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A Place in the Sun

A noirmelodrama "elevated," so to speak, to high art by director George Stevens' classy, discreet style and high production values, the plot of A Place in the Sun (1951), like that of his subsequent Shane, is elemental, a tale stripped to its essentials and drawing upon thick veins of American ambition, desire, illusion, and struggle. Based on Dreiser's An American Tragedy, it could have been called An American Dream for all its tapping of primal needs and conflicts in the national character. The film begins with George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) hitchhiking out west to seek a job with his well-off relatives, the swimsuit-manufacturing Eastmans. George comes from an evangelical background, but not much of it has stuck. He lands a low-level job in the factory and starts to rise thanks to the intermittently paternal attention of his uncle. Against company policy, he begins to date a co-worker named Alice (Shelley Winters), while at the same time finding himself drawn to socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). Ultimately, he concludes that to be with one he has to kill the other. But though he draws back from his scheme to assassinate the pregnant Alice, she dies accidentally anyway. Eventually, Eastman is tried and convicted for the crime he only contemplated doing. A Place in the Sun's source novel had been filmed once before, under its own title, by Joseph von Sternberg, but in a higher sense it has been made many times before and since. Stevens' superlative style, however, does not disguise the narrative's roots in predecessors as wide ranging as Murnau's Sunrise, which also has an attempted murder on a boat, and James M. Cain, the Homer of irrepressible desire and doomed schemes. At the same time, the film is an ancestor of the neo-noir genre film soleil, the rash of crime tales from the mid-'80s and into the '90s that were set in the bright, hot sun (Blood Simple, One False Move, The Hot Spot). Stevens makes us forget the melodramatic roots of his material by a cinematic presentation so elegant you almost forget you are watching a movie: long multiple dissolves, subtle camera movements, long takes, tight closeups, all throw us into the midst of these people's lives, and hearts. And the cast that Stevens gathered together is superb, the height of Hollywood royalty and theater progressivism of its day. A Place in the Sun and its full frame image (1.33:1) receives a solid DVD transfer from Paramount; the audio is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, with English subtitles and closed-captioning. The supplements are basic but solid, with a commentary track from George Stevens Jr. and producer Ivan Moffat, a good 20-minute "making-of" documentary, "George Stevens and His Place in the Sun," which walks the viewer through the film's production history and reception, and "George Stevens: Filmmakers Who Knew Him," archival interviews with eight directors: Warren Beatty, Frank Capra, Joe Mankiewicz, Rouben Mamoulian, Antonio Vellani (a producer on The Greatest Story Ever Told), Robert Wise, Alan J. Pakula, and Fred Zinnemann. Also included is the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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