As part of my quest to watch a greater amount of “classic” films, I am reading through “The Guinness Book of Film: The Ultimate Guide to the Best Films Ever”. I realised that I couldn’t really call myself a proper movie enthusiast until I had watched more of history’s greats.
A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens in 1951, instantly enthuses old Hollywood glamour, from the lavish music to the flattering blur of black and white, to the gorgeousness and charisma of the film’s two lead stars Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, and the sumptuousness of the fashion and locations. A Place in the Sun at first seems the very epitome of romance and post-war decadence. The handsome and engaging Montgomery Clift plays George Eastman, a young man who leaves the drudgery of poverty and dead-end jobs in the hope of gaining a successful career working for his rich uncle. One of the opening shots we observe is George looking at himself in the reflection of a shop window, with the classic image of his head resting on top of the mannequin dressed in an expensive tweed suit in the reflection. Without any dialogue we know already that this is a man with ambition. Wearing the tweed suit, George goes off to meet his Uncle, a meeting that will alter the course of his life forever. George manages to secure a lowly position in his uncle’s company, but the biggest outcome of this meeting is catching a glimpse of the beautiful Angela Vickers, played with sincerity by a youthful Elizabeth Taylor. The meeting doesn’t mean very much to Angela, but George instantly falls in love with her in that very moment.
However on his first day at the new job, George is told firmly that relationships between co-workers is strictly prohibited, which of course is going to end in disaster. He soon exchanges what starts out as innocent flirtations with pretty co-worker Alice Tripp, played by Shelley Winters, which eventually becomes something much more serious. Despite what appears to be a rather romantic relationship between them, when George is invited to a party thrown by his Uncle that happens to be on his birthday, he chooses the event that will forward his career (or offer him a chance encounter with Angela) rather than spending the whole night with Alice who has a surprise romantic night planned for him. George assures Alice that he will manage to do both, but when he meets Angela again wearing a beautiful white net sweetheart gown, looking sultry and breath-taking, the pair engage in a spout of flirtation across a pool table while the dinner Alice had cooked for George grows cold and the candle wax drips on the table, as she waits to reveal the other surprise she has for him.
George spends the rest of the film running away from his responsibility to Alice. Life with Alice means returning to the no-body from nowhere lifestyle that he was so desperate to avoid and was the reason that brought him to this new life in the first place. It is then that a chance mention of the dangers of boating accidents and freak drowning incidents during the summer vacations that George hears over the radio one gloomy night in his apartment takes the film on an unexpected, Hitchcock-style, sinister journey from which it will not return.
Now the romantic music, carefree dances and date nights have been replaced by ominous note changes, police sirens and chilling bird calls. As George hears frequent mentions of boating accidents and bodies that disappeared after drowning, echoes of Alice’s innocent conversation come flashing back to mind. While packing swimming costumes in boxes George asks her why she would never wear a swim suit. “Don’t you look good in one?” George asks, “sure I do” she defiantly replies, “but I can’t swim”.
The film unfolds now like a Hitchcock suspense thriller, building up to a climax, boat rides in the dark, sounds of birds and sirens and close-ups of George’s tortured face. All of these warning signals are juxtaposed by the beauty of the lake and the majesty of the shooting star upon which Alice makes a wish that George will love her like he used to. Alice predicts her own fate when she jokes that George probably wished on the star that she were dead. This is a very ominous foretelling of the events about to unfold in the story.
The story ends with us as the spectator being asked to determine the difference between the intent to commit murder and the act of actually perpetrating it. It seems almost a fitting tragedy to end the film that Angela, despite all the wrongs dealt upon her, had the compassion to forgive and still love George. The cruel reality here is that if George had only told her the truth in the beginning, she had such a capacity for love and forgiveness and her devotion to him so strong that she would have loved him anyway, but now they are doomed to say their final goodbye. However, Taylor is so marvellous in the final scene, her character has grown used to goodbyes, that even though this will be their last, and even though she clutches at a white handkerchief, her eyes are dry.
This isn’t just another black and white “oldie” with beautiful stars and sumptuous costume, but has resonances of classic novels such as du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, giving it a weight that transcends the frivolity of its opening love affair. A Place in the Sun is worth watching time and time again for clues about the doomed love affair and to continue to question your own beliefs about what makes someone guilty of murder. The film is stylish, chilling and exquisite. It makes you dream of the glory years of Hollywood whilst being thankful that you live in a century were some taboos no longer call for such extreme action.