OVERRATED: A Place in the Sun (1951)

A Place in the Sun (USA, 1951)
Directed by George Stevens
Starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters, Anne Revere

In my review of High Society, I remarked that it is often the way that the first adaptation of a story often does it the 'tough', 'proper' way, then a second, softer version comes along which has more success but less going for it artistically. This is not just the case with commercial hits - A Place in the Sun won six Oscars at a time when Alfred Hitchcock was beginning to hit a rich vein of form. Looking at it now, it's like many of the films that go on to win Oscars: well-meaning, and in some areas well-made, but also far too safe and a little bit dull.
A Place in the Sun is the second adaptation of Theodor Dreiser's lengthy, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel An American Tragedy, first published in 1925. The novel drew inspiration from the story of Grace Brown, who was found dead in Big Moose Lake, Upstate New York in mid-1906; she was later found to have been murdered by her lover Chester Gillette, who was subsequently sent to the electric chair. The novel was turned into a play in 1926 and filmed under its original title by Josef von Sturnberg in 1931. Prior to this adaptation (of which Dreiser disapproved), there were rumours of a collaboration between Sergei Eisenstein and Charlie Chaplin to bring this story to the screen - rumours which sadly came to nothing.
There is a natural comparison between A Place in the Sun and Gone with the Wind, in that both works take a very long time to say relatively little. Both film adaptations successfully translate the baggy storytelling without explaining the emotional appeal of the books (if there is any). A Place in the Sun may be half as short as its patience-stretching predecessor, but even at 2 hours long there is not enough of a story to fill half that length, at least at the pace of George Stevens' direction.
Stevens, like George Lucas, is a far better producer than he is a director. He is very good at assembling talent, getting Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in their respective primes. But he is not so adept when it comes to the actual mechanics and language of cinema: he can make sure the characters turn up on time, but he can't really tell a story with them. His editing is very lazy, his lighting if often third-rate (especially the car scenes), and his camera angles and composition are frequently amateurish. During the scene where Shelley Winters go to her doctor, there is all manner of junk cluttering up the foreground which is a distraction from a narratively vital conversation.
Despite being broadly speaking a melodrama, A Place in the Sun is an unusual mix of genres within this. 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. You feel like the sensible thing to do would be to pick one genre, use the section set in that genre as a starting point and flesh out the plot either forwards or backwards from there. But in the absence of a more highly skilled director, the material is just allowed to sit on the screen in the hope that at least some of it will take flight.
While the 1931 version was a relatively close adaptation, A Place in the Sun differs quite drastically from the novel in several key areas. Like a lot of 1950s films, whatever rough edges were in the source have been smoothed out or removed entirely, presumably to improve the film's chances of commercial success. While the novel begins with our protagonist being introduced to alcohol and prostitutes while working as a bell-boy, the film begins with George Eastman at the side of the road, going to work in the shirt factory. His past as a bell boy is mentioned very fleetingly in a conversation with the other Eastmans, and there is relatively little in Clift's performance to suggest a dark and shameful past.
While the lead character in the novel is of a genuinely lowly background, George Eastman is merely a distant relative of the man who owns the company. By having him as a long-lost nephew or even black sheep of the family, the film doesn't quite work as a story about social status. Because Eastman is not an outcast from the beginning, there is less of a sense of ambition, he has less to lose, and there is less inherent tragedy to his story. Perhaps the film's success lay in the seemingly scandalous idea that such a crime could be perpetrated by the well-off, but that in itself is not a new idea, nor is it conveyed here better than in other films.
Compared to High Society, A Place in the Sun does attempt to convey what remains of its themes through the central dynamic of its characters. Montgomery Clift isn't as overtly sociopathic as his 1931 counterpart, but he does give a convincing performance as a man who can never be properly accepted by polite society. Because he is no longer a rags-to-riches character in the strictest sense, the dynamic between Clift's character and that of Shelley Winters does work; we understand why Eastman cannot lower himself to her standards. Eastman represents the frustrations of the little man, the lower-middle-class man for whom the Angela Vickers of this world are unobtainable and the Alice Tripps are insufficient.
The film is also a convincing argument against infidelity, if only because the consequences of Eastman's actions are so severe. Clift's performance carries the film, as we see his sense of tribulation and frustration at having to cover his tracks to prevent Alice finding out about him and Angela. Coming from a generation where Fatal Attraction is the core text for the consequences of sleeping around, the reactions of the characters may seem relatively tame. But at least they seem vaguely believable: even though Winters is as annoying as hell, at least she is convincingly annoying.
But as much as it makes a decent fist to convey these ideas, for the most part A Place in the Sun feels just another melodrama about a love triangle. By about the fifteen-minute mark, where we are introduced to Elizabeth Taylor, we've got a pretty good idea of where it's going, and who Clift is going to end up with. The film plays so fully to the conventions of The Philadelphia Story and the like that there is no real dramatic tension, so we spend most of our time willing Stevens to get on with it. Even Alice's death isn't entirely a surprise: we may not have predicted how she would die, but we know who did it, why he did it, and what will happen to him at least half an hour beforehand.
There are also several sections of A Place in the Sun which are, in tone at least, completely silly. Some of this is bound up in the melodrama itself: only in these kinds of films could we cut to a lake shortly after a character mentions that she can't swim. But even if we overlook little things like this, there are moments where Stevens loses control and things get quickly out of hand. The random scene of the whole Eastman clan boarding a speedboat feels like it's escaped from a Gene Kelly film, while Alice's death is very unconvincing; while in the novel she is hit in the face with a camera and then drowns, here she simply falls in.
The courtroom scenes are some of the most uncertain in the film. Courtroom dramas are by their very nature a little ridiculous: the smallest actions have to be made histrionic in order to create drama out of what in real life is usually quite boring. But the trial scenes in A Place in the Sun make even the loudest moments in A Few Good Men look subtle by comparison. Eastman's prosecutor is downright cartoonish: with his sunken-in eyes and hobbling gait, you'd swear he was working for a Bond villain. And that's before he expresses his anger at Eastman by bringing the boat he was rowing into court, raising an oar above his head and then proceeding to smash up the boat while addressing the jury.
A Place in the Sun is a well-meaning but ultimately dull second attempt to adapt Dreiser's novel. Despite the good performance of Montgomery Clift and the few moments in which its themes come to the fore, it settles for soft edges and the safety of convention when it should have been trying to push the envelope. It scores over High Society in actually having something to say, and there is nothing about it that could possibly offend. But like High Society, having nothing with which to offend, or provoke any real response, if perhaps its greatest failing. 

Rating: 2.5/5
Verdict: Well-meaningly dull