Quite simply: This movie is an astonishing masterpiece that puts me to shame. For my money, it’s just as good as (if not better than) the likes of Citizen Kane. Without being enormous in scale or scope, George Stevens’ 1951 saga A Place in the Sun manages to be both epic and thrilling. Buoyed tremendously by the acting of Montgomery Clift and Stevens’ delicate directorial finesse, I have never seen a smarter or more complex romantic drama (if that is actually what this movie is).
Ranging from an American dream, through love, hatred, despair, deception, betrayal, redemption, and murder, straight into an American nightmare, A Place in the Sun defies categorization. On top of that, it deals in subject matters like premarital sex, abortion, marital infidelity and moral ambiguity—all incredibly scandalous subjects at the time, rarely seen in films of the era, and presented in such a way as to feel entirely genuine, in that period or any other.
George Stevens proves with this film that he is a master of many things. He knew when to let actors take their time with a scene. In particular, there is one shot in the film which absolutely astounded me. It lingers in close-up on Clift’s character (George Eastman), as he entertains the prospect of committing murder. Not a word is spoken, but so much is conveyed in those fifteen or so seconds. A look of inspiration crosses his face, fading seamlessly into horror, self-realization, and ultimately disgust and despair. This one shot not only epitomizes Clift’s deceptively intricate performance, but also Stevens’ prescience in allotting the sequence as much screen time as he did, producing with elegant simplicity an expository scene without a word of dialogue.
Something else Stevens masters here is the art of the optical print—used to produce carefully-planned and painstakingly-orchestrated dissolves—lingering transitions that reveal more about the plot than any dialogue scene ever could.
The movie is very well cast, and Elizabeth Taylor and Shelly Winters both deliver good performances, but Montgomery Clift definitely shines the brightest. I think a lot of people dismiss him as being a pretty boy actor—a studio-manufactured Hollywood heartthrob with no real talent, but after seeing him as quiet, conflicted introvert George Eastman I just can’t agree with that. On first glance his performance seems amateurish and unconsidered, but closer inspection reveals a wealth of detail.
You may remember a couple months ago when I panned Match Point, a movie I disliked so much that when I was watching it I picked up a plastic prop gun and started unloading imaginary bullets into the screen (Evan was there; he can verify this claim). Well, it might interest you to know that Match Point and A Place in the Sun were both adapted from the same book: An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser. Witness, then, the power with which a film interpretation can shape the source material. In this case, it’s a difference between zero and five stars.