Tag Archives: Hollywood cinema

A Place in the Sun

A Place in the Sun

Format: Cinema

Release date: 1 February 2013

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI Distribution

Director: George Stevens

Writers: Michael Wilson, Harry Brown

Based on the novel by: Theodore Dreiser

Based on the play adapted from the novel by: Patrick Kearney

Cast: Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters

USA 1951

122 mins

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.

Sarah Cronin

The Bad and the Beautiful

The Bad and the Beautiful

Format: Cinema

Venue: BFI Southbank

Director: Vincente Minelli

Writers: Charles Schnee, George Bradshaw

Cast: Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Walter Pidgeon

USA 1952

118 mins

Vincente Minnelli’s insider look at the golden age of Hollywood is sly and slickly entertaining, with Kirk Douglas as the unscrupulous producer Jonathan Shields adding a tough edge to the black and white melodrama. Told in three long flashbacks, it recounts the relationships of director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) and the luminous Lana Turner, who plays the actress Georgia Lorrison, to the ambitious Shields. Shields woos them, puts a magical gloss on their burgeoning talent, and then carelessly, casually ditches them when they’ve outlived their usefulness to him.

Charles Schnee’s whip-smart script, packed with sharp one-liners and passionate dialogue is a pitch-perfect accompaniment to the noir-ish look of Robert Surtees’s cinematography. There’s an extra layer of knowingness to the whole production too: shadows, odd staircases, extravagant stage sets and behind the scenes shots are nods to the mechanics of filmmaking, while in-jokes about directors and actors add an extra frisson to this gripping tale of Hollywood hubris.

Director Amiel is the first one to dish the dirt on Shields. A paid mourner at the funeral of Shields’s father, he insults the dead producer: ‘one of the mad men who almost wrecked it, a butcher who sold everything but the pig’s whistle’, unaware that he’s standing next to his son. He apologises and it’s the start of a beautiful friendship. The duo learn their craft on the B-movie production lot, their biggest success ‘The Doom of the Cat Men’, where the laughable, ill-fitting cat costumes are abandoned for the shadowy allure of silhouettes: ‘Because the dark has a life of its own. In the dark all sorts of things come alive.’ Soon after, darkness enters their relationship too, as Shields’s ruthless disloyalty becomes evident.

Lana Turner as Georgia Lorrison is next in line for the Shields treatment. Drunk, and crushed by the weight of the legacy of her actor father, she is rescued by the charismatic Shields from playing ‘the doomed daughter of the great man’. Shields coaches her, stops her drinking, makes her believe that he’s in love with her. Lana’s all aglow, like a damaged angel, tender and trembling and determined to do her best. Until fear overcomes her on the night before filming her first important role and she goes on a bender. Shields drops her in a swimming pool to sober her up, and sets her on the path to being a star. And then along comes the celebratory party where Georgia is feted and Jonathan is missing. Heading to his house wrapped in a white mink, and with her heart on her glittery sleeve, she’s determined to celebrate with him. But instead of a celebration, Georgia is faced with the heart-breaking realisation of Shields’s betrayal.

James Lee Bartlow seems the most likely candidate to resist the allure of the film world. A pipe-smoking Southern writer, with a delightful wife - Gloria Grahame, blonde and blithe and funny, with the catch phrase: ‘You’re a very naughty man, I’m happy to say’ - he nonetheless succumbs: ‘I’m flattered that you want me and bitter you got me.’ Jonathan and James go to work on the script, with constant interruptions from charming Rosemary Bartlow, until Shields, unbeknownst to James Lee, arranges a distraction with fatal consequences. It’s the end of another relationship, a definitive severing of all ties, like those with Amiel and Georgia.

But this is Hollywood, and in the final scene the three protagonists are clustered around a phone, listening to the scintillating, despicable Shields pitching them a new project. Until the very end we wonder if they will be sucked in again by his treacherous charm.

Part two of the Vincente Minelli retrospective runs until 26 June 2012 at BFI Southbank.

Eithne Farry