Blog Directory CineVerse: Examining A Place in the Sun—70 years later

Examining A Place in the Sun—70 years later

Friday, December 17, 2021

Named by the AFI as one of the top 100 American films of all time in its 1998 list, A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens, remains a memorable work of lasting craftsmanship and significance. Originally released in 1951, this picture persists as a haunting morality tale that is both endemic of its era and resonant seven decades later.

Still have your doubts? Read on for more compelling evidence of why this film deserves to be cherished and revisited.

Why does A Place in the Sun still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It still matters because it remains an extremely effective mashup of several subgenres. A Place in the Sun satisfies as a romantic melodrama, a noirish thriller, a courtroom drama, and a richly-themed tragedy.
  • A Place in the Sun has stood the test of time because the performances resonate 70 years later. This could be Montgomery Clift’s finest two hours of film; it’s one of Elizabeth Taylor’s most impressive performances, especially considering how unproven she was as a serious dramatic actress before this and how young she is here – 17 years old; and Shelley Winters basically creates the template for the frumpy, naïve, clinging love interest who eventually gets murdered, infusing her character of Alice with a sensitively trusting nature but unglamorous banality that sharply contrasts with the actress’s image at the time and with Taylor’s Angela. (Note that Alice is not some flirty floozy who would seem to deserve her fate; she’s a more sympathetic character today than she was in 1951.) Deservingly, both Winters and Clift were nominated for Oscars for their work in this movie.
    • It also helps that the teenage Taylor was smitten with Clift. Even though Clift, a gay actor, did not reciprocate the offscreen affection, the on-screen romantic chemistry is evident.
  • It’s worth celebrating because it continues to be one of the most apropos and poetic movie titles of all time, living up to its name “A Place in the Sun” by effectively contrasting the light and dark natures of a fascinatingly complex lead character. Many of the scenes involving George with Alice employ noirish high-contrast lighting and occur at night or in inky black environments. But when George is around Angela, the world is literally and figuratively a brighter place, with the filmmakers employing ample natural and artificial light to underscore how bright George’s potential future is if he chooses this path.
    • Film critic Leonard Maltin said: “Elizabeth Taylor represents the aspirational brightness that Montgomery Clift so desperately wants. But it all changes when the scene involves Shelley Winters.”

In what ways was A Place in the Sun influential on cinema and/or popular culture?

  • It was notable in its day for its creatively expressive use of extended overlapping dissolves between shots and scenes that juxtapose images that often contrast with each other, such as a nighttime shot of Alice’s bedroom that transitions into an early morning shot and, later, a darkly-lit shot of George’s pious mother slowly dissipating into a brightly-lit image of George attending a swanky party.
  • Stevens’ choice to use extreme close-up over-the-shoulder shots of Angela and George embracing and kissing was unusual for its day; yet these incredibly tight soft-focus images proved highly memorable and influential, with the first kiss scene between George and Angela often appearing in many highlight reels referencing some of the most iconic imagery Hollywood ever created.
  • The picture also proved controversial in its depiction of a pregnant unwed mother seeking an abortion. The Hays code wouldn’t allow the use of the words “pregnancy” or “abortion,” so the filmmakers had to dance around these words and ideas carefully. Alice tells the doctor that she’s gotten in trouble, which was another way of saying pregnant, and in a roundabout way is asking the doctor to help her and the pregnancy, which the doctor refuses. This was regarded as a taboo subject for a Hollywood film in those days.
  • A Place in the Sun may have created fashion trends or at least made audiences take notice of the look and attire of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor’s wardrobe was designed by the legendary Edith Head, and apparently some of her outfits proved popular in the fashion world, while Clift’s simple leather jacket and white T-shirt look predates later 1950s icons like James Dean and Jack Kerouac.
  • You could debatably trace a throughline from the passion-dripping kissing sequences in A Place in the Sun to the sultry rolling-in-the-surf shots two years later in From Here to Eternity and also attribute this movie’s melodramatic elements as emotionally inspirational fodder for the films of Douglas Sirk years later, like Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, and Imitation of life.
  • Ponder, as well, that A Place in the Sun would likely have been a major influence on Woody Allen’s excellent Match Point 54 years later.

Why and how was George Stevens the ideal director for A Place in the Sun? What special qualities does he bring to the film?

