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Film / A Place in the Sun

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George, you feel okay?

A Place in the Sun is a 1951 drama directed by George Stevens and starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters. It is the second film adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy (after Josef von Sternberg's 1931 film of that title).

George Eastman (Clift) is a poor relative of the rich Eastman family, which owns a clothing factory. George, having chanced to meet his uncle while working as a bellhop at a Chicago hotel, plays on the family connection and gets an entry-level job in the packaging room, but afterwards is apparently forgotten by the rest of the Eastmans. He strikes up a friendship with a fellow employee, mousy Alice Tripp (Winters, who'd been a blonde sexpot in her previous films and needed a heavy dose of Hollywood Homely to play Alice). Although employee romances are strictly forbidden at the Eastman factory, Alice and George are both lonely, so they start seeing each other anyway.

Right after Alice lets George go all the way, he discovers his Uncle Charles hasn't forgotten about him after all; he lands a promotion at the factory, and with it an invitation to a party that the Eastmans are hosting for the local smart set. There, he meets the ridiculously beautiful and wealthy Angela Vickers (Taylor). They quickly fall in love, and suddenly a glittering future is in reach for George: marriage into wealth and society, advancement in his family's company, everything he wants. Unfortunately for him, Alice is pregnant, and she isn't willing to step aside and be forgotten. George finds himself driven to desperate measures to secure the fulfillment of his dreams.

