Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Place in the Sun (1951)

Director: George Stevens                            Writer: Michael Wilson & Harry Brown
Film Score: Franz Waxman                         Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Starring: Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters and Raymond Burr

Based on Theodor Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun is one of the great films of the fifties. It benefits tremendously from being filmed at the beginning of the decade. The production values are much higher than they would have been a few years later, after studio losses due to the rise of television caused severe cutbacks in production expenditures. Everything in the film is lush, from the opulent settings to the rich score by Franz Waxman and the lingering, soft-focus close ups on Taylor and Clift. Add to that a story that transcends its pedestrian opening and it’s no wonder the film has achieved the status of classic cinema.

Monty Clift is a poor relative of a rich family and gets an offer from the patriarch to work in their factory. He accepts and immediately falls for Shelley Winters. Against company policy he begins dating her, but on his first day in town he falls hard for Elizabeth Taylor, even though she doesn’t know he exists. Eventually, however, the two meet and fall in love. The only problem is that he can’t break things off with Winters. He lies to her as much as he can but, being a society girl, Taylor is often in the papers and when Winters sees his picture with Taylor she threatens to expose their relationship and destroy the career he has been working toward, not to mention his relationship with Taylor.

Clift is his usual tormented self, and like Hitchcock’s I Confess, it works well in the second half of the film. There’s definitely the same kind of snobbery found in Kitty Foyle at work in the script, as Clift's name isn't enough to make him one of the family. His rich relatives accept him only grudgingly at first, but as he is a hard worker and ambitious enough that Taylor’s family finally gives in and takes him on as one of their own. However, legal difficulties ensue and his life is quickly torn apart. There is a wonderful cast of supporting characters, from Douglas Spencer who was in The Thing from Another World, to Robert Anderson who played young George in It’s a Wonderful Life, to Raymond Burr who would be pivotal in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

George Stevens, who had done some great films, The Talk of the Town and Shane come to mind, does a masterful job here, with an intimate story that changes into something very unexpected. The score by Franz Waxman is one of the classic film scores of all time. His was one of the first jazz-oriented film scores, and featured the alto saxophone. Elizabeth Taylor’s role was pretty generic, and it’s doubtful that there weren’t dozens of other actresses who could have been just as good. But taken as a whole, the film is powerful if predicable, and A Place in the Sun is deserving of its classic status.

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