Wednesday 7 January 2015

A Place in the Sun (1951)

En Plads i Solen
It is time for the first film of the year and that honor falls to the sobering “A Place in the Sun”. This movie is decidedly not a party, but after the party of “An American in Paris” I am okay with that.

“A Place in the Sun” is a clever film because it plays with the audience. We are presented with this guy who keeps making wrong decisions. Not by accident, but fully consciously he does the wrong thing again and again. In a normal film I would quickly notice that, and in this case I am also warned by the synopsis in the Book, and my normal response would be to detach myself from the character. Obviously this is a miscreant who will end up getting what he deserves. But here is the interesting part. George Stevens, the director, portrays this young man, played by Montgomery Clift, as a sympathetic, sweet and innocent looking young man to such an extent that despite myself I cannot help rooting for him.

So, he is a flawed hero, that is nothing new, and yet it is because Stevens takes it to an entirely new level. There is no malice in George Eastman, Clift’s character. In a sense he is as honest as the country bumpkin he is supposed to be, yet he manages to get himself entangled in a plot that is about as dishonest and vile as imaginable and he has only himself to thank. Do you like such a character or do you despise him? That is the cleverness of the movie, because you end up doing both.

I have seen several sources that make up this movie to be a social commentary, a bit like “The Crowd”, where George Eastman is craving for the trappings of the rich and famous and is violating the rules to get there. I do not see that at all. George is a fish out of water who is struggling with his own poor choices and poor judgment. This conflict between good and bad, sympathetic character and wrong choices is in my opinion the theme of the story. A film noir where the femme fatale is essentially himself.

George starts down this road when he works in the factory packing room and deliberately break the most explicit rule of the company and initiate a relationship with one of his co-workers, Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). You cannot blame her, it is all him coming onto her. Oh, he is nice and charming and young people fall in love, but there is a good reason for this rule, it serves to protect the employees from abuse and true enough, when shortly after something better shows up on the radar George loses interest in Alice.

This is George next poor choice. Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) is young, beautiful, charming and stinking rich. Let is just be nice to George and assume it is her winning personality and not her wealth he falls for, but still, this girl is far outside his league. Watching George in the company of Angela and her friends and family is a painful exercise of fish out of the water.

For a while George is playing two horses because he does not seem willing to give up on Alice either. Yet another poor choice. This comes to a head when Alice finds out she is pregnant and at the same time suspects that George is losing interest with her. The right and honorable thing here of course is to make a reality check and get his situation sorted out one way or the other. Either commit himself fully to Alice and the baby or to make a clean and generous settlement which with access to Angela’s ocean of wealth ought to be an easy matter. Instead George avoids the confrontation with either of them and instead opt for a third solution, to arrange for an accident to befall Alice. Talk about really poor choice!

All through this Montgomery Clift manages to instill in George a boyish innocence that even wins us over so we cannot but feel with him all the way through to the electric chair. That is quite a feat.

The two leading ladies are quite remarkable and deserves some special attention. Especially Shelley Winters. At this point in her career she was playing brash and sexy young women with a can-do spirit. I saw her in “Winchester ’73” and in “Red River” and in both movies she was a lush and inviting woman. Much more than just a romantic interest. In “A Place in the Sun” she is completely transformed. She barely makes it as romantic interest. Instead she is drab and dull and every bit an excuse for herself. Her character is flattered by George’s interest and it is easy to think of her as an easy conquest for him. When he burns her there is a quiet desperation to her as if she is almost bursting to tears, but keeping it together with a wild hope that maybe, just maybe, George will love her again as before. It is such a massive difference from her earlier roles that at first I did not recognize her at all. It earned her an Academy nomination and a well-deserved one.

The other woman is her opposite. Angela is the first big role for Elizabeth Taylor, who was only 18 years old at the time of the filming. Of course it helps that everything about the filming is smooth when she is in the picture, but still this is a massive entry of an actress. She owns every scene she is in and it is easy to see the mega star she is on her way to become. Taylor had actually already been in movies for about a decade at the time, but nothing as big as this.

One thing I was thinking watching this movie was that I bet Stevens had been watching the Murnau classic “Sunrise”. I know “A Place in the Sun” is an adaptation of a famous book, but there are so many parallels to that story. A man torn between the known, earthy woman with whom he has a commitment and the woman that promises him dreams beyond expectation. He takes the first woman onto a lake with the intention to kill her but experience a change of heart. Here the two stories depart as if Stevens had thought what would have happened if the man from “Sunrise” had actually ended up killing his wife? We end up forgiving the farmer, but can we forgive George? He did have the change of mind after all and did not want to kill her, yet she died. Interesting thought.

“A Place in the Sun” won a lot of Oscars, but not the big one. It is certainly the kind of movie that the Academy loves, but were the brilliant components enough to give a great sum? I just do not know. It is a movie I respect more than I love and I am glad I saw it, but will I have the stamina to see it again?



  1. I can't believe I haven't seen this yet! I've been looking forward to it because George Stevens is really underrated as a director in my opinion. I look forward to it even more now that I've read your review.

    1. It is quite an experience and I think you will like it. Or at least appreciate it because it is an achievement by Stevens. Just beware that it challenges you as a viewer.

  2. About the only time I felt a little sympathy for him was when his girlfriend knew she was losing him and so got pregnant by him in order to trap him. She figured he'd have no choice but to "do the right thing" and marry her.

    1. In terms of choices he is clearly a villain, no doubt about it. I decided early on that my sympathy for him could lie on a very small place. However Stevens insists on making him so innocent and sympathetic that unconciously I was rebelling against that decision.