A Place in the Sun (1951): Sexual Chemistry Changes Everything

This post is part of the 2nd Annual SEX! (Now That I Have Your Attention) Blogathon, hosted by Steve at MovieMovieBlogBlog. Read the rest of the sizzling posts HERE!

The 1951 movie A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and directed by George Stevens, is an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel An American Tragedy. The book was based on a famous early 20th century murder case about a man who was executed for drowning his inconveniently pregnant girlfriend.

It was previously made into a movie in 1931 (starring Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sydney, and Francis Dee) that is a fairly straightforward adaptation of the book. It was a flop at the box office, and consequently the studio was wary of remaking it. Stevens was given a far smaller budget than he wanted.

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However, the film went on to both critical and popular acclaim, winning many awards.

Today, it is not remotely as well-regarded as it once was. I would argue the reason for its acclaim in the 1950s is pretty much the same reason the film is now seen as a lesser film.

That is the extraordinary onscreen chemistry between Clift and Taylor.

The book is a strong indictment of American values that place financial success and social status at a premium. So much so that Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein wrote a screenplay based on the novel that underscored these themes.

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That screenplay was never produced, and by the time the remake went into production in 1951, the story was changed significantly, though much of the basic plot is the same. The protagonist (named Clyde Griffiths in the novel, changed to George Eastman in the movie) is a poor boy from a religious family who is taken up by a wealthy uncle and given a chance to rise in his company. While working there, he meets a young woman and starts a secret affair with her, because company rules do not allow male and female coworkers to date. Through his family, he meets and attracts a wealthy young woman. When his lover announces she is pregnant, he clings to the dream that he can still marry the wealthy girl.

After a failed attempt to procure an abortion for her, he is pressured by his lover to marry her. When she threatens to reveal all to his wealthy friends and relations, he begins to imagine his problem solved if she were dead. He takes her out on a boat. The boat tips over accidentally and she ends up drowned. He leaves the scene of the drowning without contacting the police, hoping to never be connected to his erstwhile lover and to continue his dream life with his wealthy girlfriend. After he is captured by the police, he claims he never meant to harm her. After a sensational trial, he is convicted and eventually executed.

The plot of the book and the movie are almost identical.

The way we are meant to view the characters—especially the protagonist—is very different.

Instead of a biting social commentary, A Place in the Sun is more of a melodrama tinged with a noir element (fate conspires against the protagonist). He’s such a quiet, gentle, seemingly sweet guy. The way his rich relatives treat him—even his otherwise kind uncle is not eager to welcome him into their social circle—makes him instantly sympathetic. They’re not horrible to him, just subtly dismissive.

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George is uneducated but hard working. Why shouldn’t he have a girlfriend? He accidentally meets his coworker Alice (Shelley Winters) at the movies one night. They soon take up with each other, in spite of the no dating rule at work. The seduction scene is handled tastefully, of course, since this is still the era of the Hays Code, but it also shows that nice George is quite the manipulator.

(Easily the best part of this movie besides the chemistry between the lead actors is Stevens’ direction, which uses the camera to convey what’s happening without actually showing what’s happening. In this case, the camera stays on the darkened room with rain falling outside the window, then George is shown walking by the window and leaving through the dry dawn.)

As George catches his uncle’s attention at work, he becomes more welcome at social gatherings. During one, he is still isolated and snubbed, so he shoots pool by himself. As she walks by, beautiful socialite Angela Vickers (Taylor) sees him make an especially impressive shot and exclaims, “Wow!”

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What commences is one of the great flirtation scenes on film, as George and Angela circle each other. The chemistry between them is palpable as Angela really notices George for the first time. As the evening progresses, Angela takes him to the ballroom to dance. (Another great moment of Stevens’ direction, as they start dancing outside the room, then gradually enter it, showing George crossing over into a world he had previously been denied access to.)

By the end of the evening, it’s clear Angela is already in love with George. Stevens’ again uses the camera to emphasize this, with extreme close-ups on the actors faces.

(And they had such beautiful faces.)

When he goes to see Alice, she’s upset that he stayed so long with his relatives. She warns him that he doesn’t belong in that world.

His relationship with Angela progresses, culminating in her declaration of love for him, which he says he returns. George’s dream is shattered when Alice tells him she’s pregnant. Desperately trying to juggle the two women in his life, Alice finally threatens to expose their relationship if he doesn’t marry her. Hearing of a case where a couple drowned on the lake where Angela’s family has a house, he begins to contemplate getting rid of Alice.

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Here’s where the movie moves into highly disturbing territory: we are so obviously meant to view George as sympathetic, yet he does coldly consider murdering Alice. Another problem is that Alice is portrayed so unsympathetically, it’s hard not to wish he would drown her. (This, in my opinion, is one of Shelley Winters’ worst performances, and I wonder if Stevens urged her to play the role in such a relentlessly whiny manner.) In the book, the character (named Roberta) is a sad, tragic figure, not a shrewish scold. And the socialite girlfriend is far less likable than Angela in the movie. You are not meant to be rooting for the protagonist to win the girl of his dreams.

However, the way the scene is shot, it’s very clear he does not deliberately try to drown her. (In the book, he accidentally hits her with—oh, how ironic—a camera.) On the other hand, he doesn’t do much to try to save her once she falls in the water, and he knew beforehand that she couldn’t swim.

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The movie does acknowledge that George wanted Alice dead and did not do enough to save her. He goes to his death believing he deserves it. But in a way, that’s even MORE disturbing, because the final scenes have him reunite with Angela when he’s on death row. She tells him she loves him in spite of everything. Even the prison guard wipes away a tear during their final moments together. Obviously, we are meant to feel as though the great injustice is they have been torn apart by a tragic circumstance.

I contend if you had any other actors in these roles, without the palpable sexual chemistry Clift and Taylor shared (onscreen—in real life they were close friends, not lovers) George would be seen as a clear antihero, even a sociopath.

The final product is a really odd mix of failed social commentary (as it seems the movie decides we should weep for George losing out on Angela and all a life with her entails) and portrait of a creepy guy who may not have outright murdered his girlfriend–but really did want to do it.

But that chemistry. It’s hard to resist.

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12 thoughts on “A Place in the Sun (1951): Sexual Chemistry Changes Everything

  1. I’ve only seen part of this – flipped to TCM a while back as that circling scene started and yep, two gorgeous people prrrrrrowling like that got me to stick around. And yup, Shelly’s Alice was quite the opposite distraction here!).

    1. No matter how problematic the story is, I can’t get over their remarkable chemistry. Even more so because Taylor was only 19 years old at the time! Much better actress than most people realize.

  2. Thank you for contributing to the blogathon! I’ve not seen the movie, but I read the novel in college and always wondered how the movie differed — I’ll have to see it now, based on your sterling review!

  3. There’s a moment in A Place in the Sun when the nineteen-year-old Taylor leans in for a kiss with Clift, and it is pure poetry. They may be murderous plotters but their star wattage here practically breaks the thermometer, and that’s what makes this film special.

  4. This is easily one of my top five Elizabeth Taylor films (like watch with one of her signature Black Russians). This is a great read on the film; very much enjoyed reading it!

  5. George Stevens has a special gift for creating really intimate scenss between actors- scenes like the stoop scene in The More the Merrier, or the Train scene in Penny Serenade- just fabulous! I have to see this film- it seems so jaw dropping for its time- and I can’t believe I didnt even know what it was about until now!

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