Charlie Chaplin once stated that A Place in the Sun (1951) was ‘the greatest film ever made about America’. Nominated for nine Academy Awards, it won six of them along with numerous other awards and accolades. Produced and directed by George Stevens, and starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters, it is one of the iconic Hollywood films of its era, and a turning point in cinematographic craft. There has been so much written about this film it is hard to know where to go in this blog; but I have decided to focus on shades of light and dark, a visual metaphor that is skillfully represented through the lens.
The film is based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser and the subsequent play by Patrick Kearney. The novel is a searing critique of materialism and superficial morality in American society. This critique is hinged to the story of a young man trying to find a better life, his ‘place in the sun’. But his impoverished upbringing has left him ill-equipped to deal with real-life responsibility; he is more a dreamer than an achiever. The basic plot is lifted from the real-life murder of Grace Brown by her boyfriend Chester Gillette in 1906.
Filming of A Place in the Sun began in late 1949. Stevens was keen to address Dreiser’s critique of American society, including an extraordinarily powerful scene about arranging an abortion, without having the film cut to shreds by ‘moralistic’ censors. He produced a film in shades of light and dark and extreme close ups that elicit intimacy, as well as coded language that escaped censorship but fooled nobody as to its subject matter. Cinematic metaphors seeped out of numerous shots. The film took almost a year to edit. A gritty film noir emerged. The cinematography was by William C. Mellor and editing was by William Hornbeck, though Stevens had a lot to do with those aspects too. With the focus on romance, the intimacy it portrayed brought an even greater punch to the emotional devastation to come.
A Close Look at A Place in the Sun
Young and aspiring George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) first ‘meets’ the young and stunningly beautiful Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor, in her first adult role) at his uncle’s house. He is enraptured by her, but she doesn’t even notice him. In centre screen, he appears dwarfed and motionless in an ill-fitting suit, shoulders slightly rounded (see Figure 1). She, on the other hand, is finely dressed in brilliant white, tastefully jeweled, and excitedly happy, chatting to her mother about going out on the town. And though the two women are in the foreground the camera is focused on the more distant and motionless Clift, staring at a seemingly unattainable dream.
He goes to work in his uncle’s factory – a bathing suit factory. The theme of water, swimming and being in the sun appears again and again in this film; either it is fun, exhilarating and ‘free’ or it is dark and haunting. Eastman meets factory worker Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), with whom he forms an attachment. She is poor, drably dressed and has few expectations in life. When they are together, it is either inside or at night. There is one exception – when George is staring at Angela sitting in an open-roof car, and Alice soon walks away. When George and Alice first embrace in a passionate and lustful kiss they are deep in shadow; the viewer unable to see their faces at all. They will later make love; the camera shows them again in dark silhouette before panning away. Although this was partly to avoid censorship cuts to the film, it was also to contrast their ‘closeted’ relationship with the one between George and Angela in the bright light. As an aside, Stevens decided to film A Place in the Sun in black and white to better convey the mood of the tragedy, with shades of light and dark, and the moral ambiguity (grey) in between (see Figures 2 and 3).
Although there is a clear intimacy between Alice and George, it is secretive. On camera, rarely do we see them look each other in the eye (see Figure 4). Contrast that to the extreme close-ups of George and Angela in which the viewer can see the shadows cast by Angela’s eyelashes as she kisses George. Stevens and Mellor broke new ground at the time (early 50s) in the ‘extreme’ close-ups (see Figure 5). It brings the viewer into the deeply intimate and tender moments between the two leading characters. This focus on romantic intimacy was not only appreciated by audiences, but elicits empathy for the flawed and conflicted George, and therefore makes the ‘tragedy’ more impacting by the end of the film.
Stevens was keen, however, to show that Alice was no mere prop to the main romance but an innocent victim deserving of respect. There is a powerful – and for its time – extraordinary scene in which Alice seeks an abortion (without the words being uttered so as to avoid censorship). The audience is on her side, and from all accounts, tears were shed in many a cinema. A desperate Alice is sitting in the doctor’s (Ian Wolfe) consultation room. After a round-about discussion about her husband not having much money, she tearfully blurts out that she is not married. The doctor responds:
If you’ve come here to place yourself under my professional care during your pregnancy, I’ll do everything to insure your health and that of your child. On the other hand …[pause], if you’ve just come for …[pause] free advice on material and financial problems which I can’t help you. No, I cannot help you.
George resigns himself to marrying Alice, but again soon finds an opportunity to ‘escape’ into the dream-like and worry-free company of Angela. In the bright sun, he goes swimming in the lake with her. Angela imagines a life with George, while he is deep in thought (see Figure 6). But soon George is compelled to return to Alice and reluctantly agrees to go through with marrying her. However, circumstances delay the marriage, and George schemes to drown Alice (who cannot swim) and make it look like an accident. He takes her on a rowing boat on the same lake that he had been a day or two before with Angela.
