George Stevens 1951 A Place in the Sun is a big-budget, serious-minded adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. Dreiser's book had been previously filmed by Josef von Sternberg in 1931. The earlier film was unsuccessful and so the 1951 version that updates the action to the post-war period (Dreiser's book was set in the early 'twenties) disguises its source material behind its blandly commercial title. Clearly, the subject matter obsessed Stevens -- he actually sued his studio to compel them to honor his contract by allowing him to make the movie -- and the director's work on the film is craftsmanlike and often ingenious -- the actors are directed to achieve a humorless, if powerfully pathetic effect and some scenes possess a raw, documentary-like immediacy. Further, Stevens' follows, more or less, the simple and schematic plot of Dreiser's novel: a poor boy, the child of street preachers, seeks his fortune by working in a factory owned by his wealthy uncle. In the factory, he meets a young woman (Alice Tripp played by Shelley Winters). The young man named George Eastman in the film, is played by Montgomery Clift. George gets Alice pregnant while yearning for the love of a wealthy socialite, Angela Vickers (the 17-year old Elizabeth Taylor). George lures Alice, who can't swim, onto a canoe on a lonely mountain lake. Although he plans to kill her, George can't bring himself to commit the deed. Fate intervenes -- when Alice tries to embrace George she capsizes the canoe and drowns. George swims to the shore, flees the scene, but is later apprehended and accused of murdering his pregnant girlfriend. After a lengthy and dramatic trial, he is convicted of first-degree murder and, ultimately, executed by electrocution. Stevens' and his camera are enamored with Elizabeth Taylor -- she is pale as cream, melting before the camera into a vision of disturbing supernatural beauty -- and, so, the director turns the story into a romantic vehicle for the starlet. This was an effective strategy at the box-office and with critics -- the film was a hit that garnered 6 Academy Awards (including Best Director) -- but, of course, seriously distorts Dreiser's exhausting and excruciating 850 page novel. Dreiser's book presents an entire world and, in his dispiriting universe, the femme fatale is a superficial, spoiled rich girl who seduces the protagonist with sado-masochistic baby-talk and, then, after motivating the murder, vanishes from the book about 300 pages before the novel's horrific denouement. Stevens' reshapes the narrative, transforming a quasi-Marxist economically deterministic narrative (for which Dreiser was given an award by the Writers Union in Moscow) into a glossy romance about star-crossed lovers. Dreiser's novel is analytically realistic and pitiless disillusioning -- everyone acts from venal motives: the cops frame the hero, who is, nonetheless, guilty, his lawyers coerce him into perjuring himself unsuccessfully at trial, and everyone, including the hero, is driven by the most venal and shallowly materialistic impulses. The two characters who seem relatively pure and idealistic in the novel (the hero's mother and a deathhouse pastor) both desert the protagonist in the end and the sole act of disinterested kindness shown to the main character results in his death -- the condemned boy confesses to the death-house preacher who, then, can't act as his advocate when his petition for clemency is urged to the Governor. Stevens eliminates all of the complexity from Dreiser's book, softens the motivations, and purges the material of the savage cynicism that characterizes the famous novel.
Of course, a popular movie is not a novel and, before the era of the mini-series, films had to be succinct and simple where books were expansive and complex. On its own terms, A Place in the Sun is well-made, fairly gripping, and features a number of bravura sequences. Stevens seems to have studied the Italian neo-realists and some of the scenes in the factory and small town where the action takes place have a startling, grim immediacy -- there is one shot, in particular, of poor Shelley Winters standing on a cold-looking gloomy street that could have been made by de Sica. Stevens stages the film in three different registers -- the scenes involving the wealthy families and Elizabeth Taylor are shot in a very conventional studio-bound manner with lavish brightly interiors (to show off the expensive set design) and gowns that are almost hallucinatory in their beauty and style; the factory imagery and the sequences in Shelley Winters' humble apartment are documentary-like, simply shot with a grave, kitchen-sink realism. Many of the lavish studio scenes involve long takes and have a glossy luster. The drowning sequence on the lake is a montage of huge, anguished close-ups and sinister-looking long shots. Stevens knits the glamorous romantic imagery in which Liz Taylor is often shown in languorous soft-focus into the gritty documentary-style sequences by an elaborate system of overlapping cross-dissolves -- a raging fire from one scene will linger on half the screen of the following shot and, sometimes, Stevens layers three images at once. When Montgomery Clift is walked to the electric chair, a huge close-up of Elizabeth Taylor in a soft-focus swoon seems to struggle to rise to the surface of the screen -- it's as if different layers of reality were in an agonized contest, something dramatized by the dream-like and almost surreal dissolves. Some of the mise-en-scene is extraordinarily memorable -- when George swims ashore after Alice has drowned, we see him caught in a tangle of flotsam at the edge of the lake, huge logs and fallen trees with jagged branches that keep him from coming ashore. Shelley Winters is conceived as completely shapeless in contrast the pneumatic and voluptuous Elizabeth Taylor; Stevens shoots Winters from behind emphasizing the bovine girth of her hips and pelvis. Raymond Burr plays the prosecuting attorney like a figure from a Fritz Lang movie -- he is Nemesis embodied and, in the scene in which George is brought to justice, Burr, a big man disfigures himself into twisted, gimpy figure with an iron cane, patiently waiting seated on a log, his body contorted like a kind of avenging goblin. Later, when Burr's attorney crashes an oar down on a boat during a courtroom demonstration, the image has a kind of Old Testament fury. George's seduction of Alice during rain storm with the figures embracing and framed by an open window, both of them gently rim-lit, is a textbook demonstration of the kind of flamboyantly beautiful effects that great Hollywood lighting artists could achieve in lustrous, velvety black and white. The only serious misstep in the film, a blunder that destroys the movie's power, is a final scene with Elizabeth Taylor in the death-house. Stevens knows that this sequence is a horrendous error -- he cuts away from an embrace between the principals to a guard who sneers at the improbable scene with a kind of ghastly, eyes-averted horror.
Here is a curious, eerie detail about A Place in the Sun: in one extended love scene, Montgomery Clift's face is lit to dramatize a long, jagged scar extending down the side of his throat. The star also seems to have a scar on his cheek. But this film was made six years before Clift was famously disfigured in a terrible car crash while filming Raintree County. Have a I merely imagined this scar? Or does it ominously prefigure the car crash six years later?