George Stevens helmed a U.S. Army film unit for much of the Second World War. He recorded the D-Day landings, the liberation of Paris and, most importantly, the liberation of Dachau concentration camp and Duben labour camp. His footage of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime was used as evidence at the Nuremberg trials. Stevens’ experience as an eyewitness to genocide forever altered what he knew of the world, humanity and justice.
A Place in the Sun (1951), Stevens’ second major film after his return to Hollywood, is the story of how a hostile environment can pervert an already warped character. George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) travels west from Chicago, chasing a dream and the promise of a new, improved version of himself. Pursuing happiness and wealth, he makes bad choices, and is eventually sentenced to death for murder. Yet, Stevens sees George as a victim – of a misshapen American Dream and, in the aftermath of a global war, of a world turned irrevocably upside down.
Michael Wilson and Harry Brown’s screenplay, based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy (1925) and Patrick Kearney’s 1926 play of the same name, understands George to be a far more ambivalent figure than the outwardly devious protagonist created by Dreiser. He’s never just one thing, and Clift’s agility within the grey areas of human behaviour takes us deep inside his isolation and loneliness. Stevens composes shots that magnify George’s status as an outsider, in an unsympathetic world he nevertheless desperately wants to get inside. This psychology lets us understand George’s attraction to plain Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters) – his co-worker in the packing room at the Eastman swimsuit factory – but also his desire for glamorous Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), and why it consumes him to the point of destruction.
When George first crosses the threshold of his uncle Charles Eastman’s (Herbert Heyes) palatial home, he’s like a tiny insect under a microscope. The lavish rooms dwarf him; he doesn’t fit. Wide shots and a still, passive camera keep George distant from his family; seated opposite, they scrutinise him with gazes held longer than is comfortable. Clift inhabits this ambitious yet insecure young man with every inch of his body, registering George’s discomfort by twitching and shifting in his chair.
These long shots emphasise George’s difference, but Stevens’ many close-ups on Clift’s beautiful face bridge that space: it’s our portal into understanding George’s plight. Clift’s face, even after the 1956 accident that left him with permanent injuries, was a fascinating canvas. His luminous eyes are central to George’s humanity. They are hopeful and optimistic when he first turns towards the camera during the film’s opening credits, searing through the screen. They are aflame with wonder and yearning as he falls deeper for Angela; but uncertain and conflicted as he struggles with what to do about Alice. Because of them, we are never alienated; we never really see him as a villain.
Despite this astonishing, corporeal presence, Clift articulates something fundamental in George’s character – that he’s formless and in the process of becoming. Moreover, George is barely visible, awaiting approval by others to come (as it were) to life. During that visit to his uncle’s house, George gets his first real look at Angela. But her presence only magnifies his strangeness. The Eastmans flock to her and enfold her, but Stevens pushes George to the back of the frame. Angela doesn’t register George’s presence. It’s like he isn’t even there. This emphasis on his lack of form is repeated. His uncle asks, “who?” in relation to him more than once, suggesting George doesn’t leave a distinct impression. Early in the film, Stevens presents him as a shadow dweller – lurking outside the Eastman house, watching the guests arrive at a party he wasn’t invited to. The gate opening and closing in front of him is a reminder that he’s an outsider looking in. Several months later, when he’s finally invited to one of those parties, people look right through him.
Stevens wants us to perform our own forensic study of George’s character, juxtaposing how he appears to be and behave differently when he’s with Alice or Angela. George’s scenes with Alice are marked by a suffocating bleakness, dark from the start. On their first proper date, after George daringly enters Alice’s room to turn down the radio, Stevens excises most of the light from the frame. George and Alice are dancing in the corner, but it’s so dark we can’t see them. Similarly, when Alice reveals that she’s in “real trouble” on the night of George’s birthday, George has his back to us in the corner of the frame – Alice kneels beside his shrouded black form. Stevens doesn’t grant us access to George’s experience through Clift’s eyes during these sequences with Alice, amplifying the opacity of his connection with her.
By contrast, when George is with Angela, Stevens bathes him in light. These sequences are overwhelmingly sensual and intimate, Clift showing us just how significantly he was remaking not only screen acting, but also definitions of American masculinity. His men were the opposite of the strong, silent icons of the previous generation; his men were not afraid to expose their vulnerability to the point of emotional ruin. On Angela’s arm, in her arms, George is soft and tender, takes shape and comes to life. The heightened romance of their love scene on the balcony at the second Eastman party is shot tight and up close. Angela, we are encouraged to believe, sees something in George no-one else can. “Tell mama all,” she coos as they kiss, their faces enormous, blocking out everything else and dissolving into one.
As A Place in the Sun proceeds towards its tragic conclusion, Clift burrows ever deeper under George’s skin. It’s a performance with all the carefully shaded gestures of life. “How to remain thin-skinned, vulnerable, and still alive?” Clift noted in his journal.1 He believed this puzzle to be the actor’s key dilemma. It was central to his approach, beginning with the Method but extending it further, always working towards recreating an experience closely resembling life on screen. It seems almost a cliché to say it now, but Clift, like his great contemporary Marlon Brando, did not act on screen so much as behave. The skin between him, and the characters he inhabited so acutely, was thin indeed.
A Place in the Sun (1951 USA 122 min)
Prod Co: Paramount Pictures Prod: George Stevens, Ivan Moffat Dir: George Stevens Scr: Michael Wilson, Harry Brown Phot: William C. Mellor Ed: William Hornbeck Snd: Gene Garvin, Gene Merritt Mus: Franz Waxman
Cast: Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters, Anne Revere, Keefe Brasselle, Fred Clark, Raymond Burr, Herbert Heyes, Shepperd Strudwick, Frieda Inescort
- Patricia Bosworth, Montgomery Clift: A Biography (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), p. 168. ↩