Monday 26 April 2021

Movie Review: A Place In The Sun (1951)

A romantic tragedy, A Place In The Sun explores the promise and pitfalls of the American Dream through the story of a man intent on ascending from rags to riches.

Brought up poor by missionary parents, penniless George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) arrives in the city dominated by the Eastman business of his uncle Charles (Herbert Hayes). Put to work on the bathing suit assembly line to learn the ropes, George catches the eye of production worker Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). They start a romance, despite strict rules forbidding the Eastmans from liaising with lowly workers.

It's not long before Alice is pregnant and leaning on George to fund an abortion or get married. But his attention has shifted. Now in a more senior role at work, he is mesmerized by wealthy socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) and they are soon madly in love. She introduces him to her parents and the countryside elites, and he appears close to being accepted as a member of the influential class. But the increasingly desperate Alice represents a serious obstacle, and George starts to consider drastic solutions.

An adaptation of the 1925 novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, A Place In The Sun is an elegantly mounted and torrid drama. Producer and director George Stevens, working from a script by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, seeks the passionate, sometimes tortured, drive for success within an initially humble man, drawing out a hardening resolve to ditch the past and embrace the glittering symbols of success.

This is a representative story of a nation's pursuit of happiness, but George does not invest the effort to earn his shot at success. Promoted because of the family name, he does little to justify advancement. Indeed, he struggles to hold a conversation or even look comfortable, his deep-rooted sense of inferiority forged by a difficult upbringing. 

George's desire for betterment is ignited by an infatuation that turns to love, and it helps that Elizabeth Taylor, all of 17 at the time of filming, creates in Angela Vickers an alluring woman and welcoming gateway to a different future. The perfect anti-dote to Montgomery's haunting performance filled with physical discomfort and emotionally awkward despondency, Taylor's Angela represents the promise of leisure, horseback riding, motorboat frolicking and cocktail parties, a world apart from where and how George grew up.

But his luggage is heavy, both in terms of the hesitancy in his soul and the consequences of his ill-considered affair with Alice, now a full fledged albatross around his neck. In the final act the drama extends into the courtroom, Stevens exploring what it means to be guilty and the sharp lines always safeguarding the rich and discarding wannabes to a fate defined by character flaws.

The black and white cinematography courtesy of William C. Mellor is stellar, and Stevens deploys soft dissolves and superimposed imagery to bore into George's psyche. Some of the stylistic touches are groundbreaking, including an isolated radio on a pier broadcasting grim news while the rich enjoy their motorboat fun.

Some are born into A Place In The Sun, others earn it, but most pretenders struggle to escape the anonymity of the shadows.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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