A Place in the Sun (1951)

Dir. George Stevens. Starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters

In a movie that frequently sits on Montgomery Clift emoting – a very good choice, that – and lingers on closeups of Elizabeth Taylor, the most important player is Shelley Winters, the patron saint of women who want things too much and never can take hold of them. A Place in the Sun, The Night of the Hunter, Lolita, even The Diary of Anne Frank all feature her as a woman who fails to get her own way time and time again. She’s the William H. Macy of another generation in that aura of perpetual disappointment she gives off, and she never fails to mewl; no actor ever born mewled like Winters, whose characters recognize the terrible fate that has been placed upon them but know for certain that they don’t deserve what’s happening to them. In A Place in the Sun, Alice meets George by chance in a movie theater and he happens to sit in her row; they walk back to her place together and George decides he wants significantly more than the goodnight kisses she’s already surrendered. She gets pregnant; she insists on getting married, as is the right of a young single woman in the 1950s. And she dies in a small corner of a remote lake, drowned, potentially by the hand of the man who impregnated her.

Winters plays Alice in a crescendo. Her protest to George in her room is mousy at best. Her appointment with a doctor (Ian Wolfe, who I think was born at age forty-five) is tearful but largely muted. It’s not until she follows George to where he’s vacationing that she starts to warm to making scenes. She calls him up and threatens, within the next hour, to tell all, kill herself, etc. The following day she whimpers about how she wishes that George loved her again. It is quite possibly the last wish of her life, and in truth it may be the last really strong moment in the movie. It’s not merely that Alice’s death throws the plot into a different direction which is also significantly more hackneyed. Winters brings reality to what otherwise appears to be a very Hollywood setting with very Hollywood people inhabiting it. The class critique of the film which begins with Clift really ends with Winters, who carries that banner as soon as Charles Eastman (Herbert Hayes), George’s uncle, decides he wants his nephew to advance up the company ladder. Alice knew from the beginning (perhaps with an eye out for herself) that it would never be her who moved up from packing swimsuits in little cardboard boxes.

Where A Place in the Sun goes wrong, in the end, is that it can’t possibly find a sick humor (or even irony) in its situation. It’s a movie very much like Lolita, in which Shelley Winters plays another woman whose death can be traced back to her man (who wants to kill her in the first place), even if we in the audience may not find him culpable. Unlike Lolita, which has an unfair advantage in Peter Sellers as well as a potentially salacious situation in the offing, A Place in the Sun has nothing else to fall back on but its protagonist. Clift is as good here as he is in any other picture I’ve seen him in, but George has his moment well before Alice falls into the water. He hears on his radio that there have been some vacationer deaths in the recent past; if you go swimming at an unattended body of water, the voice says, be careful. For thirty seconds and more, Stevens holds the camera on Clift, whose face is stricken but whose eyes are mostly impassive. We know what he’s thinking perfectly well, and that’s frightening less because he wants to murder the woman who’s carrying his child than the fact that we can make that leap with little more than Clift’s face to help us along. Lolita is more than happy to let Humbert narrate his so-called “perfect crime,” where A Place in the Sun has no need to let words get in the way of what an actor’s face can do. But A Place in the Sun sees Alice’s death and George’s hide-and-seek with the cops as potentially tragic. In Lolita, it’s not long before we see Humbert in his bathtub screwing with the neighbors who have come to console a man who is tickled pink. The latter is more effective, if for no other reason than its ability to elicit a response from us. We’ve seen too many murderers on screen, if that’s what George is, and even if he’s not a murderer, then we’ve seen more than enough men whose consciences are tied in knots.

A Place in the Sun also does not help itself in its courtroom scenes, which are good for about ten minutes of the movie when it should be reaching its highest dramatic point. Everyone’s dialogue seems to fall flat; even Clift can’t resuscitate his character’s testimony from a deathly dullness. George’s lawyers are maybe the worst legal team to go to trial since the height of Stalin’s purges; their defense is that George wanted to kill Alice, see, but that he didn’t, even though it sure looks like he did. The judge is not so quick either; sometimes George’s lawyers get away with leading their witness and sometimes they don’t. Also, to add insult to injury, Warsaw County appears to have a potentially unique quirk in their criminal justice system: they have fourteen-person juries.

A little more realism in the courtroom wouldn’t have hurt, even though the subject matter is itself pretty melodramatic. I don’t doubt that early ’50s audiences might have been shocked by the sight of a district attorney (Raymond Burr) smashing an oar to bits to make a point, but by now I think we’re immune to that Khruschevian kind of emphasis.

The title of the movie, and how it fits in with the beginning of the film, is much more moving than anything that happens after Alice’s death. George, who is not particularly ambitious or smart, sees in Angela and her idyllic life a way out of his disappointing, mutable being. When Angela begins to take notice of him, Alice simply fades away in his mind. We can almost see him doing the calculus. Angela wears expensive dresses, and her face and hair are comme il faut; Alice presents herself simply and plainly. Angela has access to a fancy car and big houses; Alice rents a small room under the vigilant eye of her aged landlady. Angela has never worked and will never have to work; Alice works a dead-end assembly line. Angela looks like Elizabeth Taylor at nineteen; Alice looks like Shelley Winters at thirty-one. “Calculus” is probably a strong word even without taking into account that George’s obsession with Angela is a bad case of winter dreams. George never says it outright, but he doesn’t have to. He is born into a world of fundamentalist religion, taking no time for education or making money. Had he been born to a slightly different family (if he had been his own cousin, so to speak) he might have had the best of everything and been a no-doubt match for Angela. He can feel that alternate reality in his grasp, but that opportunity is far too slick for any grip to hang onto. He can sense his place in the sun next to Angela – in fact, in one scene, the two of them lie on the beach and soak up the rays together – but cannot move with the rising and setting of the star.

One of the movie’s great saving graces is its direction. Stevens richly deserved the Best Director award he picked up for A Place in the Sun; he has such command over his shots, knowing how they will be work on his audience. Some of his symmetry is marvelous. The germ of George’s idea to murder Alice comes to him through the radio, and it’s through a radio that we hear the first reports that the D.A. is calling Alice’s death a murder. We see Angela and George at Loon Lake in some of the movie’s very few wide shots. George threatens to drop Angela back into the lake she’s just clambered out of, which is freezing cold. We seen Alice and George in their rowboat, as well as the splash of the two falling in, in very similar long shots. If Stevens were writing an essay instead of making a movie, his teacher would praise him for his sensible use of parallel structure for impact as well as grammar.

I’m personally fond of the scene where, having been narrowly saved from holy matrimony by a federal holiday, George suggests to Alice that they go out on the lake and be alone for a little while. They’re walking out of the courthouse as they do it, and they pause in front of a room. It’s a courtroom, but the focus is so clearly on George and Alice that it’s totally possible not to notice the room they’re standing in front of. (Once again, Winters sells the scene. Her tone of voice is gentle, surprised; that sounds real good, she says to the notion of a picnic at the lake, like she can’t believe what she’s hearing from the guy she intends to marry.) As they leave, the camera stays; the courtroom comes in focus as the camera just sits with it for a few seconds. It’s eerie and totally effective when Stevens leaves you with the implications:

The view of an empty courtroom can be, Stevens proves, just as good a tool to prod us with as the tortured face of his star.

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