A Place in the Sun

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By James Bowman

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[This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series of films under the rubric of "Crime and Punishment" at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. (go to www.eppc.org/movies for details or to register to attend). The fourth film in the series, A Place in the Sun (1946) by George Stevens, was screened yesterday evening, July 7, 2009. My introduction is below.]

Tonight’s film, George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun, is like last week’s, The Postman Always Rings Twice, in that it begins with a hitchhiker. We are prepared for a reintroduction to that quintessentially American figure, the “drifter” – the man who, like John Garfield’s Frank Chambers in the earlier film, comes from nowhere and could be going anywhere. Something of the same mentality is repeated for us in a scene from the new Johnny Depp movie about John Dillinger which I mentioned two weeks ago. Mr Depp’s Dillinger says to his ostentatiously half-breed girlfriend, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) that he’s not “most men” who don’t like her mix of French and Indian blood. As they are sitting in a swanky club, he says to her of the well-dressed society folk they see around them: “They’re all about where people come from. The only thing that’s important is where they’re going.” That’s the American way, at least according to the movies.

“John Garfield,” as it happens, was really Jacob Julius Garfinkle, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, as perhaps those of you who were here last week could tell from his tell-tale pronunciation of “moider.” That’s just a reminder that nobody is really from no place, not even the Indiana farm boy, John Dillinger, and that the pretense of having only a present and no past is a lie that, in some times and some places, we think people ought to have a right to tell about themselves. Perhaps this is more true of California, the land of second chances, than it is of other places, and of course it was in California that the American film industry – like the moider plot in Postman – grew and flourished. In Double Indemnity, two weeks ago, Fred MacMurray made what was already an old joke about everyone in California’s being from Iowa, and last week it was to Iowa that Lana Turner returned for her mother’s funeral. In both films, I think, the murder plot is meant to be seen as somehow connected to the California setting and not something that would happen where people have families and roots. It’s because Nick in Postman wants to return to his family and roots in Northern Canada that he has to die, after all.

All this makes it a matter of some interest that in A Place in the Sun, based on Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel An American Tragedy, the drifter turns out not to be a drifter at all. On the contrary, in fact, George Eastman, played by Montgomery Clift, is coming to a new place only to trade on a family connection. He is moving on as a way of making a point of where he comes from. And his uncle, played by Herbert Heyes, has at least enough consideration for the family connection to give him a job, albeit not a very good one at first. He’s reminded by his cousin Earl (Keefe Brasselle) to “Remember you’re an Eastman,” and by Shelly Winters’s Alice on their first night together that “If you’re an Eastman, you’re not in the same boat with anybody” – a line of wonderful but fatal irony when he gets into the same boat with her. His connection with his mother, played by Anne Revere, back in the Beth-El mission in Kansas City seems like a lifeline to the moral grounding he has spurned from him – which may be suggested by the prominent sign on the wall at the mission reading: “How long since you have written to your mother?”

Dreiser’s novel was set in upstate New York, which is also where the real-life incident on which it was based took place in 1906. His hero was called Clyde Griffiths, and his uncle’s factory made men’s shirts and those old-fashioned, detachable collars that used to go with them. George Stevens’s movie does not specify any particular locale, but it was shot in California. Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks, where the original drowning took place, became Lake Tahoe – a very different kind of lake – and Stevens’s landscape more generally only fails to be unmistakably Californian because it was filmed in black and white. His hero’s uncle, Mr Eastman, manufactures women’s bathing suits, which are associated, through the glamor-shots on billboards all around George’s work place as well as on the highway where Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) blows by him in that opening scene – with the rootless world of the Californian celebrity culture.

George’s roots don’t appear to mean much to him, apart from the opportunity they may or may not afford. He remains both detached from his mother and an outsider to the rich Eastmans who own the Eastman swimsuit company. The scene of his introduction to the rich family is shot in such a way as to emphasize his outsider status – nicely summed up by the contempt of the rich Eastmans for George’s branch of the family: “Is he going to lead us in prayer,” asks his cousin Marsha, played by Lois Chartrand, sarcastically. And although his uncle says, “There’s always a place at the plant for a boy like that,” he adds to his wife and children that they “don’t have to take him up socially” of course. Accordingly, when he is introduced to them, they don’t bother to introduce him to the newcomers, including the beautiful Angela, when they blow in. Angela is clearly a star out of his sphere, as we are reminded again in the shot of George peering through the wrought iron gates with their monogram “E” of his uncle’s mansion at the beautiful people inside.

This, I take it, is meant to make him more sympathetic when he takes up with Shelley Winters’s Alice, the poor factory girl who briefly seems the best that he can hope for. As soon as they come together, however – and the concatenation of events that leads to their first and perhaps only intimacy is meant to look like the work of a particularly capricious fate – George’s absent-minded uncle takes him up again and sets in motion the process that not only puts him together with Elizabeth Taylor’s Angela but wins him an honored place in the family and the social circles of the rich Eastmans. At last he belongs, and is obviously accepted by the other young people who spend their time water skiing and roaring around the lake in speed-boats or lounging around in Eastman swimsuits. By the way, in order to capture that menacing roar of the speedboats, Stevens supposedly used a wartime recording of the sound of the engine in a German Stuka dive-bomber.

