AFI Countdown Challenge #92: A Place In The Sun

I had expected, as I went through this list, that I would come to movies I was seeing for the first time.

Then I came to A Place in the Sun which I not only had not seen before, but hadn’t even heard of.

How did I not know this movie existed?  I’m not entirely sure.  It’s based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, a book I haven’t read either.  I make it a point to read one big work of literature that I haven’t read before, and I had already selected An American Tragedy as my choice for this year.  I haven’t started it yet, but it was still my choice for 2018.

But let’s look at this movie.  It’s a melodrama with a dark ending, opening with a young man named George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) hitchhiking his way into a town.  He’s an ambitious fellow looking to get a job from his wealthy uncle Charles of the Eastman company.  That works.  George’s father is dead and his mother is a highly religious type, but George wants to make something of himself by pursuing an American Dream of his own.

So, we have a young man, the brooding sort who comes into town in a white t-shirt and leather jacket before buying a tweed suit for $35(!) in order to actually visit his uncle’s house.  As it is, Uncle Charles is as good as his word and instructs his son to give George a job.  There is one strict rule:  George cannot have a romantic-type relationship with any of the numerous female employees at Eastman.

Look, we know by now that George is going to have that relationship.  And since George’s cousin dumped him into a manual labor job for starters, he catches the eye of a young co-worker named Alice (Shelley Winters).

Of course, he also fell hard for an attractive young woman who stopped by his uncle’s house on his first trip over.  That’s one Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) and while George seems to be somewhat into Alice, he is even more into Angela.

I have no idea what he sees in her…

Jokes aside, it is easy to see what George sees in Angela.  She’s not just an attractive woman, but she’s also fun-loving and vivacious, particularly when compared to everyone else in the movie.  Alice, by comparison, is dowdy and quiet.  And as George is relegated to the stockroom with Alice for the time being, he eventually manages to do the unspeakable:  he has a date and gets Alice pregnant.  Not only did he break the “no dating” rule, he left behind some obvious evidence that will arrive in about nine months time.

That’s actually an interesting develop for a movie from 1951.  They weren’t exactly allowed to even talk about sex.  What happens?  Alice and George go to her room, and it’s dark aside from a window to the outside (it’s night), and a lit-up radio.  In the dark, we get some dialogue, most notably Clift saying, “This is nice.”

It wasn’t really that sexy, all told.  Everything there is left to the imagination, and it works for the time period.  George is mostly a soft-spoken guy not given to a lot of big speeches, so getting any kind of reaction from the guy is noteworthy.  And even after the pregnancy (another word they couldn’t use, as Alice simply says she’s “in trouble”), Alice goes for an abortion which, again, is implied more than spoken.  And she can’t get one.

What will George do?  Will he stay with Angela who he is truly in love with, or will he do the right thing and marry Alice, even if it costs him the job he wants more than anything?  It is only his Uncle Charles’ intervention that gets him a better position and allows him better access to Angela anyway, winning her heart in the process.

Why not stay with Alice?  She may not be as exciting or ambitious as Anegla, content simply to stay with George no matter how poor they end up.  George doesn’t want that, and while Taylor makes Angela a really fun woman, it is to the credit of both Shelley Winters and the script to make Alice maybe not fun, but she has a really, really, really good reason not to be.  She’s a small town girl with no desire to move ahead in life.  Angela already is ahead, though the black and white photography doesn’t show the color of Taylor’s legendary blue eyes.

A story like this, even given the novel’s title, is going to end tragically.  George doesn’t want Alice and she won’t go away.  Heck, she figures out what’s going on when his vacation antics with Angela end up in the Society section of the newspaper (between this and The Apartment, there’s an awful lot of stalker-esque behavior for the “good” guys to learn about the women of their dreams, and how the women in question weren’t the slightest bit upset to learn a stranger managed to find out an awful lot about them and then just drop some personal information).  George opts to kill Alice, but at the last minute thinks better of it as the two sit in a rowboat in the middle of a dark lake, but then Alice figures things out, gets up to comfort her distraught love interest and capsizes the boat.  George is shortly thereafter arrested for murder.  Did he kill Alice?

He didn’t intend to, and though he is convicted, there does seem to be a a sense that, well, it wasn’t first degree murder from where I was sitting, and though he still won Angela’s heart and gets a final kiss from the girl of his dreams, he’s led off to the electric chair still dreaming of that first kiss he shared with Angela.

Did he intend to kill Alice?  Or did he simply fail to save her?  It sure seemed like the latter, but it comes across as the former.  It’s a tragedy.  Most love triangles end with one very heartbroken soul.  This one does too, I suppose, but only because the other two sides are both dead.  That’s dark.

NEXT UP:  Let’s skip ahead to 1964 for another musical as Audrey Hepburn learns how to speak properly to win a bet for some stuffy professor in My Fair Lady.


Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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