Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Review – A Place in the Sun

September 21, 2010

A Place in the Sun – U.S., 1951

Allow me to start this review by asking a rather obvious, but annoying question: What does Angela Vickers see in George Eastman? After all, George is rather quiet, keeps to himself, and has a personality that borders on non-existent. Now, contrast that with Angela’s extraverted, energetic, larger-than-life persona, and you’ve got what most people would consider a bit of a mismatch in real life. As viewers, should we simply accept the strength of their relationship and the depths of their commitment to each other, or should we raise our eyebrows in justifiable disbelief and demand an explanation? Now, let’s compare this relationship to the one George has with Alice Tripp. We see them working together, stealthily exchanging brief glances, all the while knowing that a relationship is against company policy. Nevertheless, these two lonely people are drawn together. Theirs is an awkward courtship – forbidden, yet ultimately unstoppable, as the strength of the budding feelings, as well as perhaps their mutual loneliness, prove too strong for them to contain any longer. And then, as so often happens, time proves an enemy to love, and the feelings lessen – at least for George. The scenario seems entirely believable, much more so than Angela watching George hit a particularly difficult billiards shot and being emotionally aroused enough to stop and introduce herself.

George Steven’s A Place in the Sun is essentially the story of a young man trying to move up in the world. Sure, he may try to sugarcoat this with pleas that he not receive any favoritism, but he is acutely aware that his family name comes with a certain prestige. Though initially given a job packaging ladies garments, he has visions of making an impression on the more respected and powerful members of the Eastman clan. It is in the packing room that he first sees Alice Tripp. Theirs is a mutual attraction, and after a chance encounter at a screening of Now and Forever, the two begin a secret relationship. Does George have genuine feelings for her? I believe he does, although his introverted personality makes it hard to judge just how strong his feelings are. In addition, more intimate scenes between the two are shot from a distance and often in shadow, adding to the secretive nature of their relationship and obscuring from viewers just how passionate their love for each other may be. It also makes viewers complicit in the cover-up that is taking place in front of us.

In one scene, George arrives at Alice’s small apartment very late in the evening. It just happens to be George’s birthday, and Alice has prepared a small celebration for the two of them, replete with cake, ice cream, and a small gift that was probably not easy for her to afford on her small salary. Disappointed and scared of losing him, Alice wonders aloud if George does not want to see her anymore. George shifts uncomfortably in his seat, but does not refute her statement. This only adds to Alice’s growing fears of losing George, especially given the fact that she is “in trouble,” which if revealed publicly would certainly ruin his chances with the much more cheerful (and wealthy) Angela Vickers. The thoughts that begin forming in his head are not surprising giving the genre that the film belongs to, but the film introduces them in a believable way, giving A Place in the Sun a degree of credibility that later films like it lack.

Much of the success or failure of a movie like A Place in the Sun rides on the audience’s ability to accept a relationship as it is presented to them on the silver screen, and based on the continued popularity of A Place in the Sun, it is clear that many people have not had too much difficulty accepting just how strong George and Angela’s love is. Stevens lends the audience a helping hand in this by shooting George and Angela’s passionate embraces close up, and because the actors look like they are deeply in love, audiences will likely think so also. I had no problem accepting the two were in love; it’s how they got there that remains a puzzle to me. Perhaps their union is like many others that developed during this time of great transition for both men and women – erroneous and ultimately regretted.

A Place in the Sun remains a strong film, despite my reservations about the level of character development in the film. Montgomery Clift gives a good performance, and Elizabeth Taylor is perfectly radiant as Angela. However, to me the star of the film is Shelly Winters, for as Alice, she is both the most sympathetic character in the film and the biggest obstacle to the happiness of the film’s two lead characters. I truly felt for her as the film progressed. Angela and George, after all, have options; Alice has few, which made her occasionally erratic behavior all the more understandable. The last part of the film is rather predictable. This extends to George’s sudden realization, which should have been obvious to everyone. That no one would have brought that up during the trial, especially with a district attorney as devoted to justice as R. Frank Marlow (Raymond Burr) is arguing for the prosecution, is completely ludicrous. However, to reveal it earlier would have robbed Clift of one of his patented emotional close-ups, and who would have benefited from that? (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

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