A bona fide film classic, George Stevens’ movie is less revered as an excellent adaptation of Theodore Dreiser than for its intense, almost hallucinatory romantic scenes between Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. A guileless poor boy tries to succeed above his economic background and entangles himself between two very different women. I guess the Academy wasn’t ready to take the glamorous young MGM beauty seriously: both Clift and their co-star Shelley Winters received acting nominations, but not Liz. Stevens’ first ‘fifties picture is perhaps the most balanced of his ‘heavy’ and ‘important’ works, a tragedy that’s too deeply felt to be merely ponderous.
A Place in the Sun
Viavision [Imprint] 8
1951 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 122 min. / Street Date August, 2020 /
Starring: Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters, Anne Revere, Keefe Brasselle, Fred Clark, Raymond Burr, Walter Sande, Ted de Corsia, Kathleen Freeman, Kasey Rogers, Douglas Spencer, Ian Wolfe.
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Film Editor: William Hornbeck
Original Music: Franz Waxman
Written by Harry Brown, Michael Wilson from the play by
Patrick Kearney and the novel by Theodore Dreiser
Produced by George Stevens & Ivan Moffat
Directed by George Stevens
Once upon a time, the idea that war changed people was a given. Nobody asked why a number of individualistic filmmakers made pictures differently after WW2 than they had before, because the business changed so quickly. The ones they always pick out — William Wyler, John Ford, etc. enjoyed career continuity and an enviable degree of choice of what they directed, a luxury unknown to most Hollywood directors. What’s perhaps more accurate is that some filmmakers started taking themselves more seriously than before. William Wyler had his share of harsh duty, but if asked he would probably say that he regretted losing much of his hearing. Frank Capra complained about a change of attitude that made his brand of positive-minded pictures seem outdated. In reality Capra couldn’t adjust to no longer being one of the town’s all-powerful kings.
George Stevens had done his share of serious dramas but his shift of attitude was deemed one of the most profound. He witnessed things in Europe that deeply affected him. Never again would he make a comedy as light-hearted as The More the Merrier. He instead made bigger and bigger films about ever-more serious issues, movies that seemingly wanted to change the world. And his movies became longer in duration. Stevens’ nostalgic ode to motherhood I Remember Mama is 134 minutes in duration; it plays as if Stevens can’t quite absorb the finality of death, something he had seen in a horrifying extreme at the end of the war. Stevens soon learned that just being honest and thoughtful wasn’t enough. His utterly forgotten Something to Live For is a study in ‘everyday’ alcoholism that despite being involving and well made, clearly lacked some ‘gotta see’ factor. From that point forward George Stevens only made a handful of films, each of which had something important about it, or something special to attract major attention. His reputation allowed him to attract the biggest stars. Of all of Hollywood’s directors Stevens was the one who thought he was in the masterpiece business.
You can’t get any darker or more important than Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, a tale of misdirected ambition and class differences in our supposedly classless society. Filmed before to little impact by Josef Von Sternberg, it was just the kind of meaningful project that George Stevens felt warranted his exacting preparation. The studio didn’t want to remake the earlier flop, but Stevens attracted top talent and proceeded on his own course. Athough technically one of the ‘social problem’ films of the day, A Place in the Sun isn’t about race prejudice or anti-semitism, and it didn’t take the hysterical exposé approach of Robert Rosson’s All The King’s Men. Although Sun has lost none of its power or artistry, its story of economic class distinctions is not what people talk about. It’s instead a dream-romantic landmark movie that has timeless for Stevens’ incredibly steamy romantic scenes with his stars Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. The close-ups appear in innumerable montages. An image of the lovers together inspired an entire novel, Steve Erickson’s Zeroville.
If A Place in the Sun were a film noir, it would be the ultimate loser noir downspin tragedy. Penniless young George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) isn’t a defeatist whiner like Al Roberts in Detour, but the character qualities that make him vulnerable are not abnormal, and not really his fault. George hitchhikes into a small industrial town on the promise of a job from a wealthy relative. The Eastmans and the Vickers are the local elite, but George is a poor relation and clearly doesn’t fit in. He’s given a menial job in a swimsuit plant. Out of loneliness, he begins an illicit affair with the lonely assembly line girl Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). But George’s eye and heart have also been caught by the beautiful and wealthy Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), who becomes attracted to this different kind of young man. George is presented with a tough choice. He feels responsible for Alice, the girl from his own class, but this angel Angela comes with the promise of a life better than his wildest dreams …
With A Place in the Sun Stevens perfects the painstaking, likely very expensive working process he developed on the earlier I Remember Mama. Other directors rushed to finish their films as economically as possible, but Stevens shot prodigious quantities of film to cover his scenes from innumerable angles, so as to give himself unlimited latitude in the cutting room — allowing him to ‘direct’ in the cutting room. Not many directors have had this kind of luxury. Even movies by ‘auteurs’ we often see editing decisions dictated by a lack of coverage. With Stevens we know every cut was intentional, an ‘in control’ choice. Sometimes he does quite a bit of cutting, and in another scene he’ll just hold a wide shot. A Place in the Sun has a precision to its method at all times.
