Stevens: A Place in the Sun (1951) | featured image
A Place in the Sun (1951) | Poster excerpt via IMDB

Classism Rolls Through Classic Film ‘A Place in the Sun’ Like a Noirish Fog

A lyrical ode to Hollywood beauties Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, the An American Tragedy-inspired A Place in the Sun casts a long noirish shadow.

A Place in the Sun
George Stevens
10 August 2021

Is Noir Low Class?

In the following montage of adjusting to his job, as pages pluck from the calendar in classic style, George doffs the awkward tweed and gets down to his undershirt again, as both he and his female colleagues are continually juxtaposed and superimposed with the dazzling posters of swimsuited women that look down upon their labors from under the ceiling. It’s not quite the Sistine Chapel – more the manufactured fantasy image vs. the workaday reality of manufacture.

In this context, he first notices Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), as her in-the-flesh working-girl reality gets confused and correlated with the fantasy poster-women. She’s noticed him first, and she notices when he notices. It’s part of both their strategies to look down demurely when the eyes of their betters are upon them. And she’s his better, the owner’s nephew, in fact. Now he begins to don the simmering hungry look that defines so much of Clift’s performance as desirer and desired.

Ten minutes in, and the main characters and their dynamics are in place. The concision of classic Hollywood! The Oscar-winning screenwriters are Harry Brown, writer of the similarly titled war novel A Walk in the Sun (1944), and Michael Wilson, who would soon be blacklisted and spend the decade writing high-profile screenplays without credit. For one of these, David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), he had to receive his Oscar posthumously in 1984.

We could be all day analyzing A Place in the Sun‘s in five-minute pieces, and it easily rewards the attention. George will accidentally meet Alice at the movies, where people go to eavesdrop and imagine the lives of their betters who live on posters and screens, as with this movie we’re watching. As a matter of trivia, they watch the fictional movie Now & Forever directed by the non-fictional Ivan Moffat, Stevens’ assistant.

Soon after the discreet scene where George spends the night with Alice comes the part where, to George’s wonder, his beauty and moodiness recommend themselves to the shimmering, sometimes ecstatically soft-focused Angela.

By the way, as in the opening shot of the hitch-hiker, the whole film will repeat the motif of characters with their backs to the camera, preferably during their most fraught moments. Although the camera is frequently mobile, many crucial scenes adopt a hushed stillness that refuses to shoot and edit dialogue in the normal movie manner.

Examples include the long scene where Alice admits to being “in trouble”, the following scene where George has two phone calls in the background framed by a doorway, Alice’s scene with the doctor (Ian Wolfe), the moment where Angela mentions a couple who drowned, and George’s defeated back when Angela makes her final visit. There are also those many pre-Kubrickian shots of exquisitely balanced elements receding within frames to a vanishing point, We’re not even bringing up the drawn-out transitional superimpositions, which seem as if the film is lapsing into a drugged reverie.

George and Angela’s first kiss is one of the most famous, rapturously photographed and scored love scenes in American cinema, hot stuff in 1951 and still today. Stevens presents over-the-shoulder close-ups culminating in a climax almost entirely occluded by George’s shoulder, emphasizing Angela’s eyes, or rather Taylor’s eyes, and the power of what we see and cannot see.

Here, Clift and Taylor are George and Angela but they’re also Clift and Taylor, two beautiful creatures who seem to deserve each other – and they are far beyond our grasp. They’d co-star again in Raintree County (Edward Dmytryk, 1957), the film during which Clift became severed from his aura in a terrible car accident; that’s the best way to put it. The viewer can easily distinguish his pre- and post-accident scenes.

The famous kissing scene of A Place in the Sun is actually in two parts, and the first part also has a stunning moment. The couple is dancing, and he’s clearly troubled (thinking of Alice, we know) and she’s troubled in turn, so she says he’d better tell her what’s wrong. He chooses that moment to confess his love, while his profiled nose fits like a perfect jigsaw into the hollow above her own nose. She starts to reciprocate by saying “I love you”, but she breaks off in panic after the “L” in “love” to turn her face, looking directly into the camera and crying, “Are they looking at us?”

Then she flees to the patio where they complete the more famous part of the scene. This has been an extraordinary “meta” moment. Yes, we’re all looking, just like George and Alice at the movies, and one difference between George/Alice and George/Angela is that George/Alice are always in the dark watching better lives while George/Angela live the bright fantasy. Through the last hour, the idea of the public looking at you, judging your every move, reaches its hideous conclusion as the idea of stardom, films, posters, and enviable people melds with the infamous publicity of the notorious.

