[box cover]

A Place in the Sun

Paramount Home Video

Starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor,
and Shelley Winters

Written by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown

From the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
and the play by Patrick Kearney

Directed by George Stevens

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

George Stevens is the American David Lean. Their career arcs almost mirror each other. Lean, who began as an editor, started out directing quintessentially "English" movies, often written by Noel Coward, but in the mid-'50s suddenly became the premiere progenitor of international epics. A frequent collaborator on his screenplays was Michael Wilson, the blacklisted American scripter. Stevens, the son of show-people, began as a cinematographer before directing comedies with Laurel and Hardy and others. After the sobering experience of war, Stevens became the premiere American creator of somewhat impersonal but ambitious epics, first about American life, and then on global subjects. He collaborated with Michael Wilson on one of his earliest films in this phase, A Place in the Sun (1951).

The reasons for Stevens' transition to the big picture are probably the same as Lean's: Hollywood's need for globalization in the postwar era spurred by television, the Consent Decree, and changes in the postwar market. By reaching out for big projects, Stevens was both responding to changing market-forces and giving vent to the new gravitas he acquired from his wartime experiences.

A certain simplicity of narrative was a concomitant artifact of this transition for both Lean and Stevens. The plot of A Place in the Sun, like that of the 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.

A Place in the Sun 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. This is noirmelodrama material, "elevated," so to speak, to high art by Stevens' classy, discreet style and high production values. 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 that we almost forget we are watching a movie. But Stevens isn't wholly invisible. Long multiple dissolves — which anticipate Coppola's similar technique in Apocalypse Now by several decades — help the viewer see the interconnectedness of his cinematic world, exact further ounces of emotional sympathy from the viewer, and also serve as a reminder that someone is guiding us through this story. Subtle camera movements play a game of promise and delay. Long takes give the actors the time and room to fully inhabit their characters and further implicate us in their emotional states. Tight closeups with narrow focal lengths throw us into the midst of these people's lives, and hearts. Yet at the same time one could make the case that A Place in the Sun is a highly personal account of Stevens' own experience of what it takes to succeed in America. The main character's name, changed from the novel, combines both the director's first name and an allusion to his photography roots. Like Eastman, Stevens' probably needed mentors in Hollywood to advance, and he no doubt was surrounded by temptation from the world's most beautiful women — not that he necessarily succumbed to it, but at least he could empathize with the mood. Unlike Eastman, Stevens was a success, but even the most successful people can have difficulty accepting their station in life as a plateau when viewing it through the hard times that got them there.

And the cast that Stevens gathered together is superb, the height of Hollywood royalty and theater progressivism of its day. Elizabeth Taylor was America's sweetheart, enjoying her first screen kiss and its attendant rush into maturity. Clift is beautiful. But typically with many postwar stage actors, Clift sought to undermine his beauty with a nervous manner that bespoke reality, that created a character who resembled people we might know, or whom we could identify with, which bought him credibility with newer, younger audiences impatient with the irreality of most Hollywood movies from the previous era. Stevens also populates the rest of the film with good solid types, among them Raymond Burr as the prosecutor who tries George Eastman (a lawyer with the inevitable cane).

*          *          *

Strangely, I always remember A Place in the Sun as a color film, and I'm always startled to be reminded that it is in fact in gorgeous '50s black and white, shot by William C. Mellor. The full-frame image (1.33:1) receives a solid transfer on Paramount's DVD; the audio is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, with English subtitles and closed-captioning. The supplements are basic but solid:

Filling out the supplements is the theatrical trailer. The extras on this disc should be sufficient for anyone interested in A Place in the Sun as a classic example of American filmmaking at its best. Keep-case.

— D. K. Holm

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