A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951)

  • Director: George Stevens
  • Writers: Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
  • Starring: Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters, Anne Revere, Raymond Burr, Herbert Heyes, and Sheppard Strudwick
  • Accolades: 1998 AFI Top 100 list (#92), shown at 1951 Cannes International Film Festival, 6 Oscars (Best Director – George Stevens, Best Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Costumes), 3 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Actor – Montgomery Clift, Best Actress – Shelley Winters)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Pluto TV, stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

After he saw A Place in the Sun, no less a film luminary than Charlie Chaplin declared it to be “the greatest movie ever made about America.” It received universal critical acclaim and box office success after its release in 1951, not least because it featured Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, whose romantic attachment remained only a rumor but were nonetheless referred to as “the most beautiful couple in the world.” Today, however, it seems mostly forgotten. On the original 1998 AFI Top 100 list, it dropped off the 2008 sequel. The movie’s Wikipedia page straight up refers to its pacing as “soporific” and cites claims that its “melodrama hasn’t aged well.” I would say that, in my opinion, those are both true. Yet what Chaplin apparently saw in it is still there. This is a very well-made movie with great performances and some really interesting artistic choices, about a fairly universal story.

Though based on a novel originally published in 1925, it is set in the 1950s and features perhaps the best known legacy of that decade today, lots of repressed emotions. Montgomery Clift stars as George Eastman, a vaguely sullen, and certainly lonely, young man. He feels like a handsomer Marlon Brando here. George hitchhikes into an upstate New York town that seems to mostly revolve around a bathing suit factory owned by his uncle (Herbert Heyes). George asks his uncle for a job, which he gets, but despite the very clear warnings not to fraternize with his female co-workers, he strikes up a relationship with a fellow assembly line worker named Alice (Shelley Winters). Seeming more lonely than anything, they bang (just off-screen, as the camera focuses on the wafting curtains, but we can hear Alice moaning “Oh George…”). Almost as soon as they do, George seems to lose interest.

Then he meets the luminous rich girl Angela Vickers (Taylor) at a party, and falls hard for her. They furtively declare their love for each other and kiss on a balcony, a moment shot in what Steven Spielberg has called “the biggest of all close-ups.” I’m honestly not sure he’s not just talking about how far director George Stevens pushes the camera into his actors’ faces. But as soon as it seems like he might have a chance with this girl the movie goes to great lengths to help us realize is clearly pretty, nicer, and richer, Alice tells him she’s pregnant and that he has to marry her. When Alice finds out George has been staying with Angela at her family’s lake house during the summer, while putting off their marriage an extra week, she shows up at the small mountain town and demands he accompany her to the courthouse.

He does, but it’s Labor Day, so the courthouse is closed. He suggests they go for a canoe ride (earlier Angela told him about a couple that drowned on the lake, and we can see visible wheels turning). The camera holds on his face as she talks about their future married life, and we realize he’s considering whether he should kill her or not. He seems to decide not to, but then she stands up and tips the boat over, and only George emerges from the lake. He is bad at covering his tracks, and is soon arrested for murder. The last twenty minutes or so of the movie is his trial, where the prosecutor is played literally by Perry Mason, or at least the actor who went on, probably not by coincidence, to play Perry Mason, Raymond Burr. It is therefore inevitable that George is convicted. In the movie’s final scene, he is led to the electric chair, his super-close-up kiss with Angela superimposed over his face as the music rises and “The End” appears on the screen.

A Place in the Sun may not be as widely-watched today as it once was, but it remains among the better-known films of Montgomery Clift (along with, probably, From Here to Eternity). Clift was, at the time, one of the biggest male stars in the world. His supposed love affair with Elizabeth Taylor was the subject of much tabloid speculation. In fact, the two were extremely close friends, but Clift was almost certainly gay. It would, unfortunately, be Taylor who first came upon Clift’s wrecked car after his awful car accident in 1956, during the filming of Raintree County. She literally picked several of his teeth out of the back of his throat and may have saved his life. After the best plastic and reconstructive surgery money could buy and several months of recovery, Clift finished the movie. He never again quite looked the same, never regained full movement in half of his face, and remained in constant pain the rest of his life. Though he had his successes in the meantime (including earning an Oscar nomination for playing a victim of Nazi experimentation in Judgment at Nuremberg, where his weird facial stuff made perfect sense), one critic would later call the remainder of Clift’s career “the longest suicide in Hollywood history.” After several years of rampant drug abuse and destructive behavior (most of his Nuremberg lines were improvised because Clift just couldn’t remember the script), Clift died of a heart attack in 1966 at the age of 46. 

Shelley Winters also does a great job as this woman who is entirely in the right, especially in the environment she’s put in, but whose eventual demise is somehow inevitable. She had a long and successful career, including two Best Supporting Actress Oscars for The Diary of Anne Frank and A Patch of Blue. Yet most people today are probably most likely to be aware of her as the mother of the title character on Roseanne. On her death, the Associated Press reported that she “delighted in giving provocative interviews and seemed to have an opinion on everything.” She claimed to have slept with William Holden, Sean Connery, Burt Lancaster, Errol Flynn, and Marlon Brando at various times.

Another actress’ performance in the movie is much smaller, but is still remembered today for unfortunate reasons. The great character actress Anne Revere, an Oscar winner herself only six years earlier, plays a small part as George’s somewhat estranged, religious mother (he writes her a telegram after he is found guilty of murder, which reads only “Mother, I am convicted”). It has the feel of a part that was originally larger and could have been cut down in the editing. This would be Revere’s last movie performance for over 20 years. Between the filming of A Place in the Sun and its release, Revere’s name appeared in Red Channels, an infamous report by the right-wing magazine Counterattack that claimed to disclose people found to be “manipulating” Hollywood into supporting Communism. She resigned from a leadership position she had held in the Screen Actors Guild and eventually took the 5th Amendment in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. It wasn’t until 1962 that she was able to find work on TV soap operas, and much longer until she appeared in another movie.

A Place in the Sun is not one of those movies that still plays just as well today as it did at the time, but it has its moments. The central sequence on the rowboat is just a straight-up masterpiece of tension. And modern viewers will probably be a bit surprised to find another scene where Winters’ character goes to see a doctor and asks for an abortion, and he rebuffs her. I was surprised too, until I realized that she never actually straight up says that’s what she’s asking for. From a modern perspective, it’s extremely clear what’s going on, but one wonders if it was at the time. The censors even made the movie change a line from the script, where Winters implores, “Doctor, please help me!” to “Somebody has to help me!” I’m not sure why that’s better, but the latter passed muster and the scene stayed in the movie. A Place in the Sun is a straight-up melodrama in a mode that is no longer fashionable, at least in the US. But it’s a good one, and is also pretty definitely a work of art, and still worth watching.

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