentimes photographically doused in shadow to reflect their cynicism, ache in their doomed inevitability. It’s a movie that feels archetypal, a mold for latter-day romantic dramas to take the shape of.
Clift, Taylor, and Winters are just as vital. On par with James Dean and John Garfield, relatable, sensitive actors able to display excruciatingly painful emotion unabashedly, Clift is an empathetically drawn tragic hero whose shaky moral values make him all the more captivating. Taylor, naive but assured, luscious but modest, is an ingenue of rare maturity — Taylor herself credits the film as being the first instance in which she really acted — and Winters, a doleful clinger simply trying to fight for the love she knows she’ll never receive, is effectively heartbreaking.
Most remarkable about A Place in the Sun, though, is how contemplative, and how understated, it is in what it has to say about America and the expected success that comes along with attempting to live up to its perceived Dream. How hard it is to achieve it after a red mark on your past proves impossible to leave behind; how hard it is to achieve it when the world is unforgiving, when the world seems eager to watch you fall. The commentary loses its luster as times become more progressive and less willing to blacklist. But A Place in the Sun’s package of glittery romance, accidental tragedy, and quintessential drama determines it as an investing sign of the times, beautiful but scarred, dated but invincible in its power to move. A-