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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

AFI Film Review: A Place in the Sun

As punishment for my film school sins I’m watching all of the AFI Top 100 films that I haven’t seen. I will be reviewing them and grading them as I watch them.


Grade: C

Poor Montgomery Clift. Not only did he have the misfortune of having to drag his failing body through ten more years of torture, grittily making pictures while costars, directors and audiences watched him deteriorate on set and on screen; not only did he have to endure that pain, but now he is somewhat forgotten in favor of his latter day facsimile James Dean. Perhaps had Clift not made it out of the wreckage alive he would have been immortalized like Dean has been. Or maybe it’s that Clift had already completed so much quality work while Dean had only shown glimpses (if you’re so inclined to believe that) of what he could do in a few starring roles. More likely, and more accurately, the world has decided that Dean was cooler than Montgomery Clift and the world is, and was, wrong.



A Place in the Sun is a boring, sentimental, unfaithful adaption of Theodore Dreiser’s epic tome An American Tragedy. I don’t believe that a film has to be faithful to its source material as long as it can evoke the same emotional response. Dreiser’s An American Tragedy should have been adapted into a three hour film. It should have been something like There Will Be Blood or Raging Bull, a sweeping character study. The handling should have been three distinct parts, three separate parts that allowed the audience to crawl deep into the psyche of Clyde (George Eastman in the film). In the book that’s what you get. You follow Clyde from his days with his family, his sister’s ruin, his time in Kansas City and close call with the police, you get to see his mind turning over and calculating, using the poor abacus that God gave him. Dreiser lays out the entire life of a man and let’s the reader decide that man’s guilt. It’s a story of classic American gumption, the rags to riches story, the pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps story.

Charlie Chaplin said that A Place in the Sun was the greatest film ever made about America. I would have to assume he also read the book. If he had he would have been able to fill in the nuance that the film lacks. Even minor elements like his cousin’s dislike for him and his wont for the finer things in life are lost amidst the love triangle that dominates the film.

Oh, but the cool. Montgomery Clift is playing pool by himself, cigarette dangling, lonely, passing the time. He decides to make the shot harder. Rather than knocking the ball into the corner pocket form the opposite side rail he attempts a bank shot that will ricochet the ball off of three walls and into the hole, but that not being difficult enough he puts the cue behind his back, cigarette still dangling, and knocks in the shot right as Elizabeth Taylor walks into the room and exclaims, “Wow.” This ten second stretch of celluloid is worth the 122 minute film in and of itself. However many millions the film cost to make they are justified by that single solitary moment when Taylor walks in and acts as surrogate for what we were all thinking. “Wow, that’s cool.” But think of cool in 1951, don’t think of it as the concept we know today, fifty odd years after Miles Davis birthed it out of his trumpet. Think of cool when cool didn’t know what it was and one could only say “Wow.”

Taylor and Clift are magical together. You can see why George Stevens didn’t pay much attention to anything else. When they’re on screen together it hardly matters that the film lacks nuance or that Shelley Winters was apparently told to screech, screech like her life depended on it so that she would be viewed in high relief to the angelic Taylor’s Angela Vickers. The filmmakers fall so deeply in love with Taylor and Clift that they forget to make us feel sympathy for Winters’s Alice Tripp. Instead we see her as the nagging wench trying to break up something beautiful, something Clift’s George Eastman had been dreaming about his whole life.

If you need further proof of George Stevens’s infatuation, his agenda to make the audience fall in love with the film’s two stars look no further than the final scene. I read the novel last year and from what I can remember George Eastman (Clyde in the novel) never sees Angela (Sondra in the novel) after his trial. In the film, however, the final scene is a saccharine visit from Angela to George’s death row jail cell the moment before George takes the last and longest walk of his life. The scene is not about everything that Angela Vickers symbolized to George (money, power, beauty, success); the scene is about love enduring all hardships.

But who could blame George Stevens? I went into the film blind, not knowing that Elizabeth Taylor was in it. When she first appeared on the screen I had to look up the cast and find out who she was. She was so beautiful that I didn’t even recognize her. And then there is Clift, doing all of the James Dean stuff, better than Dean, before Dean, and way more understated. The scene where he first enters Alice’s house under the pretense of turning the radio down (a radio that he turned up from the open window outside), that scene would have been turned into a two minute manic episode by Dean. Clift, however, plays it cool; his Eastman is a little slyer than we expect, a little more dubious than the audience suspected at first glance. Clift brings the only semblance of subtly that the films has.

The only other highlight for me was when I recognized the face of Raymond Burr. I couldn’t place it until I looked it up and realized I had watched dozens of Perry Mason episodes as a kid with my father. His turn as the district attorney was tonally harmonious with the film: over-the-top and gratuitous. In fact his breaking of the oar in the courtroom is an apt microcosm for what the film is doing to the audience.


This film is worth it for the appearances and performances of Taylor and Clift and for the boat scene which looks like an homage to German Expressionism. Other than that it doesn’t make the cut as a great American film which forces me to say something that I absolutely hate saying: read the book instead.

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