Friday, March 08, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: A Place In The Sun (1951)

"You seem so strange, so deep and far away." This is what Angela Vickers says to George Eastman, and it is a line that just as well could have described the man playing Eastman - the immortal Montgomery Clift, an actor with immense training and extreme consideration for every mannerism and gesture he made on the silver screen. So many actors, whether Clift's descendants or peers, often only seem to live within the movie being made, but Clift could evoke a character's entire life lived up until that moment and a fear for the future that will go on long after the movie ends.


His pent up face is very much at the core of director George Stevens' mammoth 1951 production of the Theodore Dreiser novel "An American Tragedy", and this is because he refuses to let us either forgive or deplore the character for his calamitous actions because he never quite betrays his entire range of thought. It is entirely possible his George Eastman, a wayward and penniless young man who comes to Chicago to take a meeting with his prosperous uncle (Herbert Hayes) in the hopes of landing on the fast track, is not a good man. It is difficult to get a good grasp, which is not a fault but a brave choice because Clift is almost attempting to make the audience feel just as culpable in his dirty deeds.

He is put to work on the assembly line of his uncle's factory and despite being specifically warned not to shack up with any of his female co-workers, he shacks up with one of his female co-workers - namely, Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). They fall in love but must keep that love on the sly. This is the least of their problems. No, their biggest problem is a debutante and friend to the Eastman family, the ravishing Angela Vickers. She is played by the ravishing Elizabeth Taylor.

Clift and Taylor's first real scene together is at an elaborate soiree at the Eastman home in which George, finding himself out of his social depth, retreats to a billiard room. Eventually Angela discovers him in hiding and enters. The scene that follows shames any and all modern day cinematic sequences claiming to contain sexual charge. She circles the table, sizing him up, standing directly behind him, cigarette dangling from his lips, as he takes aim at a shot, essentially checking him out. He turns to her. They banter. And on a certain line of hers - "You look unusual" - the film suddenly switches to a close-up of Taylor's celestially lit face, a perfect directorial choice because it evokes the way any of us idiot, lovelorn men have at one time or another been in the presence of a beautiful lady and the whole world around us closes off and it's just......her.


But, of course, George's uncle enters, ruins the vibe, briefly, makes his nephew call his mom back home and as he does Angela sashays over to the phone and flirts with him while he's making the call. Then she takes his hand and makes him dance. And he - and we, that's critical - are swept away to a place where trouble melts like lemon drops high above the chimney tops. At this point George would probably do darn near anything to be Angela and we would want him to darn near anything to be with Angela.

His (and our) mettle will be tested. Alice, as she must, becomes pregnant with his child. She wants him to marry her. He does not want to. He wants to be with Angela. Well, of course he does. You felt what he felt, didn't you? And so the film ropes the lot of us in. There are critics who will tell you "A Place In The Sun" was simply a lumbering and dated 50's soap opera. Writing in The Chicago Reader Dave Kehr advises it to be "A good example of the kind of soporific nonsense that won rave reviews and armloads of Academy Awards back in the 50s, while the finest work of Ford, Hawks, and Hitchcock was being ignored." I find interesting the comparison to Hitchcock because ol' Hitch was a master at getting us to sympathize with unsympathetic characters which was sort of ahead of its time and which is sort of what "A Place In The Sun" is doing. And when George and Alice take that moonlit boat ride and Clift's face trembles like a mini-earthquake, you might find yourself surprised as to what you feel in the pit of your own stomach.

This is not to suggest the film is flawless. The Angela and Alice characters, in fact, as so many female characters so tragically have been throughout the history of cinema, primarily exist to exert this dramatic push and pull on George as opposed to having their own thoughts and feelings. Plus, their dichotomy is far too striking. But, as they say, having said that, the performances of Taylor and Winters manage to gloss over that glaring foible quite skillfully, and as they do the film's subtext quietly emerges.


I have watched "A Place In The Sun" numerous times. I have read rather extensively on Clift, an actor I much admire, and finished Patricia Bosworth's biography on him last year. The more you learn, the more apparent it becomes that in a very real way Clift was the love of Taylor's life and vice-versa. Clift, though, was bisexual and so their romance could never bloom and might potentially explain why she sped through so many marriages.

That is armchair psychology, but I defy anyone to watch that final scene between the two and not feel as if they are casting off the shackles of cinema, cutting through the layers of character, of George and Angela, and speaking directly to each other, foreshadowing their tumultuous lives and relationship that would reach its terribly tragic peak when she held his ruined face in her hands in the car wreck that expedited his descent.

Clift (George): "I know something now I didn't know before. I am guilty of a lot of things. Most of what they say of me."
Taylor (Angela): "All the same, I'll go on loving you for as long as I live."

At the risk of being a naïve sentimentalist (which I am), there are some who say that when you die you are greeted by a loved one. I would like to think that when Elizabeth Taylor passed away but two years ago that maybe, just maybe, Montgomery Clift was there to greet her.

6 comments:

Alex Withrow said...

Another great review here, my friend. A Place in the Sun is one of my favorite movies, and it was insightful to read your thoughts on it. I too am a huge Clift fan, but I never knew they were legitimate lovers (or would-be lovers, as it were). He was such a complex, fascinating man.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you, sir. I don't think they were actually lovers (as far as we know) but I definitely think they had their own sort of true love for one another. I really do. They had something all their own.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Lovely writeup, so many things intrigue me about this. For example, it's a testament to the inspiration for the film that Woody Allen could decades later do a spin on it that was similar at the core and yet original and effective in its own way (also, Scarlett Johansson as the inspired heir to Elizabeth Taylor throne is still my favourite thing Woody has done since Wiest as a diva in 1994).

This is Clift's best performance, too. Stevens is often underrated or acclaimed for not the wrong films not some of his great ones (eg. Alice Adams, A Place in the Sun, Woman of the Year) and this film is effectively directed. I'm less enthused about Winters work, but I've always been uncertain about how I feel about her.

Consider, though, today would that character be a legitimate choice for a LEADING actress nomination?

Nick Prigge said...

Clift's performance in From Here To Eternity is far away still my favorite but that's partially because I just such an immense personal fondness for that film overall. His work here really is just as astounding.

That's an interesting thought about Winters. I mean, leading & supporting usually comes down to some form of politics but that aside, her character really is the most integral to the story in a way. I just wish they hadn't made Winters so dowdy as the movie goes along. That just seems such a disservice to the balance of the triangle.

Ben Russell said...

Am I the only one that didn't sense the chemistry between Taylor and Clift? I've read about Clift and Taylor both, and almost always they've talked of Taylor's connection to Richard Burton, rather than Clift... well anyway, I thought this was a great film with two stilted performances by Taylor and Clift. I thought Shelley Winters stole the show!

Nick Prigge said...

Yeah, Liz & Burton had their own connection too. I fully confess I've always been more fascinated by Clift than Burton, so I think my views on the many men in Liz's life always slant in that direction.

Winters is really good too. Like I say in the review, there are bits of her character that rub me the wrong way but that's a not knock on her. She does what she's supposed to do really, really well.