An attractive young man in a leather jacket stands by the side of road, hitchhiking. He’s George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), the impoverished nephew of an extremely wealthy upper-class business owner, who has recently offered to give George a job. As he waits, a white convertible whips past, a beautiful and oblivious woman driving the car, leaving him behind in the dust. Finally, a battered pick-up truck picks George up and delivers him to his uncle’s factory, where he’s eventually given a lowly, menial job.
This opening sequence establishes the whole tone of A Place in the Sun (1951). George may share the same last name as his successful relatives, but he’s grown up without any of the privileges they enjoy. Despite his ambition and dreams of working his way up through the company, he ignores the rules about not dating co-workers and quickly finds himself involved with Alice (Shelley Winters), a plain, homely girl who seems willing to settle for her place in the world. But when, on a visit to his uncle’s palatial home, George runs into the same gorgeous owner of the convertible, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), he’s plunged into a love triangle, caught between two women, one working-class, the other a wealthy socialite; one his current reality and the other a dream of wealth and success.
Winner of six Oscars, A Place in the Sun, based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel, An American Tragedy, (the book title gives away a bit more of the story), is a bruising mix of melodrama and romance with touches of film noir. The on-screen chemistry between Clift and Taylor is notorious; Angela is all soft focus as she gazes adoringly at George, who is breathtakingly handsome yet almost child-like, sensitive and touchingly insecure. Their love is immediate; at first the obstacles of class and wealth seem surmountable. But although Angela can briefly rescue George from his everyday life, she can’t save him when he makes a fatal error after he discovers that Alice is pregnant.
Stevens’s incredible attention to detail and perfectly thought-out mise en scène mean that much of the drama and the tension is built up wordlessly through clues and reoccurring motifs. Seen through the window of George’s tiny apartment, a neon sign flashes the name ‘Vickers’ – a reminder of Angela, but also her status. A news report he listens to on the radio details a number of accidents due to the sultry summer weather, warning listeners to be cautious near open water. A reproduction of John Everett Millais’s romantic, pre-Raphaelite painting Ophelia hangs on the wall. The first dark thought seemingly seeps into George’s consciousness at the same time as it does in the minds of the audience. From this point on, the audience is complicit.
The decision by Stevens to make Alice’s character so unappealing, and to focus instead on Angela’s radiant beauty and the amazing chemistry between Taylor and Clift, introduces a degree of moral ambiguity into the film. Rather than condemn George for his behaviour towards Alice, it’s easy to find yourself hoping that he and Angela can somehow find a way to be together, even if that means committing questionable, even criminal acts.
With some excellent performances, and William C. Mellor’s gorgeous black and white cinematography, Stevens crafted a compelling, textured film that is much richer than a searing on-screen romance.