  • Stevens wasn’t afraid to push boundaries and break from cinematic conventions. For instance, he sometimes puts a key character’s back to the camera for long stretches. Cases in point: Alice faces George but is turned away from us in the bedroom scene where George arrives late on his birthday; and George faces Angela when she visits him on death row.
  • Stevens and his cinematographer William Mellor, both of whom won Academy Awards for their work in this film, didn’t balk at extremely dark compositions and shadowy nighttime scenes. The sequence where George enters Alice’s residence and woos her in the utterly black edges of the frame is a worthy example, as is the later montage where George tries to escape through the murky forest.
  • This director also valued long, uninterrupted takes that allow a scene to unfold organically and the actors to do the heavy lifting. Exhibit A: the previously mentioned scene where George arrives late to Alice’s home on his birthday, which primarily occurs in one beautifully acted unbroken shot.
  • Stevens shrewdly uses motifs to suggest ideas and create foreshadowing. One repeated pattern is George being separated from someone or something by a kind of barrier, such as George standing outside Alice’s window, George watching Angela across the front gate of the house, and George behind prison bars. Another motif is drowning, which is suggested by the painting of Ophelia (a character who drowned in Shakespeare’s Hamlet), Alice’s mentioning that she cannot swim, and the news broadcast that cautions listeners to be careful when celebrating the holiday.
  • Likewise, Stevens had a gift for tapping the ideal thespian talent, choosing then-glamour girl Shelley Winters as a dowdy lower-class love interest to George and casting a 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in the radiant role of Angela. This film announced the arrival of both as serious talented actresses to be reckoned with.
  • The director and his collaborators also demonstrate a form of cinematic mastery in how efficiently and economically they introduce the story, its characters, and the central conflict. Within the first 10 minutes, George and his lower-class predicament are impressively well-established, as is Alice. The filmmakers even use the opening credits sequence to get the narrative machinery going, not wasting those first few minutes to begin the tale.
  • Stevens was known for shooting a lot of film and providing lots of coverage to give himself more flexibility during the editing process, and this approach likely paid off with A Place in the Sun, as nearly every shot seems perfectly designed, framed, lit, and acted.
  • George Stevens is criticized by some for sometimes being overly symbolic, lacking nuance, and painting in broad melodramatic brushstrokes. Consider how on-the-nose the “Vickers” neon sign glowing outside George’s bedroom window is, for example, or how ripe for parody the extreme close-up soft-focus kisses between Angela and George appear to be. Others, however, credit Stevens with being innovative and ahead of his time in his approaches used in this film.
    • Anna Swanson of Film School Rejects wrote: “The film has yet to be canonized the way other comparable movies have been, partly because of incorrect and reductive assessments of what the norms were in the 50s and an attitude that melodrama and nuance cannot go hand in hand…A Place In The Sun was praised in 1951 for being a sweeping, emotional narrative more than willing to wrestle with — but not provide any easy answers for — difficult questions about morality and guilt…Melodramatic style or not, these are themes that have a place in our world as much as they did in the world of the 50s.”

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in this movie?

  • The dark side of the American dream. Seventy years ago, nearly every man aspired to have what George craved: a beautiful wife, wealth, and a successful climb up the social ladder. But A Place in the Sun serves as a cautionary tale that this dream can turn into a nightmare, given the right circumstances.
    • Film reviewer Michael Barrett wrote: “One of the film’s tricks is to discomfort us by making us despise George and sympathize with him…To see him as winner and loser, as the constructor of his own downfall, as the victim of his own envy, is implicitly to question the tease of the American Dream. That’s how Dreiser saw it and Stevens’ meticulous staging and orchestration conveys these ideas while constructing one of the ultimate statements on how Hollywood cinema serves up desire, literally projecting our desires as so huge, dreamy, and intoxicating that we can taste them.”
  • The inescapability of your past. George cannot untether himself from his background as the son of poor religious good Samaritans or his lack of education and financial resources, just as he cannot evade his recent past, in which he rushed into a relationship with disastrous consequences for his ambitions. This movie reminds us that we can’t outrun our identity or the regretful choices we’ve made.
    • George seems to forget the spiritual lessons and honest work ethic instilled in him by his mother, choosing instead to devote himself to a female from a privileged background, Angela, who dotes on George and whispers in his ear, “tell mama…tell mama all.”
    • Film critic Glenn Erickson wrote: “The key achievement of A Place in the Sun is that its doomed spiral of events never seems like a fated, noirish tale. George Eastman is an individual, and not a symbol of oppression, and neither fault of character, nor a cruel society can be given the blame for his sad story.”
  • The outsider versus the insider. George has a dual identity, that of the privileged fortunate son who, by virtue of family lineage, has an opportunity to social climb and be part of the “in-crowd”; at the same time, he’s the perpetual outsider, the enigmatic odd duck in the Eastman line who doesn’t quite fit in. To visually emphasize the latter, George often faces away from the camera, showing us his back and standing out from other characters in the same frame.
  • Be careful what you wish for – you just might get it. George seems to have what he wants in his grasp – the girl, the career, the social acceptance, the bright future – but ultimately he experiences karmic comeuppance because he had to shirk his responsibilities and deceive to get there and because he had evil intentions regarding Alice.
  • Watching and being watched. Throughout the story, we see George being observed by those around him, either out of curiosity, attraction, suspicion, or animosity. And we hear Angela about to say “I love you” to George, but cuts the remark short and says “Are they looking at us?” as she makes eye contact with the camera and, by extension, us.

What is this movie’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • A Place in the Sun continues to bestow several greatest gifts on fans and admirers of this film. First, it’s still a Grade A example of the power of the Hollywood fantasy machine, giving us an utterly delectable aspirational mirage with dreamily romanticized imagery and serving particularly as a male wish-fulfillment movie about the pleasures of the perfect life—what it’s like to have the world’s most beautiful woman head over heels in love with you, to be on the fast track to career success, and to accepted as part of the “in-crowd.”
  • But its second greatest gift is that reminds us that we cannot escape our moral responsibilities nor the earlier choices we’ve made. Leading a double life simply isn’t sustainable, a sobering lesson the film serves up by contrasting George’s blissful illusions with a terrifyingly stark reality: It’s easy to feel trapped into a life of compromises, sacrifices, and surrender of your ambitions if you take what you have for granted and follow temptation.
  • What makes this film a cut above is that it’s not a simple black-and-white cautionary tale; it explores George’s quandary in intricate shades of gray. Yes, George is judged as guilty by a jury of his peers and put to death, but the truth of his culpability is cloudy. Seven decades after its release, it’s easier to poke holes in George’s defense that he is legally innocent, and contemporary audiences are surely more sensitive to the injustices experienced by Alice. But personally, in my most recent rewatch of A Place in the Sun, I put myself in George’s shoes and wondered, what would I do in his situation? I’m not saying I would choose adultery, murder, or deceit; I’m suggesting that we often don’t know what we're capable of under the right circumstances. And to me, that makes this film more than a straightforward entertainment: It’s a picture that makes you think and wonder, “What if?”.

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