Top 100 Movie Review: #92 – A Place in the Sun (1951)


Not only is the movie stale, it cycles through several formats never deciding what kind of movie it wants to be. 

Elizabeth Taylor  and Montgomery Clift — at least they are pretty to look at.

American Film Institutes Ranking: #92
Academy Awards: Nominated for nine winning six, including Best Director and Screenplay
My Rating:cropped-smooth-star

I read about 300 pages of American Tragedy; it’s a behemoth of a book, clocking in at over 900 pages, and when I went to renew it someone had put a hold on it. I just rechecked it out, so I was shocked when I realized that a movie of a completely different name picks up at part 2 of the novel.

Even though I did not finish the book, this movie does it absolutely no justice — it wrings out all the juice leaving us an attempt at a love story. This film is simply dated, and while it might be a top 100 for cultural reasons, it exhibits little power today.

[story/spoilers.] George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) working as a bell hop runs into his rich uncle, Charles Eastman, who is a CEO of a company. Charles gives George an opportunity to work in his factory which he readily accepts. George moves to the town where the factory is located (which the movie never mentions but the book places in a fictional New York State town), and meets the Eastman family. Since he has no social standing, the Eastman family keeps him at arms length. They pity him for his low socioeconomic status, hence the job offer, but not enough to welcome him into the inner circle.

George starts working and meets a girl at the factory named Alice Tripp (Shelley Waters). They start a relationship even though it is against Eastman factory policy to commingle. Eventually, George moves up the corporate ladder and becomes socially acceptable enough for the Eastmans to invite to functions. Here, he meets a socialite and stunning woman, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). Greedy to move into the upper crust of society, George wants to ditch Alice, but she informs him she is pregnant with his child.

Thus begins the conflict: which life will George ultimately choose?

Will it be a life of riches or rags for George Eastman?

[analysis.] Daniel M on Rotten Tomatoes puts it succinctly: “It begins as some kind of rags-to-riches drama, then becomes a love story, then turns into a whodunit in which we already know the culprit, and then finally ends up as a courtroom drama where all the previous events are recapped.”

The movie fails in every genre it takes on.

The commentary on social classes is watered down. The book goes to great lengths to show Charles as the son of a poor church family and his flirtations with the upper class. The movie doesn’t develop this angle, so when it comes to his extreme desire to interlope, his motivation does not garner the appropriate sympathy. Charles only comes across as a psychopath instead of this product of a class warfare.

The love story between Charles and the Angela happens immensely fast, and it’s hard to believe. This relationship doesn’t ploddingly build, but rather rocket ships out of nowhere. It’s hard to entertain its sincerity.

The whodunit is equally as strange. This film treats the crime with as many loose ends as possible, showing how easily it will be traced back to him. Nor does Charles try and do any maneuvering to cover his tracks. This leads to a significant part of the film that has no tension — we know who did it, we know he will be caught, and we know he will be convicted.

There was an opportunity to use this and the courtroom scenes to then see some descent into guilt, some crumbling of the man. We don’t get that either, which is very peculiar because he is innocent. What should be a moment of conflicted thoughts and feelings turns into a resignation as if he were actually guilty.

The movie does take on risque themes: sex out of wedlock, abortion, and connections between privilege and class. These just don’t have the same impact, and with everything else wrong with the movie, is way too little to save it.

Poster - A Place in the Sun_05

[conclusion.] How do we deal with these movies of antiquity? Do we still praise it because it was willing to take on the topic of sexual intimacy and bring up abortion? Charlie Chaplin referred to the movie as “The greatest movie ever made about America,” which gives insight to the impact.

American Tragedy has a lot of themes running around, and with me not finishing the book, I can’t speak to all of them. But, I can tell you that it missed the mark about power, wealth, and class.

The only redeeming part are the pretty people to look at: Taylor and Clift are both convincing actors and aesthetically stunning. That’s a cheap reason to be attracted to a film when you could get the same enjoyment from looking at the movie poster for a few moments. That would be my suggest.

Other People’s Takes: 

  • Seeing Things Second Hand: “Where A Place in the Sun goes wrong, in the end, is that it can’t possibly find a sick humor (or even irony) in its situation.”
  • Wonders in the Dark: This just might be the most deeply romantic moment ever put on film.”
  • Once Upon a Screen: “A Place in the Sun tells a timeless story, is gorgeous to look at, has a wonderful, moving score and inspired direction.  It’s a must see!”

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