One of the most tender and erotic kisses in film occurs in A Place in the Sun, director George Stevens’s 1951 adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy. That this indelible moment transpires between Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in the heyday of their remarkable physical beauty doesn’t hurt. But it’s not for nothing that the young actors—each giving one of their career-best performances and extraordinarily magnetic together—are guided by Stevens and shot by cinematographer William C. Mellor, both multiple Academy Award nominees and both winning this time out. (The film received nine Oscar nominations and won six, including editing, costume design, and Franz Waxman’s score.) Stevens, along with William Wyler and George Cukor, is considered one of the foremost “actor’s directors” from the ‘30s through the ‘50s and his hand has rarely been seen to more expert effect than with the cast of this classic.
Dreiser is often more admired in the abstract than read with avid appreciation for his scrupulously observed chronicles of American life in the early 1900s. (His other most notable novels include Sister Carrie, The Titan, and Jennie Gerhardt.) He is an important writer, not only for his naturalistic treatments of working people and the constraints of economic necessity but for his incisive explorations of the tensions inherent among desire, ambition, social mores—of what “the American Dream” actually could, if anything, mean. However, few will argue that his lengthy and sometimes turgid tales can be tough to navigate. Screenwriters Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, who also won an Oscar here for their work, bring Dreiser’s novel forward to the contemporary post-WWII era and successfully distill an essence of conflicting aspirations that is moving and memorable.
The plot, in short, focuses on George Eastman (Clift) a working-class young man, thoughtful, sensitive, and desperate to free himself from a dreary upbringing rooted in dour religiosity and near-poverty. His route for getting out and getting ahead is to hitchhike to another town and take a job as a factory worker at his successful uncle’s company. Over time he proves himself, his newfound society family invite him—gradually and not without condescension—into their society, and he falls in love with the wealthy, beautiful debutante Angela Vickers (Taylor). Unfortunately, during his slow ascent he has been assuaging his loneliness by “seeing” the rather plain and similarly lonely Alice Tripp, a wistful, self-deprecating, clingy girl from the factory (Shelley Winters, who is excellent), and just as his professional and social prospects begin to improve Alice tells him she is pregnant. She asserts that he must do the proper thing by her and by society. A tragedy ensues through which everyone’s life is irrevocably changed.
Stevens’s filmography included a gamut of Americana, from Swing Time with Astaire and Rogers (1936) to Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, and Charles Coburn in The More the Merrier (1943), I Remember Mama with Irene Dunne (1948), and Alan Ladd in Shane (1953). For all the variety of subject matter in his career, key scenes from his films are chiefly remembered for one of two characteristics—either emotional immediacy or capacious scope. A master of sequential and often lingering close-ups that filled the screen with characters’ faces, and particularly focused on the eyes, he knew how to draw the viewer into the hearts and minds of his characters, and was particularly adept at evincing from actors very credible psychological and emotional complexity, the simultaneity of conflicted feelings and competing thoughts (I Remember Mama, and 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank). Alternatively, he sometimes displayed an almost Whitmanesque determination to portray his explorations of the American Dream against settings of epic scope (Shane, and his 1956 adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel Giant). A few critics have suggested that his use of the grand scale in establishing shots, scene set-ups, and vistas occasionally came at the expense of narrative pace, but with A Place in the Sun the coordination between Stevens’s “opened-up”, even stately, shots and angles, and his brilliant use of close-ups for the actors’ more psychologically subtle dramatic scenes takes on a fine sense of balance; he synthesizes his two signatures to more powerful effect than in any other film in his canon. From the opening scene of George thumbing a ride beside the highway, when the camera pans from a tight frame on his searching gaze to distance-shots of his figure with wide open spaces all around, we know immediately we’re in an American landscape where the sky’s the limit—but luck will get you there faster. And contrasted with the cramped quarters of his youth we soon come to see the protagonist framed in glossy long-shots in the drawing room of his well-to-do relatives’ home, in the country club, and at the airy lake houses of their smart set. George’s scenes with Angela radiate an aura of promise, while the scenes of the unraveling relationship with Alice have a bleak edge—they take on the dim fatedness of noir and exude the desperation of being pulled back, pulled down, of suffocating.
Interestingly, Dreiser’s An American Tragedy was published in the 1925, the same year that Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—a now far more widely read masterwork—also appeared on the scene to probe the kaleidoscopic values of the American Dream. Stylistically the novels could scarcely be more different, but both are meditations on what can happen when any aspect of the supposedly shared ethos idealized in that Dream is misconstrued, perverted, or corrupted—when aspiration becomes delusion and social mobility a monomaniacal climb, economic opportunity turns to greed, individual liberty devolves into heedless license and self-invention into fraud.
Montgomery Clift has never been better. His performance is complex, layered, and superbly calibrated. He is an earnest but calculating young man caught in a vortex, at once ambitious enough to compromise on some moral decisions but too decent to opt for complete indifference and deceit. Everyone in the story wants something they do not possess, the haves as well as the have-nots, and George is the only character who is of both worlds but at home in neither. As with Clift’s portrayal of Catherine Sloper’s suitor, Morris Townsend, in Wyler’s The Heiress (1949) there’s an unknowability to his George. The viewer becomes involved in his dilemma in direct proportion to the uncertainty Clift progressively projects as to whether some vital part of him is missing or we just haven’t yet seen it. Torn between different codes of aspiration and ethics, self-determination and crassness, George struggles to negotiate his own delicate path—and Clift makes us feel how confounding it is to be the only character living three distinct narratives as they unfold at once.
Elizabeth Taylor’s long career as actor produced an uneven record. Left to her own devices her performances, though invariably branded with personality, were sometimes tinny, two-dimensional, and unconvincing. However, in strong material with superior directors and co-stars she could rise to the occasion. Here, at only 18 through most of the filming, placing herself willingly in Stevens’ hands, and partnering Clift who had quickly become one of her dearest friends and remained so until his death, she does lovely, well-modulated work. Sharing kinship with Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan, her Angela is a dazzling, rich American girl, but fresher and without the fey jadedness. It is deeply moving to watch the disturbance of her complacent self-possession by George’s ingenuous hopes and passion.
Together, Clift and Taylor become a riveting sum even greater than their parts: George and Angela are an unforgettable screen duet, inhabiting the complex emotional colorings and psychological nuances of Stevens’s vision of Dreiser’s novel with flesh and blood and thwarted passion. Some film classics are appreciated chiefly within the context of their time and genre. A Place in the Sun invites repeated viewing because, with neither sentimentality nor cynicism, its timeless tragic romance—its pervasive sense of restless longing—embodies so many of the salient questions about what it means to be American.
– Hadley Hury
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