Filmed before as a silent by Josef Von Sternberg, Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy was just the 'serious' picture that George Stevens wanted to begin his string of personal postwar films. Attracting top talent and almost completely uncompromised by the average movie entertainments of its day, A Place in the Sun has lost none of its power or artistry, 50 years later.
George Stevens' filmic output was numerically small, but four of the five features he did in the '50s are all considered personal masterpieces. A Place in the Sun was the first, and perfected the painstaking working process he developed on the earlier I Remember Mama. When other directors were rushed to finish their films as economically as possible, Stevens shot prodigious quantities of film and covered his scenes from innumerable angles, so as to give himself unlimited latitude in the cutting room. Previously known for his comedies and light dramas, Stevens' films became heavy and serious, but A Place in the Sun has a precision to its method that never allows it to become ponderous.
This is surely Elizabeth Taylor's best film, and one of Montgomery Clift's finest too. Love Liz or despise her, there's no denying that her ultra-ravishing presence here more than provides enough reason for any man to do anything to possess her; she's literally embraced by soft-focus closeups, framed over Clift's shoulder, that are as beautiful as anything in a silent Garbo feature. For his part, Clift has his needy, up-and-coming poor relation act down beautifully. He never grovels for sympathy, nor overdoes the awkwardness or embarassment; you feel that even if you put him in the fine suits of his relatives, his telltale hang-dog look would still give him away. The supporting cast is first rate, with Raymond Burr a standout as a wily prosecuting attorney.
The key achievement of A Place in the Sun is that its doomed spiral of events never seems like a fated, noirish tale. George Eastman is an individual, and not a symbol of oppression, and neither fault of character, nor a cruel society can be given the blame for his sad story. Stevens was a very conservative man in some ways, but a liberal in others, and along with arch-conservatives like John Ford, ironically fought in the director's guild against the blacklist, etc.. But unlike other movies and directors of the time who made directly subversive social statements (Joseph Losey in The Prowler, Cy Endfield in Try and Get Me!) and were blacklisted for their pains, Stevens did not have a hysterical or outraged visual style. In simple but evocative setups and sequences, the power of his story comes through without the feeling of an author's message tacked on.
Certain very typical Stevens touches ....
He uses some extremely long dissolves. Lap dissolves in films back then were difficult to make smooth and even, and instead of the usual three or four footers, Stevens has a couple of 60 footers, so flawless you'd think they were done electronically. One takes place to illustrate the fact that George has spent the night with Alice; just by framing the night and then the dawn through the window of her rooming house, all the sordidness of the situation comes through.
When Stevens uses symbols, they're extremely elegant. At one point George leaps into a boatload of pampered young rich vacationers, and the launch rips out across a beautiful lake. But the camera stays on the dock, and frames the boat in the background, with a portable radio on the floating dock, right in front of the camera. A news report of the discovery of a corpse is heard on the radio, just as the ripple-wake of the boat reaches the dock, causing the radio and the camera to go up and down, 'destabilizing' the image just as George's life is about to go all cockeyed too.
Finally, Stevens really knows how to get mileage out of understatement. In a panic, and afraid of being picked up by the cops, George stalks down a wooded lane, wondering how he's going to get clear of his predicament, as the soundtrack goes nuts with nervous music. Instead of a big manhunt, or a police episode of one kind or another, George just walks smack into a waiting deputy, who appears haloed in a mist of tobacco smoke. 'Your name George Eastman?' the man asks with unassailable authority. And that's that - George no more thinks he can escape than he can fly, and just because this (unarmed?) stranger has him pegged.
Some critics argue the merits of whether George Eastman is indeed guilty of his crime, and cite the kangaroo court that uses theatrics to convict him. That seems to Savant to be bypassing Stevens' clear message, that it doesn't matter whether George technically committed murder or not. He is guilty and knows he is, because he knew what he wanted and knew he wanted it enough to do almost anything, including consider murder. The downbeat, bloodless conclusion doesn't let George off the hook, but it does help him to find enough peace of mind to do what he has to do with dignity (I'm trying to avoid spoilers here). The power of A Place in the Sun is more than, 'there but for the grace of God go I'. Our identification with George is such that we know we'd have damned ourselves far faster than he did, if given the promise of the Good Life that so tempts him.
Paramount's DVD of A Place in the Sun is a fine-looking rendering of what must have been a tough film to master for video. Stevens and cameraman William C. Mellor chose a very soft and light visual surface for most scenes; there's a lot of diffusion and few deep blacks. Yet the DVD looks sharp and accurate (Savant's seen studio prints of this one). For extras, there's a nice commentary track with Stevens' son George Jr., who points out a lot of the more academic highlights of his father's style. Joining Jr. on the track is associate producer Ivan Moffat, who adds some colorful first-hand observations and memories of the filming. Altogether it's quite satisfying.
Additional extras include a 20-minute docu.,"George Stevens: Filmmakers Who Knew Him," and an archival assortment of interviews with eight film directors, including Warren Beatty, Frank Capra, Joe Mankiewicz, Rouben Mamoulian, Robert Wise, and Fred Zinnemann.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,