The film’s downbeat tone and devastating conclusion is just as bleak as the same year’s Ace in the Hole but without Billy Wilder’s unrelenting cynicism. Audiences were primarily enraptured by the film’s romantic fireworks. This is surely Elizabeth Taylor’s best performance to date, and one of Montgomery Clift’s finest as well. Love Liz or despise her, there’s no denying that her ultra-ravishing presence provides more than enough reason for any man to do anything to possess her. Those soft-focus close-ups of her eyes framed over Clift’s shoulder are as beautiful as anything in a silent Garbo feature. Before his untimely auto accident in 1955 Montgomery Clift was also often described as ‘beautiful.’ Clift has his needy, up-and-coming poor relation act down pat. George never grovels for sympathy, nor overdoes the awkwardness or embarassment; you feel that even if you put him in the fine suits of his relatives, his hang-dog body language would still give him away. He cannot escape the harsh fundamentalist upbringing of his mother (Anne Revere).
A scene near the end sees George’s severe mother witness a chaplain’s attempt to discuss with George the subject of his guilt or lack thereof. The preacher’s solicitousness seems too harsh, although I think it’s straight from Dreiser. George has accepted his fate, but can’t decide whether or not his sentence was fair. If most of us were in his shoes, a thoughtful review would be difficult at best. I can’t see myself being able to formulate a single coherent thought. Clift’s ability to express inner conflict and doubt was unmatched, as can be seen to less grim effect in I Confess and Wild River.
Stevens’ reputation was such that most any ambitious actor would kill to work for him. Shelley Winters had been acting for eight years but had only received screen credit in the last four. Although she had received her share of good breaks this was a chance to nab an Oscar nomination. Her performance is what gives the show its distinctive edge — we can’t enjoy the Clift-Taylor romance without feeling guilty for the ‘disposable’ Alice. Of course, part of the trick was making Alice seem so dowdy — Winters was known as a glamour girl. Alice is just as tragic a loser as is George Eastman. In most every romantic setup somebody somebody gets hurt, and it isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault. But getting killed… ?
The supporting cast is first rate, with Raymond Burr a standout as a wily prosecuting attorney. When we ’50s kids first saw the show we knew Burr mostly as Perry Mason, not realizing that he was much better known as the best slimy-villain menace in the business. George’s defense attorney is Walter Sande, a nice guy that Burr will surely grind into powder in the courtroom. How could Sande allow George to cooperate with Burr’s slanted charade-replay of the boat episode? Every smaller part is a choice pick: Keefe Brasselle, Fred Clark, Shepperd Strudwick. Does the having the typecast villain Ted de Corsia play a judge opposite ‘villain’ Raymond Burr as the prosecutor make justice seem cruel in general? Perhaps the only unintentionally iffy casting choice is Paul Frees as the Reverend at the finale — his voice is now so well known from voiceovers, that he looks as if he’s being dubbed.
A Place in the Sun’s spiral of dark events never seems like a fated, noirish tale, not pessimistic for its own sake or overly rigged for tragedy. The message is that things like this happen in our society, but George Eastman remains an individual and not a symbol of oppression. Neither his fault of character nor a cruel society can be given blame for his sad story. Stevens was very conservative in some ways but a proud liberal in others. Along with John Ford, he fought in the Director’s Guild against the blacklist, etc.. He shared the social consciousness of directors that made directly subversive social statements (Joseph Losey in The Prowler, Cy Endfield in Try and Get Me!) but not their outsider attitude. Stevens did not have a hysterical or outraged visual style. Dreiser’s authorial message does not seem like a polemic.
Before the war Stevens proved himself a versatile master director of slapstick comedy, darker social comedy, musicals and even an action epic with a flip attitude way ahead of its time. In his postwar ‘important’ films he developed a particular sober visual approach, and stayed with it. Certain typical Stevens touches stand out ….
