George Stevens’ A Place In The Sun: An American Tragedy

George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) is in his prime. He’s young and handsome, and when he’s thrust into the working life at his rich uncle’s family business, he’s expected to work from the bottom up so understands how the company operates. Whilst on the job, he becomes romantically involved with Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a simple woman on the assembly line. However, when he’s brought into high society he meets the beautiful and intelligent Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) and soon forgets about Alice. The thing is, Alice won’t be forced out so easily. More so when she reveals that their time together has resulted in an unwanted and undesirable outcome.

Based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, this Oscar-winning 1951 picture was actually a remake of a film made twenty years earlier (as An American Tragedy) by Josef von Sternberg. The original colossally tanked and Paramount put pressure on Giant director George Stevens to take up the daunting task of this remake. Restricted by a tight budget, he delivered, and he delivered big, in a well-crafted and well-directed work of art. And the Academy liked the film so much that the film was nominated nine times, winning six times, with George Stevens winning for directing. Michael Wilson and Harry Wilson also picked up the award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Films like this show me why I’d rather watch the world go round in black and white than in colour
(A Place in the Sun, Paramount Pictures)

George finds himself stuck in the jaws of the two things that dictate our society, class (money) and sex. With not much education and raised by religious fanatics, he happens to be the nephew of a successful business man who offers him work in his factory. Prickly and alone, Montgomery Clift escapes the confines of his job by dating a quiet co-worker named Alice (Shelley Winters). However, his dedication to the job attracts the attention of his uncle. George receives a promotion with an invitation to the manor. There, he meets Angela Vickers. She’s a child raised in privilege and they fall for each other, regardless of him coming from the “lowly station” of the working class.

Only one annoyance keeps Eastman from taking his place in the sun with Vickers. Winters is pregnant. When the proletarian gutter collides with the shiny slabs of bourgeois avenue, they crash, and they crash hard when Winters phones him in the midst of a Hawaiian-themed party at Vickers’ summer place near the lake. An ultimatum is made: marry Alice or she’ll spill his dirty secret for all to know. He leaves to meet Winters, at his wits end, trying to think of plan which will make everyone happy. And we have to remember that this was a time where one simply couldn’t father a child out of wedlock. Up until the 1970s, the notions around this were still very medieval.

Despite your better judgement, when you’re hopelessly in love, emotions will do your thinking
(A Place in the Sun, Paramount Pictures)

George Stevens’ direction has this unstoppable and sinister velocity. From the very beginning, even as George meets Alice, you know this isn’t going to end well for him. This isn’t his Casablanca. A man starts dating a co-worker even though it’s strictly forbidden; he was doomed as soon as he walked through the door on day one. And then he meets Angela, a forbidden love. Eastman made his bed when he broke rules, and now he must lie in it. Tripp was innocent in all this but Angela is not as innocent as she looks. She’s not a traditional femme fatale. George Eastman killed George Eastman. Love (Angela Vickers) killed George Eastman and human nature killed him as well.

Stevens’ direction is unbroken by even a whiff of humour in the events. His tone doesn’t allow that, not even one character becomes a gimmick or a stereotype, not even Angela Vickers (Taylor) or Alice Tripp (Winters), as it would have been all too easy to have them played out that way. Tired and fatigued images of emotionless acts turn into hypersensitive pictures that open the viewer to the fact that George won’t survive this, as each scene becomes darker than the previous one. George is a nice kid from a poor family who fell in love with a Angela, from rich background. That trope is as old as time but rarely does it end so brutally, and all because he dared to fall in love.

If this film was made in colour, it would not be as effective; the colour would ruin the noir appeal
(A Place in the Sun, Paramount Pictures)

From the acting to the photography to that very eerie noir factor, A Place in the Sun has earned its spot on the AFI’s list of Top 100 American Films. It’s truly a fantastic film and we will never see its like again.

From The Third Man to Touch of Evil, Stevens’ A Place in the Sun is certainly up there with the noir classics of old