Place in the Sun, A (1951)
Release Date: August 14th, 1951 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: George Stevens Actors: Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters, Anne Revere, Fred Clark, Raymond Burr
uiet, pleasant, socially awkward yet ambitious young bellhop George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) hitchhikes from Chicago to the distant California town where his uncle Charles lives, hoping to get a job from the millionaire leader of Eastman Industries. Not particularly generous, but unwilling to send the boy away, Charles gives him work in the packaging room at the factory, where 9 out of 10 employees are female (and fraternizing is specifically against the rules). Despite being an Eastman, he’s still on the outside of the powerful, high-class socialite world where his relatives preside.
At the plant, he befriends assembly line worker Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), who he starts dating secretly. Although he’s fond of Alice, he can’t shake a brief glimpse of the stunning Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), a society girl and daughter of another wealthy industrialist (her introductory appearance is one of the most famous scenes in the film, with Taylor’s glowing entrance conjuring a shocked, overwhelmed stare from Clift). At a party thrown at the decadent Eastman manor, shortly after George is sympathetically promoted, he’s officially introduced to Angela, who can’t help but beguile him. Alice is insecure and jealous of George’s upper crust mingling, her nagging quickly dragging down his spirits, as he grows more obsessed with Angela – who worsens matters by continuing to invite him to grand gatherings.
There is a solemn, sad note to the love triangle, with George drawn into two complex loves – both of which must be kept secretive for different reasons. One remains clandestine to preserve his career, the other to avoid scandal. His situation grows more complicated when Alice becomes pregnant and she pressures him into marriage – shortly after Angela confesses her love to him. It’s here that he determines his only solution is to rid himself of the more problematic relationship, a devious notion influenced by a radio report on accidental deaths.
Based on the novel “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser, with its title giving away a touch too much of the major theme, the story is emotionally captivating, revealing the darker side of passion and the corruption of morals as influenced by spontaneous attraction. It also examines the escalation of calamity as persevering lies sway further interference and ramifications; chance opportunities always seem to present morbid dilemmas. Like the twisted relationships of “Double Indemnity” and “In a Lonely Place,” the cynical and poetically named “A Place in the Sun” scrutinizes the right and wrong along with the terrifying middle ground of intention and coincidence (in the film described as desire and deed) and how the two can sometimes be indistinguishable. It should be noted that as a product of the ‘50s, much of the legal proceedings and outcome represented are severer than present day jurisprudence would dictate, though the film is a morality play more than a courtroom procedural.
Taylor shines with a very natural, enticing, seductive thespian display, appearing entirely authentic as a debutante (years later in 1956’s “Giant,” she would again be employed in a reminiscent yet more elaborate role by director George Stevens). Clift is perfect as Eastman, always grave even in the lighter moments, permanently hindered from expressing happiness as he’s plagued by a double life. Raymond Burr also has an amusing part as a boisterous district attorney, years before he would become the famous defense lawyer Perry Mason, on the other side of litigation. And the forceful script is shuddery, steadily building to an astonishing courtroom showdown and a devastating finale, where heartbreak and agony are certain to cloud redemption.
– Mike Massie