Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Light and Shadow in “A Place in the Sun”

 When, as a lonely young immigrant, Mike Nichols discovered his local movie palace, the film that captivated him was George Stevens’ 1951 romantic tragedy, A Place in the Sun. When the late Charles Grodin considered his future profession, the performance that drew him in was that of Montgomery Clift, as the apex of a lethal love triangle in A Place in the Sun. In the typically bombastic style of the early 1950s, the film’s trailer proclaims: “Never before a film so moving and powerful.” While orchestral music swells, the words on the screen go on to describe the flick as “standing alone as the screen’s most memorable love story.” Hyperbole, of course. But there’s no question that A Place in the Sun has earned its reputation as one of Hollywood’s Golden Age classics. Its six Oscars (including Best Director) are hardly a surprise. More startling, in retrospect, is the fact it was beaten out for Best Picture by the charming but lightweight musical confection, An American in Paris.

 Despite its sunny title, A Place in the Sun was shot in black and white, in an era when filmmakers rotated between wide-screen full-color extravaganzas and somber chiaroscuro dramas. (One of the film’s Oscars was for Best Black-and-White Cinematography, while the camerawork of An American in Paris was honored in a separate category.) In this tale of a young man’s relationship with two very different women, one affair takes place in brilliant sunlight, while the other moves stealthily forward in the shadows. It’s not a brand-new story: Oscar-winning screenwriters had adapted it from a 1925 novel by Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser’s work—once considered a classic but not much read these days—was titled An American Tragedy. Based on an actual murder trial, it justified its title by hinting that a young man’s all-powerful desire for wealth and status (even at the expense of honorable behavior) was closely bound up with American values.

 In the film, the poor but ambitious George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) comes to town, and immediately lands a position in the factory run by his wealthy uncle. His job is to oversee a group of female workers, with whom he is sternly instructed not to fraternize. Nothing daunted, he begins a secret romance with one of the workers, the plumply pretty Alice (Shelley Winters). But a social evening at his uncle’s palatial home introduces him to a stunningly gorgeous rich girl, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor at her most beautiful). The sunlit romance with Angela—memorably featuring a day of water-skiing on a local lake—contrasts sharply with George’s nighttime trysts in Alice’s shabby digs. And then Alice reveals she’s pregnant, relying on him to make their romance public, and legally sanctioned. What’s an ambitious young fellow to do?

 I won’t go into what happens on that lake, except to say that there’s an unexpected twist. Stevens’ long slow takes and reliance on master shots are hugely effectively, and show up years later in Mike Nichols’ direction of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and other features. And Stevens’ sharp focus on social distinctions and psychological torment make their own powerful statement. For me the classic moment is when George arrives hours late to the sad little one-on-one birthday dinner Alice has lovingly prepared in her rented room. In a long-held shot as they awkwardly converse at the table, her face and body are mostly turned away from the camera. But we can read in her posture all the sadness of a young woman too humbly placed to remain desirable to the man she loves.  


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