A Place in the Sun was a huge commercial and critical success, earning nine Academy Award nominations and winning six (including Best Director for Stevens). Winters, who'd spent her career playing hot blondes, started getting more serious roles in films like The Night of the Hunter. Taylor, who'd been a child star for years and then an ingenue, was also confirmed as a serious dramatic actress.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: The main characters are now George Eastman (from Clyde Griffiths in the novel), Alice Tripp (from Roberta Alden), and Angela Vickers (from Sondra Finchley).
  • Adaptational Ugliness: Mousy and drably dressed Alice looks nothing like Grace Brown, the woman she's based on.
  • Alliterative Family: Angela Vickers' parents were stated to be named Anthony and Ann.
  • Ambiguous Situation: It's definitely true that George took Alice out on the lake in order to murder her—he admits as much. It's also definitely true that he did not hit her on the head or throw her in the water—Alice fell out of the boat accidentally. But the film cuts away, and we're not shown how hard George tried to save Alice, or whether he did at all.
  • Auto Erotica: George is getting it on with Alice in a parked car at a Make-Out Point when a beat cop interrupts them.
  • Beauty Inversion: Shelley Winters had to invoke this on herself to convince George Stevens that she could play the part of Alice—no makeup, plain clothes, hair pulled back—due to her previous sexpot roles.
  • Betty and Veronica: Although not a very fair example, since frumpy, working-class Alice is of no interest to George once the gloriously beautiful Angela enters as a possibility.
  • The Big Damn Kiss: Between George and Angela on the balcony, after they confess their love to each other.
  • Chekhov's Hobby: Alice's missing swimming skills are mentioned early on, which becomes a plot point later on.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Raymond Burr's performance as District Attorney R. Frank Marlowe is shamelessy overacted, among the hammiest examples in film history.
  • Coincidental Broadcast: After Alice drowns, news of her death is continually heard over the radio, like in the scene where a transistor radio bursts forth with a news bulletin about the investigation while George and Angela are boating on the lake.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Director George Stevens often referred to Technicolor as having an "Oh what a beautiful morning" quality to it—something completely inappropriate to the tone of this film—hence it was made in black and white.
  • Early-Bird Cameo:
    • In the very first scene of the film, George is thumbing a ride by the side of the road when a woman in a white Cadillac zooms by. That's Angela, who doesn't make her proper entrance until a little bit later.
    • While visiting the Eastman plant offices for the first time, George encounters his cousin Earl on an elevator without either man being yet aware of the otherís identity.
  • Faint in Shock: This film has what is widely considered perhaps the best faint in film history: Angela is told that her Love Interest George is likely to be sentenced to death by electric chair. She calmly thanks her mother for allowing her to hear this information before walking back into her bedroom. There, she stands dazed for a few seconds, and crashes hard and limp onto the floor without the even tiniest movement to break her fall, as though already utterly out like a light.
  • Face Death with Dignity: George calmly walks to the electric chair once it's his time.
  • The Film of the Book: The movie cuts out the first third of the story and changes all the characters' names but otherwise follows Dreiser's novel pretty closely.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Making conversation with George as he walks her home from the movies early on, Alice mentions that she never learned to swim.
    • After Alice and George go to the wedding registrar only to find that it's closed for Labor Day, there's a long static shot of a courtroom, which is superimposed on the next scene of George and Angela in a car. That's the courtroom where George is tried.
    • Alice nearly falls out of the boat when she and George first set out, shrieking in terror. Just a few minutes later...
  • Gaussian Girl: Noticeable in the scene where George is having his first conversation with Angela in the pool room, when he's in focus and she... isn't, quite. Averted afterwards.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Justified. The Hays Code prevented the mention of abortion, and it wasn't even legal back then. The vulnerable and very human Alice is apprehensive about obtaining an abortion — and if she had, the film would have ended or spun off into another plot.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: George is pretty much a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds type who you can't help but feel sorry for and empathize with, in spite of his actions. His Real Life counterpart was a selfish SOB—unlike the ambiguity depicted in the film and its source novel, Chester Gilette most certainly murdered his pregnant girlfriend to continue his womanizing and social-climbing, the better to avoid the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Alice comes across as such a nag that one can almost feel sorry for George, especially since it's left ambiguous as to whether or not he deliberately didn't try to save her. Her Real Life counterpart was nothing like this.
  • Imperiled in Pregnancy: Alice's refusal to have an abortion and insistence that George marry her seals her fate.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: As irritating as she gets, Alice has every right to be upset at how George is treating her, especially when she learns that he's been seeing Angela, and to demand that George take responsibility for the child they've conceived.
  • Just Eat Gilligan: All George has to say at the trial to have a fighting chance is that if he was guilty, he would be denying every single thing he was asked about and therefore, confirming everything except killing Alice should put more doubt in the jury's minds.
  • Love at First Sight: George falls in love with Angela the moment they meet, as he explicitly admits.
    George: I love you. I've loved you since the first moment I saw you. I guess maybe I've even loved you before I saw you."
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: George plans to murder Alice by throwing her into the lake and pretending that it was a boating accident.
  • Murder by Inaction: The crime George was really guilty of is not saving Alice from drowning when he could have. The priest at the end sums it up:
    Reverend Morrison: When you were on the lake with that poor girl, and the boat capsized...and there was a moment when you might have saved her. Whom were you thinking of?[...] Then... in your heart was murder, George.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: George plans to kill Alice and marry Angela, although he has second thoughts about the former when they're on the lake.
  • Nepotism: George takes advantage of family connections to advance in the family business.
  • Oblivious Guilt Slinging: On the lake, Alice makes George feel remorseful for all the trouble he had gotten her into, rendering him unable to go through with his plan.
  • One-Night-Stand Pregnancy: Alice is knocked up after one encounter. Played for Drama as this mishap leads to the demise of characters involved.
  • Relationship Upgrade: Harriet Benedict was the closest possible thing to a Real Life counterpart to Angela, but she vehemently denied anything beyond an acquaintance with Chester Gillette.
  • Setting Update: From The Roaring '20s of the novel to the early '50s.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: George and Alice embrace as the camera pans to the radio that's playing music on her windowsill. Cut to the same shot but in the daytime, with the radio playing static and with a rooster crowing—and now we see George leaving, thus revealing that he's stayed the night in Alice's room.
  • Shotgun Wedding: Alice tries to force George into marriage after she gets pregnant.
  • Social Climber: George sets out to gain success through Angela's high society connections, and he nearly succeeds.
  • Something Else Also Rises: Angela sidles up next to George—and the champagne mini-bottle she's holding pops.
  • Spoiled Sweet: Angela is a fun-loving rich girl who is very sweet and sympathetic to George without making him feel conspicuous about his impoverished background.
  • Talking in Your Sleep: Angela listens to guilt-ridden George talk in his sleep. He doesn't give away compromising information though.
  • Tomboyish Name: George calls Alice "Al." This is probably done to help contrast frumpy Alice with the devastatingly attractive Angela.
  • Tragic Hero: George can be seen as a tragic, pitiful victim of circumstances. He was tormented by the decision he had to make between a future in poverty with pregnant Alice and the opportunity of a place in the sun with Angela.
  • Unconventional Courtroom Tactics: The prosecutor at George's trial uses unconventional tactics to intimidate the defendant as well as to impress on the jury the violence of the crime. George is accused of drowning Alice, so the prosecutor brings in the boat they had been in, stands in it, and proceeds to loudly and violently break an oar against the side to demonstrate how the defendant supposedly hit Alice in the head before drowning her.
  • Uptown Girl: For George, the wealthy, attractive, well-connected Angela stands in stark contrast to Alice, who is frumpy and lower-class.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Dreiser's book and thus the film as well were loosely based on the 1906 Grace Brown-Chester Gillette murder case.
  • Wolf Whistle: One of the female factory workers whistles at George when he arrives for his first day of work.