He sometimes uses extremely long dissolves. Lap dissolves in films back then were difficult to make smooth and even. Instead of the usual four or eight footers, Stevens has a couple of sixty footers, so flawless you’d think they were done electronically. One takes place to illustrate the fact that George has spent the night with Alice. The scene previous is just some voices heard in a darkened room, with the lit dial of a radio the only apparent source of light. In this time and place, their passion is something shameful, to be hidden. Seen through the window of Alice’s rooming house, a slow dissolve to the pre-dawn light expresses the sordidness of George’s exit.
When Stevens uses symbols, they’re extremely elegant. At one point George joins a boatload of pampered young rich vacationers, and the launch rips out across a beautiful lake. The camera stays on the floating dock, faming the boat in the background. A portable radio is on the dock, right in front of the camera. A news report of the discovery of a corpse is heard on the radio just as the ripple-wake of the boat reaches the dock, causing the radio and the camera to bob up and down, ‘destabilizing’ the image. George’s life is about to do much the same.
Finally, Stevens really knows how to get mileage out of understatement. In a panic, afraid of being picked up by the cops, George stalks down a wooded lane wondering how he will get clear of his predicament. Franz Waxman’s soundtrack score goes nuts with nervous music. Instead of a big manhunt or a police showdown, George just walks smack into a waiting deputy who appears haloed in a mist of tobacco smoke. “Your name George Eastman?” the man asks with unassailable authority. And that’s that — this unarmed stranger has George pegged. He no more thinks he can escape than he can fly.
Some critics ask whether George Eastman is indeed guilty of his crime, and cite the kangaroo court that uses theatrics to convict him. But Stevens makes clear the message that it doesn’t matter if George technically committed murder or not. He is guilty and knows he is, because he knew what he wanted and knew he wanted it enough to consider murder. The downbeat, bloodless conclusion doesn’t let George off the hook, but it does help him to find some peace of mind. The power of A Place in the Sun is more than Detour’s ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ Our identification with George is such that we know we’d have damned ourselves far faster than he did, if tempted by the same worldly rewards.
Viavision [Imprint]’s Blu-ray of A Place in the Sun features Paramount’s 4K restoration. The movie doesn’t ‘pop’ as do some restorations, apparently because Stevens’ original visual style, a choice that didn’t go for hard contrasts. Even when I rented the film back in the 1970s, I was told that cameraman William Mellor gave it a slightly gray, washed out look. It’s almost like the diffused silvery look of early ’30s Paramount pictures, a look partially imposed by the film stock of that time. More contrast is usually wanted to hide dirt and other photochemical flaws, which is what makes Sun’s many opticals look so special — they’re all smooth and immaculate.
The audio is also strong, with Franz Waxman’s romantic themes carrying a sense of irresistible longing for the rewards of ‘a place in the sun.’ The movie ended up winning six Oscars, for the director, his writers Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, Mellor’s camerawork, Edith Head’s costumes for Liz Taylor, and Waxman’s music. The Academy even rewarded William Hornbeck’s impressive editing, although George Stevens surely took charge of every cut and every optical.
Viavision repeats extras from Paramount’s older DVD editions. First up is a nice commentary track with Stevens’ son George Jr., who points out a few of the more academic highlights of his father’s style. Joining Jr. on the track is associate producer Ivan Moffat, adding colorful first-hand observations and memories of the filming. Both men also contribute to a video making-of piece that incorporates interviews with Shelley Winters and Elizabeth Taylor. Shelley’s account of winning her role is believable, but Taylor simply talks about the magic of working with Montgomery Clift. Being a Hollywood legend doesn’t require a factual memory. She tells us that she had never been kissed until recently before the movie, yet she’d done kissing scenes on screen as early as 1947.
Besides a trailer and a photo gallery we also get a Paramount-produced example of the celebrity testimonial. In shots that might have been filmed by Stevens Jr. for documentaries about his father, we hear praise from eight film directors, including Warren Beatty, Frank Capra, Joe Mankiewicz, Rouben Mamoulian, Robert Wise, and Fred Zinnemann.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A Place in the Sun
Supplements: Commentary with George Stevens Jr. and Ivan Moffat; making-of featurette George Stevens and his Place in the Sun; testimonial featurette George Stevens: The Filmmakers Who Knew Him; trailer, photo gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Region-Free Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 4, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson