Sunday, August 14, 2016

Pursuing a Place in the Sun

"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."

George (Montgomery Clift)

If you ever read Theodore Dreiser's novel "An American Tragedy," you know the plot — for the most part — of George Stevens' "A Place in the Sun," which premiered on this day in 1951.

The movie wasn't exactly a re–telling of the novel — in fact, there were several changes in the story in its translation from printed page to silver screen — but it was heavily influenced by it, and anyone who read the book and saw the movie knew that the protagonist in the movie (Montgomery Clift) was virtually a carbon copy of the protagonist in the book.

In both the book and the movie, he was poor but ambitious, the son of religious activists, street missionaries in the Midwest. He wasn't well educated, he lacked maturity, and he was naive. He took menial jobs to help support his family; while working at such a job he met his wealthy uncle who owned a successful factory on the coast and invited his nephew to visit him, suggesting that he could have a job in the business.

So he made his way to his uncle's factory — in the book, it was on the East Coast, but it was on the West Coast in the movie.

Other details and circumstances were different, too, but the story was essentially the same. The protagonist took his uncle up on the offer and was, indeed, given a job. It was an entry–level job at first, but the protagonist got rapid promotions. Things were looking up.

There was one problem, though. When he was first hired, the protagonist was told that most of the employees were females, and he should not have relationships with any of them outside the workplace.

So, of course, that is precisely what he did. Almost immediately he struck up a friendship with a young worker (Shelley Winters, who broke into movies in the early '40s as a blonde bombshell but found that label too limiting and claimed to have washed off her makeup to audition for the role in "A Place in the Sun"). In the story, it was probably a good match. Winters' character was almost as naive as Clift's, believing nearly to the end that his family ties brought him no privileges at all — all evidence to the contrary.

Anyway, they started seeing each other on the sly, and it wasn't long before they had sex. That, of course, was the kind of thing that simply was not seen in movies in the 1950s. It could only be suggested, hinted at, the kind of thing in which a couple kisses passionately, and the music swells, and the figures become silhouettes that fade into a morning scene in which both are seen at the breakfast table.

Everyone who saw the movie knew that something had happened, but no one saw it happen — rather like when one goes to bed and there is no snow on the ground, but there is snow on the ground when that person wakes up the next morning. You know something happened even if you didn't see it happen.

Nevertheless, the secret — if it ever was one to anyone watching the movie 65 years ago — was a secret no more when Winters' character sought advice from a minister, who believed she was overwhelmed by the stress of being pregnant until Winters confessed that she was not married and the father had "abandoned" her.

As self–absorbed as he was, Clift's character claimed he was going to do the honorable thing (by '50s standards) and marry the girl — but he was falling in love with an affluent and socially connected girl (Elizabeth Taylor), the kind who could do many wonderful things for his career.

And his allegiance was shifting rapidly from the working girl to the society girl.

At times, Clift's character reminded me of Hamlet, Shakespeare's famed Danish prince who couldn't make up his mind. But, once he met Liz, his devotion clearly belonged to her, even though he agreed to marry Winters after she phoned him at a weekend party with Taylor and the ritzy crowd and threatened to expose him. They went to get a marriage license — only to find the office was closed for the Labor Day weekend.

They decided to come back the next day and, in the meantime, enjoy some R&R. They were on a secluded lake and decided to rent a boat. Winters' character didn't know that Clift had been plotting to kill her and make it look like an accident, leaving him free to marry Taylor — but once they were on the lake, he had a change of heart and decided not to kill her after all.

But fate intervened, and Winters really did slip and fall — and drown.

The audience, of course, knew that it really had been an accident. But Clift's suspicious behavior before and after the accident led to his conviction — with none other than Raymond Burr, TV's future Perry Mason, leading the prosecution.

Waiting to walk that last mile to his execution, Clift told a priest that he didn't kill Winters, but he did nothing to help her when she fell in the water. The priest concluded that it was murder and Clift's execution would be justified.

In 2016, it seems a little melodramatic, but it must have seemed to be pushing boundaries in 1951. It remains only the second movie adaptation of Dreiser's novel. He didn't live to see it, but he saw the first one, which was made 20 years earlier. I've heard that he hated it.

Maybe he considered it too literal a translation. He might have preferred "A Place in the Sun," considering that it did differ in some ways from the original source (and in more than just the name). Perhaps, now that filmmakers have more freedom than they did 65 years ago, it is time for a fresh take on the story.

"A Place in the Sun" ranked #92 on the American Film Institute's original list of the Top 100 movies of the last 100 years, but it was left off the revised list that was released 10 years later.

It won six Oscars — Best Director (Stevens), Best Screenplay, Best Dramatic or Comedy Score, Best Black–and–White Cinematography, Best Black–and–White Costume Design and Best Film Editing. It received three other nominations — Best Picture, Best Actor (Clift) and Best Actress (Winters), losing to "An American in Paris," Humphrey Bogart and Vivien Leigh.