Film Review: A Place in the Sun (1951)

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Time can be very unkind to films, even those that were hailed as masterpieces after their original release. Many of those, while very good, look disappointing now, at least among viewers who had based their expectations on those films’ classic status. A notable example can be found in A Place in the Sun, 1951 drama directed by George Stevens.

The film has very good credentials, being based on An American Tragedy, 1925 novel by Theodore Dreiser, work that had been inspired by shocking 1906 story about Grace Brown and Chester Gillette and would soon become recognised as a masterpiece of American literature. In 1926 novel was adapted into stage play by Patrick Kearney and this adaptation also served as basis for script by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown. The plot is set in modern-day America and begins when George Eastman (played by Montgomery Clift), a young, uneducated, impoverished, but apparently ambitious man, hitch-hikes from Chicago in order to get job in bathing suit factory owned by his rich uncle Charles Eastman (played by Herbert Heyes). Most of his co-workers are women and George is warned not to have romantic relationships with them. He nevertheless starts affair with Alice Tripp (played by Shelley Winters), factory worker who appears even in worse financial situation than him. He works hard, hoping to impress his uncle and attain promotion and when he does so, he is invited on high society party. There he meets and falls in love with Angela Vickers (played by Elizabeth Taylor), beautiful daughter of another rich industrialist. She not only returns his feelings, but is apparently willing to marry him and, ultimately succeeds in reconciling her own parents with such union. This would solve all of Charles’ problems, but Alice comes with the news that she is pregnant and demands that Charles marries her, threatening him with life-ruining if he does not. George knows that he would remain poor if he abandons Angela invites Alice to joining him while on a leisure trip on the lake, knowing full well that she can’t swim.

A Place in the Sun was great box office hit, won six Oscars and was praised by most contemporary critics. It would be unfair to say that at least some of that success wasn’t justifies. George Stevens, one of the more experienced directors of Classic Hollywood, has deserved Oscar for Best Director. He handles the plot in a very efficient manner, maintains good tempo and makes audience forget that the film has more than two hours of running time. Oscar-awarded black-and-white cinematography by William C. Mellor is also very good, especially during love scenes between Charles and Angela, while composer Franz Waxman provides adequate score. It is, however, the cast which is the film’s greatest asset. Montgomery Clift is excellent in the role of confused young man, whose good looks make him an effective seducer, but can’t compensate for experience and good judgment, which leads to tragic finale. Elizabeth Taylor is also very good, although her character looks and acts too perfect to be believable. This is definitely not the case with Shelley Winters, an actress that was supposed to be a sex symbol, but who, for the purpose of this role, wholeheartedly accepted plain looks and reshaped her career towards character roles. Her portrayal of unfortunate Alice Tripp is such that the audience can sympathise with her plight, despite character’s lack of glamour or intelligence.

Although well-directed and well-acted, A Place in the Sun still fails to achieve true greatness. The reason can be attributed to the script, which, probably due to ongoing anti-Communist hysteria, downplayed social issues, much more emphasised in the novel by author who was card carrying member of American Communist Party. Instead, this was compensated with melodrama that looks cliched. Impression improves in the second half, when A Place in the Sun turns into something close to crime thriller and culminates with powerful courtroom drama, especially in scenes when public prosecutor, played by Raymond Burr, tears George to pieces. Burr made such a great impression that he would later get career-defining role of Perry Mason on television. A Place in the Sun, despite its flaws and not living to its decades-long reputation, is still a film that could be recommended for audience seeking quality that seems to be beyond the grasp of modern Hollywood.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)

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