[Film Review] A Place in the Sun (1951)

A Place in the Sun poster

Title: A Place in the Sun
Year: 1951
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: George Stevens
Michael Wilson
Harry Brown
based on the novel AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY by Theodore Dreiser
and play by Patrick Kearney
Music: Franz Waxman
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Montgomery Clift
Elizabeth Taylor
Shelley Winters
Anne Revere
Herbert Heyes
Keefe Brasselle
Lois Chartrand
Raymond Burr
Fred Clark
Shepperd Strudwick
Frieda Inescort
Walter Sande
Ian Wolfe
Kathryn Givney
Ted de Corsia
Rating: 8.1/10

A Place in the Sun 1951

George Steven’s high-caliber moral drama, a six-times Oscar winner (including BEST DIRECTOR and SCREENPLAY), is a tellingly puissant moral lesson adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s novel, AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, inspired by real event. A working-class young man George Eastman (Clift), comes to town to work for his industrialist uncle Charles Eastman (Heyes), strives to fight for a better future, but begins to bog down into a dilemma when his low-class girlfriend Alice Tripp (Winters) gets pregnant and puts pressure on an immediate marriage, whilst a gorgeous socialite Angela Vickers (Taylor), whom he secretly admires, surprisingly reciprocates her affections.

Any advice to solve George’s dilemma? Not hindsight wisdom, yet the truth is, if that (highly uncommon) scenario would happen to anybody, under such a tempting circumstances, a rosy future with the perfect woman a man could ever dream of, the idea of dispatching the poor Alice would lurk around pretty certainly to any morally deficient social climbers, so despite the horrific act (Alice’s pregnancy has never been put into foreground to exacerbate the crusade against George during the trial), we audience tends to sympathize with him, plus, the film intentionally omits what happened after the boat was capsized, in the eyes of viewers, it is an emotionally perturbed Alice herself causes the capsize of the boat at the first place, only in the court, George tries to re-enact what was happening then, even his side of story is scarcely credible, there is tiny possibility that he is “innocent”, and what’s more disturbing is that, subconsciously, we do hope he is!

That’s where lies the strength of this slow-burner, as George could be anything but “innocent”, simply because even if he had not done anything to harm Alice, just lets it happen when a landlubber like her was drowning to her death, is another form of murder. He has the perfect motive, and his not-doing is exactly the helping hand to facilitate Alice’s death.

Why then, our commiserations are more inclining to George than to Alice, first of all, it is Montgomery Clift’s unparalleled and wonderfully consistent performance, a misfit being ricocheted onto a wrong echelon, who awkwardness is painfully visible. Just when he decides to accept the reality to stay where he belongs, a windfall sweeps off his feet, which ensues a turbulent battle of human frailties and moral senses underneath of his humble physique and perpetually preoccupied minds. Mr. Clift even masks any edgy aspects of George’s personality, to make his actions even more ambivalent, either he is a ruthless schemer putting on a masterful front to play meek and try to evade punishment, or he is a tragic character, passively devoured by the twist of fate. And even up until the final scene, we can not tell which one is the real George Eastman, in my book, that’s a top-drawer achievement for the thespian.

Secondly, Ms. Winters’ Alice, exists more than just the unfortunate prey, when a woman has to literally blackmail her boyfriend with pregnancy into marrying her, apart from blaming an unjust social environment towards women, the truth is, they will never reach a happy ending, Alice is miserable but equally as selfish as George, bovine and unglamorous, the flagrant contrast between her and Angela, is another excuse for George’s road-of-no-return. A trifle of misogyny and female objectification can be discerned, but in Ms. Winters’ defense, she delivers a palpably soul-pulverizing coup-de-maître, notably in the scene with the doctor to insinuate an abortion, and her final in-your-face accusation and hyperbole on the boat.

There is a 16-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, a child star transmogrifies to a fabulous screen goddess overnight, her voice is crispy and untainted, so is her off-screen rapport and affection to Mr. Clift, mirroring Angela’s undying love for George, an avatar of perfection too good to be true in reality, extant on the silver celluloid only. It is her angelic face and seductive kiss remain in George’s last moments, something worth dying for in its literal meaning. Oscar-winner, the limelight-stealing character actress Anne Revere has a small cameo as George’s religious mother, whose film career ended abruptly after this due to being on the infamous “Hollywood blacklist”, which prompted a nearly 20-years gap of absence in her filmography.

Mr. Stevens takes great patience and pain to elicit striking endeavor from his cast, and his unpretentious method of channeling the narrative arc with a deft hand of juxtaposed editing, pays off handsomely in its end-product, especially considering how they could manage to sidestep the Hays Code while retain its dramatic pathos and inspire contemplation of its thorny subject matter, a Black-and-White classic truly worth its fame and praise.

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