At the moment when his uncle tells him that “there’s a place for you up there with us” and mentions introducing him around “the club,” George gets the fatal phone call from Alice at the bus station. It’s just one of many ways in which we are reminded of the extent to which he is a man who is always in two places at once. Stevens makes extensive use of what we cinema buffs call the “slow dissolve” – which means that, in cutting from one scene to the next he leaves the after-image of the previous one up for, sometimes, several seconds after the new one is introduced, so that there are two images superimposed on each other on the screen at the same time. This could well be another reason why he chose to shoot the film in black and white rather than Technicolor, which would have been available to him if he had wanted it. The superimposed images would not have produced the same effect at all if they had been a jumble of clashing colors. As it is, they go very well with the constant theme of the film, which is a kind of searching through every appearance to try see into the mental reality it hides.

Of course it is George who, as the police say to the family after he has been arrested, is “living a double life.” Each of the women in his life asks him what he is thinking several times, getting unsatisfactory answers, and at least once at a point when we know that he is thinking about the other, either with longing or with fear. “And I used to think I was complicated,” says Angela. This secretiveness is worth remembering in connection with the place that Montgomery Clift holds in our cultural memory as an early example of the brooding anti-hero – still waters run deep! – who was to become such a common figure, even a cliché, with the advent of James Dean and Marlon Brando a very few years later. Now we can scarcely be said to have any other kind of hero, but he was still a new phenomenon in 1951, and the mystery of what lay behind his dark and sensitive but impenetrable good looks must have seemed at the time as exciting to the audience as it was to both Angela and Alice.

Stevens was justly celebrated for his use of close-ups in this movie – which must obviously have had something to do with the extreme physical attractiveness of his stars. Elizabeth Taylor, who was only seventeen at the time the movie was shot, still has the power to take your breath away, perhaps more, even, in black and white than in color, and the close-ups of the two of them dancing or embracing or kissing are among the most romantic, in the Hollywood sense of the term, ever shot. They make the point that these two belong together in a way that George and Alice never could. The same point is made when, in the scene where Alice tells George she’s pregnant, we only see her in a static shot from behind, while George is first across from her, which forces us to concentrate on his face in isolation from hers, then off-camera, then standing beside her in profile. Their love-making is done entirely in the dark.

Yet in that scene, where theycome together for the first time, we hear playing faintly in the background “Mona Lisa,” which had won the Academy Award for best song the year before and includes the lines:

Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you,
You’re so like the lady with the mystic smile.
Is it only ‘cause you’re lonely they have blamed you?
For that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile?
Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa?
Or is this your way to hide a broken heart?

The mystery of the Mona Lisa smile is all focused on George, and this comes back in the final scene as the key to the moral meaning of the film when the question of what he was thinking at the moment of Alice’s drowning is raised by the priest. Then, another of those superimposed images appears to unlock the secret for us at last – which isn’t much of a secret – and allow the priest to conclude: “Then in your heart was murder.” This comes to George, perhaps, like the revelation from the D.A. in The Postman Always Rings Twice, as a relief, a kind of reassurance that there is justice at work in his death and not just the blind enmity of the fates, which are associated with the laughing loon at Loon Lake. It’s a different and sweeter sort of bird that is singing to George, rather improbably, while he is on death row, and the comments from his fellow convicts on the slow walk to his execution suggest that he has also found acceptance and inclusion there, though his heart is with Angela. He’s still and always the man who is in two places at once.

Dreiser’s novel, which I’m sure many of you will have read, is much more in keeping with what last week I called the underlying paradigm of film noir. His hero, Clyde Griffiths, like the real life young man, Chester Gillette, on whom he was based, is someone whose struggles with poverty have been made vividly apparent to us. Nearly a quarter of the very long novel is devoted to his early years in his parents’ mission and his subsequent career as a hotel bell-boy, before he eventually meets the rich uncle who offers him a job. All that is simply cut out of the movie – not only, I think, because there isn’t room for it but because Stevens is backing away from Dreiser’s politics, which were socialist and inclined to the view – suggested by his title, An American Tragedy – that the temptations of wealth and what we later learned to call the American Dream were more to blame for Clyde’s fate than he was.

Stevens, therefore, needed some other means of making his principal character sympathetic to us – with the result that, like his defense attorneys, we are meant to “buy” the story that he couldn’t go through with it in the end and that Alice’s death was therefore accidental. It also helps that whiny, passive-aggressive Shelley Winters manages to make Alice so unattractive, especially in comparison with Elizabeth Taylor, that we may begin to think we would happily drown her ourselves. There is still a hint of the political meaning here and there – I think, for instance, in the portrait of the rich as attending formal balls and waltzing, which must have been already a generation out of date by that time. But Stevens’s target, and that of the play on which the film was based was rather the sexual morality that then went under the name of “respectability” and that people hadn’t yet learned to think of as political itself.

In other words, A Place in the Sun is principally a love story rather than a story about ambition like the novel or that underlying paradigm that I mentioned earlier. All of George’s ambition becomes centered in Angela, rather than the material wealth or social acceptance she represents. And if she still does represent these things, it’s easier to forget about then when you have a simpler moral to concentrate on than the problematic temptations of the American Dream. If people could only be more honest and open about sex, or if they were free to follow their hearts and change their partners when their feelings changed instead of being bound by stuffy old laws and customs left over from the Dark Ages, none of this would ever have happened, after all.

That was a moral that Hollywood has been comfortable preaching from that day to this, but at least in 1951 it doesn’t come across as being quite so simplistic as it does when we see it today. More importantly, George’s fate is not represented as an injustice but as justice – a reaffirmation of moral order in the universe. In that sense, it is perhaps more of an American Tragedy than Dreiser’s novel is. Or at least I am tempted to think so. Now you can see if you are as well.

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