Director: George Stevens
Starring: Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelly Winters
So pretty, so doomed. That is the essence of A Place In The Sun, based on Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy. Starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor as starcrossed lovers, the film is a love story and a tragedy and a great film all around. Brilliantly directed by George Stevens, it's the kind of movie you can watch over and over without it losing an ounce of tension. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it.
George Eastman (Clift) is a climber. Born and raised in poverty, once he's grown he sets off for his uncle, a wealthy tycoon whom he hopes will give him a job. His uncle obliges, but George must start at the company from the ground up and is given a low level job and largely excluded from the social circle his cousins enjoy. Essentially exiled from both his immediate and extended families, he forms a relationship with Alice Tripp (Shelly Winters), one of his coworkers. They keep their relationship a secret because it's against company policy and could get them fired and so no one is aware of the affair when George begins making inroads with Angela Vickers (Taylor), a young socialite who is friends with George's cousins.
George falls immediately in love with Angela, though it's a while before she takes any notice of him. His shyness and vulnerability is what seems to draw her towards him and they begin a relationship which is complicated by the fact that George is still involved with Alice and that she's pregnant. Afraid that Alice will expose him to his family and thus not only ruin his relationship with Angela but also destroy his chances of being accepted into the glossy high society he longs for, George comes up with a plot to murder Alice. He lures her out onto a lake in the middle of the night but, when the time comes, he finds that he can't go through with it. In a cruel twist of fate the boat then capsizes, Alice drowns, and George ends up on trial for his life with all evidence pointing to the crime he had originally intended to commit.
A Place In The Sun makes certain changes to Dreiser's story but is generally true to the spirit of the novel. An American Tragedy was published in 1925, the same year as The Great Gatsby, and both are about social climbing in America - the land where men are supposed be be able to be "self made" - and the trappings of reaching too far. George, like Jay Gatsby, comes from nothing and tries to reinvent himself though unlike Gatsby, he never quite feels at ease with the rich crowd. He knows that he doesn't belong, that perhaps he never will, but all he wants is to love Angela and he'll do anything to hold on to her, even if it means taking Alice's life. The desire to make a grab for that shiny American dream usurps George's sense of right and wrong, leading to his destruction.
Clift is good at guiding George through the pscyhologically complex grades of the character. He is at once a kind of victim in that he's ignored and shunned by his cousins when he first arrives on the scene, but he's also a victimizer. He can be quite charming with Alice, displaying with her some of the same qualities that Angela brings out of him, but he can also be quite cruel. The scene in which their relationship is consumated plays as rape and he is callous and indifferent to her as soon as Angela gives him a second look. He's not a "good" guy but Clift's deft handling of his inner turmoil keeps him from becoming a villain. Both Clift and Winters received Oscar nominations for their performances, but Taylor was unfortunately shut out. Her role sounds a lot simpler than it is, though, and her radiant performance is crucial to the film's success because George's motivations are rooted in Angela. If she was a lackluster character it would be more difficult to feel sympathy for him because you wouldn't be able to understand how the threat of losing her could drive him to such lengths.
It would be easy for this particular story to devolve into melodrama, but Stevens is always able to keep it from crossing over that line. The sequence in which George rows Alice out onto the lake, staring at her as he plans how and when he'll kill her is masterfully done, the light casting increasingly ominous shadows as Alice begins to get an inkling of what George has in mind and George begins to realize how horrific his thoughts are. It's one of those scenes that just stays with you after you've seen it and Stevens employs similar editing and lighting techniques in the scene where George attempts to escape from the police through the woods. Stevens has a very firm grasp of the story and keeps it taut and on track and his efforts were rewarded with the Oscar for Best Director. In a career full of great films, A Place In The Sun is one of the ones that stands out. It's a haunting, beautiful film.