Directed by George Stevens
Screenplay By Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, based on the novel “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser, and the stage play “An American Tragedy” by Patrick Kearney
Starring Montgomery Clift, Shelly Winters, Elizabeth Taylor and Raymond Burr
George Stevens is an interesting character. He started his film career as a cinematographer for Laurel and Hardy, then moved on to directing comedy, his big break being Katherine Hepburn’s Alice Adams. After that it was on to Astaire/Rogers movies, and even the classic action/comedy, and obvious inspiration for Indiana Jones, Gunga Din. By 1940 he had a nice little thing going, and could have gone on doing it forever, had World War II not intervened and changed it all up.
In the war, Stevens was a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, contributing to various war documentaries, and shooting footage of D-Day and the concentration camps. By all accounts he saw many harrowing things, which is why when he came back, he didn’t have the taste for comedy any longer, turning instead to straight drama. Some of his post-army films were weepies, some were not, but none had anything in them resembling comedy.
What’s curious is that for a man with a career like George Stevens, he is sometimes forgotten to history. When film-geeks scour the studio system for guys to retroactively anoint as ‘auteurs’, they inevitably linger on John Ford, Howard Hawks and Hitchcock. Sure, from time-to-time other directors might get a mention – Frank Capra and Anthony Mann, maybe, or producers like Val Lewton and David O. Selznick – but on the whole the consensus seems to be that the studio-era auteur begins and ends with Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock.
The curious thing about this is Stevens seemed to have been just as nakedly about making his films as Hitchcock was. While John Ford could say, “I make westerns,” in an effort to downplay what he did, Stevens never tried to undersell what he was doing and consistently went bigger and broader in terms of the emotional and physical scope of his films. Going from the smallish, I Remember Mama, to the slightly-broader setting of A Place In The Sun, to the wide open spaces and wide open acting of Shane and Giant, before finishing up with The Diary of Anne Frank and the big-budget The Greatest Story Ever Told. It was nothing but expansion for him.
Yet, despite being producer-director on all his post-World War II films, meaning he certainly had complete control over the material and how to present it, he never is mentioned as an ‘auteur’. Perhaps part of the reason he is overlooked is he won two Oscars as Best Director at a time when he supposed-auteurs didn’t win Oscars. Perhaps it’s because he hopped genres, from comedy to drama to outright epics, and therefore showed himself more a competent director than an artist. Maybe it’s that film history has enough room for only so many auteurs and can handle no more – how else to explain John Huston being swept aside as well.
To be fair, it isn’t as if he doesn’t have admirers. In the recent docu-series, Five Came Back, Lawrence Kasdan takes up for Stevens, but that it’s Kasdan who’s got his back is telling. After all, Kasdan is best remembered for his work as a writer on various Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, not for his own directorial career, which included Body Heat, The Big Chill and The Accidental Tourist. No, it’s Kasdan, a director of no particular style, making the case for a director who seemed to have no particular style.
Nevertheless, for many people Stevens will always be second-tier, like Kasdan, so it’s fitting a second-tier director takes up his case. But just because a director is second-tier doesn’t mean there’s nothing to offer in their filmography, even in their failures.
What’s It About?
Dateline – some smallish town. A guy (Clift) hitchhikes his way in, looking for work from rich relatives. Once there he hooks up with another employee, girl 1 (Winters), who he’s a bit eager to be rid of once he starts moving up in the company and catches the eye of the more-glamourous girl 2 (Taylor). Complicating things is he gets girl 1 pregnant, at a time when abortion was not allowed, and says he’ll marry her. Further complicating that is he doesn’t want to marry her, because he’s in love with girl 2. In desperation, he fantasizes killing girl 1, even taking her out on a boat to drown her, but ultimately can’t do it. Unfortunately, she falls off the boat and drowns anyway. In the end, he’s tried for murder and sent to the electric chair.
How It’s About?
A Place In The Sun starts very much like Picnic: poor guy comes to town looking for a job. Things seem to be looking up, only to go to hell. Naturally, the different way they go to hell is what matters.
One of my favorite quotes about movies – or really books, too – is that “it’s not what it’s about, it’s how it’s about what it’s about.” The point being that even if two things have the exact same story – think Deep Impact v. Armageddon – the story itself isn’t the important thing, it’s how the story is told.
Whereas Picnic loaded the film with heat and melodrama – ripe melodrama – and compresses the action to a single day, A Place In The Sun is a slow burn, unfolding the story over months. And in most ways it’s the pace of the story that proves the difference between the two – notwithstanding that Picnic ends with a fight and some humor, while A Place In The Sun literally ends with a man on his way to his execution. Because while Picnic tells the story almost in a burst of activity in the dying moments of summer, A Place In The Sun is leisurely to the point of being almost inert. If it’s a slow-burn, it’s the slowest of burns. A fire without a fire. Which is the long way of saying: It’s slow.
Beyond that, the plot mechanics are fairly obvious and it’s clear from the jump that Shelley Winters isn’t going to see the end of the film and you know why. After all, (1) apropos of nothing, she tells us up front she can’t swim, offering the detail in a way that’s not exactly off-hand, and (2) a print of a painting of Ophelia drowning in the river, by John Everett Millais, appears over Clift’s shoulder when talking to Winters at one point, emphasizing the motif of the doomed innocent, and (3) when the romance between Taylor and Clift takes off, it’s built entirely around water and water imagery, literally telling us that Winters will be drowning in the waters of the Clift/Taylor love. Never mind that (4) as subtle as the film wants to be about dead girlfriends and how to make them dead without arousing suspicion, it’s not subtle at all. Yes, it’s somewhat quiet, and sorta-off-hand the way it doles out the details, but it’s not subtle. Though, to be fair, unsubtle as it is at least it doesn’t drive it’s point home by having the innocent Clift strike a Jesus Christ pose the moment he’s found guilty of murder he did not commit.
