Remembered primarily for its passionate love story, the consensus over the years has been that 1951’s A Place in the Sun toned down the social commentary of Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy, focusing instead on the central relationship.
Watching the film over 60 years since its initial theatrical release, it would appear that accepted critical wisdom has undersold this astonishing picture. While the romance is indeed achingly beautiful and played out with remarkable maturity, A Place in the Sun’s searing indictment of the American Dream, tinged with both anger and regret, makes it one of the best films to come out of 50s Hollywood.
When shy Midwesterner George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) arrives in California during the post-war industrial boom, he hopes his wealthy uncle will give him a job in his clothing factory. Starting off at the bottom, George is hardworking and ambitious, constantly looking for ways to improve the production process to impress his uncle and climb the corporate ladder. After he secretly begins dating fellow assembly-line worker Alice (Shelley Winters) against company policy, George is promoted and starts socialising with his wealthy family and their circle of friends. This is when he meets the bewitching Angela (played by Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Taylor, in one of her early roles).
One of the major successes of A Place in the Sun is the way it delicately obfuscates the distinction between romantic longing and personal ambition. Director George Stevens shows a surprisingly light tough with such heavy themes, equating the irrepressible pull of Eastman’s fate with that of the nation. Tragedy is born of the single-minded belief that, in the postwar USA, a man could rise to the top and have it all; wealth, status and, of course, the girl. The scenes between Clift and Taylor are simply gorgeous; through the enchanting close-ups and hazy dissolves, we see life with Angela and her social set as the endless summer, while life with Alice on the other hand, is presented as a drab and draining struggle.
By making us intuitively understand the attraction of the high life and using Alice’s needy overtures to prick the audience’s conscience, Stevens has created a layered and compassionate work that grasps the predicament of 50s America. A Place in the Sun is not so much a film about the decision between a rich life and a moral life, but the vast confusing grey area in between.