A Place in the Sun (1951, George Stevens)
Of the four most gargantuan projects in once-revered, now desperately uncool director George Stevens’ filmography, A Place in the Sun is by far the best and easily the most ageless (we’re talking gargantuan in ambition and production-value terms, so Swing Time doesn’t count). And not only is it considerably better than Gunga Din, Giant, or the quite worthy Shane, it’s actually quite brilliant in its fashion. In contrast to Stevens’ other major works, it’s not a movie built on being Huge for the sake of Huge, nor is it an attempt to define its genre. In fact, what’s most striking about it is that it has no genre; elements of drama, romance, and thriller are fused effortlessly to create a beautiful, haunting, and surprisingly bleak film rife with hand-wringing intensity. Laid bare, it’s a straight adaptation of Dresier’s American Tragedy, not an especially compelling idea, and it shows us very little about its central character that lets us justify our identification with him — but the film’s extraordinary because it’s so convicted about that story, and so damned weird.
The film begins as idealistic epic: Montgomery Clift — in a performance that’s technically middling but so filled with vague, inarticulate angst that it far exceeds his turn in From Here to Eternity and matches his peak, I Confess — is a wide-eyed young man whose estranged relation to a wealthy upper-crust family leads him to a job far away from his missionary roots. He falls in with the soft-spoken, vaguely lusty coworker Shelley Winters only to simultaneously find himself drawn to the glitz and glamour of an Elizabeth Taylor roaming around the property. From there, assuming you’re unschooled on your Dreiser (or on Match Point), it’s rarely if ever apparent where the film is headed. It becomes hedonistic, powerful romance, then wrenching suspense, finally wounding drama, and it jumps to the top of the heap on all counts, particularly the first two. Except for the rather abrupt transition in Clift’s feelings for Winters, the brutality, ambiguity, and uncertainty of young love are captured with cutting accuracy. And the thriller elements are nothing so simple as they might seem, jumping in seconds from a man with a terrible secret to a man on the run, all cards sickeningly face up on the table.
Aside from the brilliant direction and staging, of which more below, and excellent photography by William Mellor, the glue of the film is the two female leads, captured with sensitivity and even-handedness by the screenwriters. The key of the film’s success is in finding the children in both Shelley Winters, as believably and raw desperate as she later would be in Lolita, and Elizabeth Taylor, atypically human… but also Monty Clift himself, who takes on the disguise and distortion of adulthood and spends much of the running time losing the armor of maturity; wooing Winters, he’s almost frighteningly self-assured and cool-headed. By the midway point, he is unmistakably the poor boy again, once dominating and now dominated, by both Taylor and the fears that come with their mutual affections. It’s Taylor’s character who makes the most interesting change, opening up as a confident, radiant sparkle, reverting slowly to her true and fragile, curious youth. All these performers create something stunningly complete from their essentially broad characters, no one content to strike a single note, or to waste a second with something easy or false.
Stevens’ direction is a bright spot even in his movies that don’t completely work; Shane is merely an OK western at its core, but Stevens’ visual and visceral power elevates it to something unusual and much appreciated, a genre picture with blood running through it. Likewise, A Place in the Sun comes to us with intelligence, subtle power, and perfect storytelling execution. Stevens’ and Mellor’s work here is not just appropriate to the occasion but entirely wild and engaging by any standard, making taut and intoxicating use of any number of unusual compositions, delicious extended takes, and long shots that emphasize a growing emotional alienation in the characters even as we identify ever more closely with them. The deep focus shots are not many steps away from the dreamlike surrealism of Night of the Hunter, in service of course of a much more conventional tale, and the strange permeating feeling of dread across everything from despairing faces to lonely one-room apartments is enough to make you wince.
Oscar-heavy features like this come and go in their reputations, and with good reason; the vast majority of them are far less sophisticated and seductive than they might initially seem, and they are almost always locked irrevocably into their time and will have a dishearteningly brief shelf life. A Place in the sun shines as something different in Stevens’ award-magnet filmography and in the annals of classic mainstream Hollywood. It’s an impressive movie in every way but particularly in terms of its visuals. As great as the acting is, the pictures tell the story: Monty Clift’s lonely one-on-one with his telephone, the kiss that is a jumble of facial features in a process of abstract melding, Shelley Winters’ disturbing pleas directly to the camera while beads of sweat run off the face of her nemesis/lover. This is cathartic, this is pure cinematic emotion, this is masterful filmmaking at the highest level. It’s also an impossibly bleak vision of humanity, and for this too, it stands out.
Some critics argue A Place in the Sun veers too much toward shrill tearjerker routine toward its finale. There is considerable truth in this (though I can’t agree with the conventional wisdom that Raymond Burr, barely able to contain himself in the courtroom, is an unwelcomely over-the-top addition). Rather than lurching back to life and punching the viewer as it already has dozens of times, the film ends in a straightforward fashion… though hardly, in story terms, a typical one; it’s actually quite dark. But what applies for the rest of the film applies to its tackling of depressive social drama: there’s conviction behind everything. The seriousness helps; it’s never suffocating, but the romance, for instance, is extremely serious romance. The suspense is squirm-inducing. Everything in the movie, in other words, is done right, and it avoids the problem of biting off more than it can chew with simple elbow grease. All Stevens had to do was find a way to put himself completely behind every idea.
Then again, Orson Welles did the same with The Lady from Shanghai. A great movie, no doubt, and a much greater cinematic achievement, but also a bit less cohesive and emotionally arousing than A Place in the Sun, and the key to this problem lies in what the filmmakers have done to tie the ingredients in a neat and irresistible package. The audience is allowed truly to be inside Montgomery Clift’s head. It drives us insane, it gets us in trouble, and we’re in love. We’re at the goddamn movies.
[Originally posted in 2007, with a few new sentences added.]