Shelley Winters is mostly-superb, only momentarily falling over into hamminess towards her ending. Otherwise, she’s got the perfect mix of vulnerability and desperation that would be attractive to a guy just rolling into town without a friend in the world. And which would also make her dangerous when he starts to pull away. That said, Winters was nominated for Best Actress for what is probably a supporting role. After all, she’s dead by 75 minutes into the film, leaving 45 to go. And those 75 minutes were actually Clift’s minutes, with some small part leftover for her. Indeed, she probably doesn’t show up in the film in any real way for 15 minutes, meaning she was nominated for Best Actress on the strength of her acting inside 60 minutes of somebody else’s movie. To be fair, she’s good, even as she seems more appropriate for Best Supporting Actress, not Best Actress. Nevertheless, she lost to Vivien Leigh, for A Streetcar Named Desire, so it’s not like justice wasn’t done in that respect. And if we’re honest, she might’ve lost to Kim Hunter, also from A Streetcar Named Desire, in the Supporting Actress race, so it’s not like any of this mattered.
Taylor’s role is pretty thankless and one-note. She’s only called on to look pretty and be charming and make it believable she and Clift are hot for one another. Surprise, surprise – she succeeds. To be fair, though, as person who can be fairly socially awkward at times, maybe I shouldn’t discount the skill in being charming and enchanting with groups of people, given it’s one skill I struggle with all the time.
Clift is clearly the standout here, having no problem playing the indecision and demons of a man caught in a no-win situation. Every thought he has, every conflict, is there on his face. No, not big on his face, but subtly on his face. At times I would have appreciated some bigness, like when the helplessness of his situation comes clear, but on the whole that’s just my personal preference. And really, all my complaints are washed away by the drowning scene, and the way he wrestles with what he wants to do once he and Winters are in the boat. That internal struggle, and the way he plays it, especially when Winters seems to be talking him into murdering her, is money.
I spent the opening paragraphs here wondering why George Stevens didn’t get more love from film-geeks as an auteur. If I had one answer, I’d point to A Place In The Sun, which hardly has any style at all, or personal vision by the director, and is almost milquetoast to the nth degree. Certainly, the film was probably borderline-scandalous at the time, what with the fornication, the bastard-pregnancy, the abortion plot, and the murder. And to be fair, I’m guessing some of Stevens’s acclaim for the film rested upon him having shepherded a respectful, tasteful adaptation of a difficult subject, to the screen. But while it might’ve been scandalous then, and his direction of it tasteful, the film is so bland now. And since history is what we look back through to judge one an auteur, history isn’t kind to Stevens here for all his weak and uninteresting directing choices.
In fairness, he makes the film look good – even a dowdy Shelley Winters is still an attractive woman in the film. And he frames the story well with the camera, mixing up close-ups and long-shots with skill, and even uses some audio flourishes to hand over important details. The problem, though, is that aura of respectability hanging over it all – for a film about such scandalous things, it’s just too shrug-worthy to ever be a good example of an auteur’s work. Perhaps if he’d used the same approach he took with Shane, or Giant, letting the emotions get outsized, that would have helped. Because he doesn’t, the film only limps along.
That all said, Stevens did manage to get a trio of good performances from the leads, and it is true he did oversee one fantastic scene – it’s the one where Winter’s goes to the doctor to ask him for an abortion. But, because of the era and legal situation, she can’t outright ask for it, and has to hint around and around it, while the doctor answers her in such a way that makes clear he knows what she wants, but also makes clear she’s not getting it from him. It’s the only scene in the movie with any real tension, with any pathos, and the discomfort between them is palpable. If Winter’s earned her money at all for this film, it was thanks to this scene.
The Big Problem
While you can see the attraction between Taylor and Clift – or seeming attraction, given the later revelations that Clift was gay – and can believe they’re in love, the speed with which they fall in love is unbelievable. Just like other movies, such as Picnic, and half the movies in this series with romantic elements, the lovers fall in love in moments, without hardly even speaking to one another. It’s the one element of films I can’t get over. I can suspend disbelief for so many other things – robots, vampires, other monsters – but people falling instantly in love is something that yanks me right out of the movie, especially when the characters are mid-20’s and have no business acting like they’re in love that quickly.
That said, the two of them certainly have chemistry and it’s easy to see why after this they would do two more films together. After all, when you get something believable, you go with it.
George Stevens twice won Best Director for films that lost Best Picture. A Place In The Sun lost to the Gene Kelly/Vincente Minelli collaboration, An American In Paris. Giant lost to Around the World In 80 Days. (If we’re honest, three of those four are forgettable.)
Better Than Best?
An American In Paris was Best Picture 1951, and it’s only so-so at best. I’ve enjoyed other musicals, but not this one. In fact, I really haven’t much love for the musicals the Oscars choose to fete, given most of the time the Academy prefers its films without much edge, or imagination, even in musicals when imagination is welcome.
So on that score, sure, A Place In The Sun is better than the best, but only by default. That said, if I had to pick the best I’d probably start with The African Queen. Yes, it’s littered with some fairly-terrible process shots and a certain falseness to its love story, neither stop it being exciting and held up by a pair of wonderful performances from Bogart and Hepburn.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 Except for the last one, The Only Game in Town (1970).
 Unless your name is John Ford.
 The Accidental Tourist is my favorite of his films, even as it has third act problems. To be fair, though, the film is faithful to the book and proves that just because something worked on the page doesn’t necessarily mean it works as well on screen.
 The quote, or idea of the quote, comes to me via Roger Ebert, who I’m surely misquoting in some way.