His face is in half darkness, reflecting his ethical dilemma (see Figure 7). Deep shadows are cast as he is again staring, unspeaking, at a woman and a life that might be, but this time with brooding darkness. I should point out at this point the extraordinary talents of Clift. Beads of sweat on his forehead were not make-up. In nearly freezing film conditions, he was able to perspire in a dramatic performance. In the end, George can’t go through with it, but then she stands and trips (Alice Tripp trips!) and the boat overturns; she drowns and he makes it to shore. He heads to Angela’s house, and he tries to get her alone, but her friends follow and they go for a speedboat ride, while a radio on the jetty reports about a drowned woman. The boat circles in the bay (Stevens overdubbed the boat engines with the sound of German Stuka dive bombers – it is loud and over-powering and foreboding).
George is arrested. Not only has his dream been smashed but the hopes and desires of Angela have also been crushed. Three young people are the victims in this tragedy.
George is convicted of murder. The scene in his cell as he stands behind wire captures his sense of being caged and helpless (see Figure 8). He is sentenced to be executed in the electric chair. The film cuts to a silent and desolate Angela (see Figure 9). Her mother decides to spare her more pain by throwing the newspaper in the fire. In contrast to the first scene in which Angela and George were both present, but with only one of them seeing the other, now a distant and motionless Angela stares at an image of George in the foreground burning in the flames of the fire; her own dream forever unattainable.
Then there is the final poignant scene in which Angela visits George in prison just before his execution. They are both awkward and unable to articulate much. She tells him she loves him and he tells her to forget him. The film ends as he walks to his execution and the camera dissolves into that first romantic kiss between them. In a film at the height of the McCarthy intrusions in Hollywood, class, extra-marital sex, abortion, murder and deceit are all dealt with, and the viewer cannot help but feel deeply for all the characters. Stevens’ depiction is a thoughtful and artistic expression of the central theme that found a wide audience while managing to escape censorship, when it was probably expected.
Context and Comment
After Dreiser’s novel was published in 1925, numerous play productions followed. In 1929 the great Soviet (Latvian) film maker Sergei Eisenstein was engaged by Paramount to write a film script of the novel. After reading the first draft in September 1930, the studio’s prominent producer David O. Selznick sent a memo to his General Manager, Schulberg:
I have just finished reading the Eisenstein’s adaptation of An American Tragedy. It was for me a memorable experience; the most moving script I have ever read. It was so effective, it was positively torturing … As entertainment, I don’t think it has one chance in a hundred.
There was also a campaign to oust Eisenstein, a Soviet communist, from American films. He was replaced with Josef von Sternberg, who went on to produce a relatively lame film of the novel in 1931. Dreiser intensely disliked it and publicly castigated Paramount for not using Eisenstein’s script.
Immediately after the second world war, George Stevens lobbied Paramount to remake the film. He was an experienced film maker, who had started out as a cinematographer. At the end of the war he had documented Nazi atrocities, and – with Alfred Hitchcock – presented powerful documentary footage before the Nuremburg war trials. After the war, he was keen to develop serious dramatic films with a humanist theme and to portray the outsider struggling for acceptance. In the 1950s, he produced four of the most astounding and powerful humanist films of the era: A Place in the Sun (1951), Shane (1953), Giant (1956) and Diary of Anne Frank (1959). He wanted his first post-war film to be an adaptation of An American Tragedy though and it would more closely follow the novel than the 1931 film. Paramount were wary of it being perceived as an anti-American film by McCarthyist elements who largely controlled the film industry.
Finally, in 1949 they agreed to let Stevens remake the film but only if he could secure Montgomery Clift in the leading role, change the title name as well as the name of the characters and tone down the class politics. (As a side note, Ann Reveres, who played George’s mother in the film, Hannah Eastman, refused to testify in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee and was black-listed the same year that A Place in the Sun was released. It was her last Hollywood film for 20 years).
There has been a lot written about Stevens and A Place in the Sun and how close it does or does not follow the searing social commentary in the novel. While there is plenty of room for argument here, I would make two points:
- Stevens was affected by the extraordinary suffering he documented at the end of the war, and he wanted to make films that showed – in close up – the toll of suffering on individuals forgotten in the world of national and global politics.
- He was making a film with an explicitly anti-capitalist theme and a scathing critique of American ‘social climbing’ as a disease rather than an ideal to be celebrated, and he was doing that at the height of the anti-communist scare and conservative moral crusading that pervaded the industry. He placed emphasis on romance, but the social commentary is very much there to see too.
There is so much more to say – but I will simply end the post by saying that the performances from the entire cast are exemplary. Clift, Taylor and Winters in particular are outstanding. The extraordinary time put into editing the film and the talents of a sterling crew make this a riveting film from beginning to end. A must-see.