From its opening shot, in which George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) is drawn by twin images of luxury—a billboard beauty reclining in her bathing suit and Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) driving past in her convertible—A Place in the Sun identifies George as a man virtually without a will of his own. His life is made up of women and the demands they make on him. His mother wants him to be a good God-fearing boy, and his girl friend, Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), wants him to marry her so that their child will not be illegitimate. Angela, too, wants to be his wife and to ease him into her life of privilege and security.
It is easy to understand George's predicament. A poor boy of no innate gifts who takes a job in his uncle's factory and who makes his way along the management chain while simultaneously ascending the social ladder, he is an apt victim of twentieth century venality, a prime candidate for the way of life offered by his milieu. But George has already made his first mistake when the opportunity of marrying Angela is presented. He has become involved with Alice and gotten her pregnant, not only in contravention of society's laws, but of the plant's "no fraternization" rule as well.
From then on the dual images are those of Alice, spilling out of her clothes, pig-eyed and frightened, and of Angela, voluptuous, rich, and gorgeous. The choice is made before George knows that he has made it. Here director George Stevens is very subtle. In 'George's room there is a picture, a sort of Maxfield Parrish representation of Ophelia drowning. A shot which was cut from the release print shows George looking speculatively at the picture. As the film stands, it is in the background, a morbid decoration for George's cheerless room. The idea is that the print inspires George to commit murder, but the George Eastman that Stevens gives us is without conscious volition, a man as incapable of killing as he is of taking charge of his own life.
George is not, however, without blame. Stevens' film does not specifically indict American mercantilism and the work ethic to censure George, but these themes are in the background. They are the forces which have molded him and from which he is powerless to escape. The film was made in 1951, making George Eastman a member of the mid-century "silent generation" that elected Eisenhower and allowed Joe McCarthy to run rampant. Insofar as he is without a will of his own, George is part of that group; inasmuch as he is a fictional creation of Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, not to mention Theodore Dreiser, he is "Everyman," rootless and drifting until he is taken in tow by Angela and his uncle and made into something he could not have become without them.
In fact, George is colorless and uninteresting. If he were not played by Montgomery Clift at the height of his good looks and talent, he would be a bore. The circumstances surrounding the filming of A Place in the Sun are germane to what is visible on the screen. Clift coached Elizabeth Taylor into giving an extraordinary performance. She had previously starred in Father of the Bride (1950), the first film in which her breathtaking beauty was in full bloom; but her great performance in Stevens' film resulted as much from Clifts's efforts as from Stevens' direction.
Stevens used a number of innovative techniques in making this,picture. He would compel Taylor and Clift, or Clift and Winters, to rehearse their scenes without dialogue, communicating their thoughts and feelings through gestures and facial expressions. He played "mood music" on the set, principally Franz Waxman's haunting love theme from the film's score. When it came time to shoot the climactic love scene between Clift and Taylor, he moved in with a six-inch lens and shot everything in enormous close-ups, seeming to roll the camera back and forth between the actors' faces until at times one is mo¬mentarily lost, unsure whether it is Clift or Taylor who is in view. The effect is that of incredible heat, of exploding passion, of the sensation that these two beautiful people are caught up in something over which they have no control. The scene is sensuous and inflaming, yet reticent and hesitant. It takes places on a terrace, almost in public, and both Angela and George seem to be on guard. Their reserve makes the scene more sensual than if they had been wanton.
Stylistically, A Place in the Sun is a film noir. It is dark enough for a gothic horror film and mannered enough for Orson Welles. Scene after scene dissolves in slow motion, and the eerie cries of a loon are used as overlapping sounds throughout. Stevens is not afraid to use close-ups in sequences other than love scenes. There is nothing natural about the movie, and that is the secret of its success, as Stevens' painstaking methodology grips his audience's emotions. Because the audience's complicity in the resolution is part of Ste¬vens' aim, he at once involves the viewer in George's fate. It is an extraordinary achievement and one that did not go unrewarded. Stevens, his cine¬matographer William C. Mellor, his editor William Hornbeck, his writer's Harry Brown and Michael Wilson, and his costumer Edith Head, all won Academy Awards. Only Montgomery Clift, nominated for the second time for Best Actor, failed to win. Charles Chaplin stated unequivocally that "This is the best film ever to come out of Hollywood."
Today, however, A Place in the Sun is a period piece. Society has done a complete about-face; the Angela Vickerses of society scarcely exist, and where they do no one pays any attention to them. Abortion is regarded as a woman's right, not her shame; poor boys like George Eastman are well up the ladder in multinational corporations by the time they are his age, having bypassed the stock room on the way toward the board room.
It is as an influence that A Place in the Sun is perhaps most advantageously seen today. It certainly made acceptable the extreme stylization of films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Johnny Guitar (1954). It prepared audiences for the notion that style is substance, that the medium is the message, and that if you do not get the message, you can at least understand the medium.
Three years before A Place in the Sun was made, the studio system had been eroded by the antitrust decision divorcing the studios from their theaters; while approximately three years after its release, television's enormous inroads would be felt in the industry. It was to become increasingly difficult for directors and studios to make films that bore the imprint of one man. The Fred Zinnemanns, William Wylers, George Stevenses, and the like, would go on making their movies. The auteur theory would eventually be propounded, but things would never be quite the same again. A Place in the Sun stands as a glorious monument to that era when it was possible for a movie to stand both as one man's work and as the product of an efficient studio organization.