With heartbreaking pathos, Winters plays Alice as the apotheosis of all the clingy women she’d perfected in this phase of her career. As I never tire of noting, first she played working-class wallflowers who must be killed, then man-hungry middle-class matrons who must be killed, and finally she matured into shrieking harridans who must be killed. Indeed, Winters has brilliantly embodied the evolution of postwar misogyny, and for this alone she’s among the 20th Century’s great actors.

A Place in the Sun is about people who can’t believe they’re actually getting what or whom they want. Or rather, they almost do before it all slips away, like a heady perfume. Both George and Alice come surprisingly close to their dreams before they or their fates “Tripp” them. One of the film’s tricks is to discomfort us by making us despise George and sympathize with him. This is partly because he’s so gosh-darn good-looking that we want what he wants and we want what he has. Films are always selling us the success story by luck and pluck, aren’t they? Not this one.

To see him as winner and loser, as the constructor of his own downfall, as the victim of his own envy, is implicitly to question the tease of the American Dream. That’s how Dreiser saw it and Stevens’ meticulous staging and orchestration conveys these ideas while constructing one of the ultimate statements on how Hollywood cinema serves up desire, literally projecting our desires as so huge, dreamy, and intoxicating that we can taste them. Then it’s over like that puff of smoke. The lights come on and we go home with them that brung us.

We’ve mentioned that the writers won Oscars. So did Stevens, Mellor, Waxman, editor William Hornbeck, and costume designer Edith Head. Clift and Winters were nominated. Also appearing are Anne Revere as George’s religious mom, Shepperd Strudwick and Frieda Inescort as Angela’s doubtful parents, Raymond Burr as the prosecutor with a hobbled walk, perhaps to indicate that his view is partly wrong, and Fred Clark as George’s attorney, as the last, weakest part of the picture becomes a courtroom drama.

A Place in the Sun‘s Wikipedia entry states that some critics have found aspects of the film not holding up into the new century. Ideal presentations matter in such judgments, and this Blu-ray’s presentation is pretty ideal. I suspect that what doesn’t hold up isn’t the film so much as critical attitudes towards frankly romantic melodrama. Melodrama, however, is not the dirty word some people think. Without melodrama, we don’t have Oedipus, Orestes, Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet.

I find this film much deeper and more satisfying than it seemed when I watched it while in my 20s. I mentioned the Kubrickian nature of certain shots because the film has that level of over-determined artifice, and that’s one of its glories. The tension between artifice and restraint amplifies the impact of grand gestures, such as the mirror shot where Angela, in a white debutante skirt, drops like a sack of potatoes onto a round shag rug, white on white, circle on circle. That’s cinema. Stevens’ style anticipates much of what was to follow while remaining its own fabulous apotheosis.

Also, I must wonder if this new gauging of Mellor’s photography will encourage people to consider this as a noir film, something it’s really never been discussed as. It seems too “classy” for that – and right there class enters the dialogue again. In today’s criticism, earnest social dramas aren’t as elevated as noirs, whose melodramatic excesses are praised as virtues. Who or what is George if not Fate’s flawed, self-sabotaging plaything in a world of oppressive shadows, tantalizing women, and the aroma of money?

To push this noir notion a tad further, do you know what other famous film that opens with a hitch-hiker? The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946) with John Garfield, in some ways serves as a harbinger of Clift. That outright noir adapted a James M. Cain novel of 1934, almost ten years after Dreiser’s novel.

A comparison and contrast might lead us to rediscover the influence of Dreiser’s naturalism upon the development of noir, which tends to subscribe to the idea that people are the mechanical products of their personality and environment. That’s why pioneering naturalist Émile Zola also can’t be overlooked as a progenitor of noir; for example, see Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine (1938) and Fritz Lang’s Human Desire (1954). The literary influence may go back to Zola’s 1868 Thérèse Raquin, filmed many times. Well, enough for now.

Scanned from a 4K remastering, this Blu-ray looks and sounds about perfect. It retains an older DVD commentary by American screenwriter George Stevens Jr. and British screenwriter Ivan Moffat. Two 2001 documentaries about Stevens include a making-of and passages of praise from other filmmakers. In the only new bonus, Leonard Maltin offers an introduction in which he touches on the “noir” word to say the film’s not classically noir but certainly dark. As I say, I think we can push it further. Watch and decide for yourself.

RATING 10 / 10