Ah yes A Place in the Sun (1951). A film which upon release received rave reviews and critical acclaim. One of the most notable being from the late great Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin called the film “the greatest movie ever made about America”. I watched this movie to see if these claims were true. And I’d say yes. Yes they were.
Montgomery Clift as George Eastman was positively brilliant. Montgomery Clift was a method actor and you can clearly see his talent flair in this movie. He spent a night in a real jail cell to get the scene of George in jail just right and I would say that he did. When his mother comes to visit him in jail you see him on the bed just slouching and looking depressed. You can feel the hopelessness coming off of him.
George is someone who grew up poor and most likely very religious. George wanted more for himself than what his family had provided for him. George craved wealth. America is the land of opportunity and George is someone who took advantage of this. Although he grew up from a background of giving and not receiving, George wanted this American dream instead. As seen in the movie he would do anything to achieve it. Him nearly murdering Alice says a lot about who he is as character. His background has a lot to do with the fact that he chose not to kill Alice. That’s not a good excuse for him taking her out there with the plan to kill her of course. But, he pitied her. He saw how sad and desperate she was and felt that it would be too inhumane to kill her. Plus even though she did die and it technically wasn’t of his accord you could see how upset he was with himself afterward.
What’s in a name? While this isn’t the main focus of the film it does ask this question. The Eastman name bares a lot of weight. When Earl Eastman (Mr.Eastman’s son) is showing George around he makes the comment, “You’re an Eastman, you’re expected to at like one”. This comment shows that they are not everyday people. They are ‘somebodies’. All this being foreign to George who came from a family that rejected everything that the Eastman name stood for.
Shelley Winters as Alice Tripp and Elizabeth Taylor as Angela Vickers played their roles wonderfully as well. The difference between those two is blatant throughout the entire movie, even through the way that they speak. Elizabeth Taylor as Angela Vickers spoke in that typical high-pitched breathy tone that many actresses during that time spoke. But, this way of speaking made her character seem more feminine and it says something about the way that she grew up; very refined. Opposed to the way that Alice spoke. Alice did not speak with the same grace in which Angela did. When Alice spoke you could hear the desperation and low self-confidence which, Shelley Winters did a fantastic job portraying.
Angela is everything that Alice is not. When George first gets his job at the factory it’s Alice that notices him first and George doesn’t look her way until a few months on the job. However when George meets the other side of his family he notices Angela before she notices him. Director, George Stevens establishes who Angela Vickers is as a character perfectly in this scene. When she enters through the door of the Eastman home you will notice sweet sounding violins in background as she gracefully floats over to greet the family. “I’m always late. It’s a part of my charm.” Angela puts effort into coming off the way that she does. She is dressed to the nines as well which is just the icing on the cake. George stares at her for a long time and they don’t officially meet until later on in the film. She makes a good, strong first impression on not only George Eastman but for the viewers as well.
Angela is everything that George wants or what any man would want. She’s beautiful, graceful, and I noticed that she isn’t like the other rich folk in this movie. This movie portrays the rich as snobby, exclusive and arrogant. When Mr. Eastman tells the family about George immediately they turn up their noses. When Earl (Mr. Eastman’s son) is told that him and George look alike he takes offense to it. The family objects to taking up with him socially. As though having anything to do with a person of lower class even if they’re family, is wrong. Upon meeting George, Angela is kind to him. When George takes the phone call to his mother at the party she is seen partaking in a bit of tomfoolery in the background thus showing that she has a bit of a playful side as well.
George wanted to attend the soiree that Angela was throwing. He stood outside the gates of the Vickers’ home and looked on almost dreamily; thinking of the life that he thinks he can never have. He then decides to go to the movies where perchance Alice is. Once again he doesn’t see her and she sees him first. This is when George decides to settle on Alice because he thinks he can never have someone like Angela. They go on a walk. This is where we learn more about Alice Tripp. She grew up poor and had to come out there to work. “You’re an Eastman. You’re not in the same boat as anyone.” We also learn that she can’t swim. (hintity, hint hint). I love foreshadowing in any form of media and this entire conversation that they have is foreshadowing for the climax of the film. She lacks confidence as she often doesn’t look at George as their walking and makes a lot of comments about his last name and is very apprehensive of him. Plus looks wise compared to Angela Vickers, Alice Tripp looks frumpy and plain looking. Nothing about her stands out and she has low self-esteem. Her jealously and desperation are made even more apparent when she and George are working and she overhears George and his uncle talking.
When he receives a promotion the camera shows Alice looking worried rather than happy for George. George getting a promotion means that George will no longer be in the same boat as her and she is afraid that he will run off with someone else (like Angela Vickers…). This scene shows how insecure she is about her relationship with George.
Later on when George goes to the party he looks and feels out of place so he goes off on his own to play pool. This is where Angela and George speak to each other for the first time. Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor have fantastic chemistry with each other. There is a reason that they were rumored to be dating in real life after the film’s release. George looks transfixed by Angela as she questions him and circles the pool table. He looks at her in a way that he never looked at Alice. The close ups when they were dancing and when they went outside to talk are some of the best shots in the movie. Those shots are what make the scenes. They are romantic and they capture the mood of the scenes just right.
My favorite part of the movie is when George is on the phone with Alice and then takes a phone call from Angela. Afterward he is listening to the the voice coming from the radio as it warns the listeners against drownings. I love this scene for the camera work, the fantastic acting and the brilliant directing from George Stevens. There is a stark difference between the way he sounds when talking to Angela vs talking to Alice. George sounds almost excited to hear from Angela whereas he looked and sounded burdened when speaking with Alice. In this scene his only lines were when he was on the phone. He then goes back to his room and sits on his own for a minute you can see how troubled he his. He clearly feels bad for cheating on Alice. But, in the background you can see through the window, the big glowing VICKERS sign. Always reminding George of Angela and what he could have vs what he currently has. I also love the foreshadowing of the radio host warning people to be careful of drowning. You can see the plan to kill Alice forming in his head. Montgomery Clift’s acting during this scene is amazing because he hasn’t said a word since talking on the phone with Angela. Still though you can tell what he’s thinking and you know what’s going on. This is the sign of a great actor.
There is one thing that I don’t understand still. The lack of empathy for Alice Tripp. She wasn’t a bad person. Undesirable? Sure, but I honestly don’t think that she deserved to die. Back in the 50’s things were different. No contraception, nearly impossible to get an abortion and single women with children were very much looked down upon by society. Plus she said that she was poor and she probably couldn’t support the child on her own if she had it. George strung her along, he never actually loved her and wanted to dump her as soon as something better came along. She was sad and desperate and insecure and she needed someone who could help her. Maybe not a husband but even just a good friend. It’s implied that she doesn’t have many as she’s always working and doesn’t go out much. Suddenly there is this handsome man that comes from a rich family (at least on one side anyway) who takes an interest in her. I understand why she made the choices that she did and I understand why she was so desperate to keep George all to herself.
There is so much more that I could write about this movie. With older movies I feel like no time was wasted. Every line, every camera angle, every shot had a purpose. To add to a character or to further the plot and I love that. This movie definitely has that. With that being said I could have written so much more about this movie and there were some things that I didn’t cover but I did cover most things that I thought were important. I also like that the ending is debatable. Did George kill Alice? Was George a bad person? Should he have been convicted? He could have saved her but he didn’t. He had the intention to kill but he didn’t. I like that there is all this “gray area”. It leaves room for different interpretations and it makes the watcher think.
I’ve said my piece about the movie I really did enjoy it. I would definitely recommend it. Don’t let its age scare you off, it’s an oldie but goodie.
Thanks for reading,