A PLACE IN THE SUN
Director: George Stevens
Production: Paramount Pictures; black and white, 35mm; running time: 122 minutes. Released 1951.
Producer: George Stevens; screenplay: Harry Brown and Michael Wilson, from the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser; photography: William C. Mellor; editor: William Hornbeck; music: Franz Waxman; costume designer: Edith Head.
Cast: Montgomery Clift ( George Eastman ); Elizabeth Taylor ( Angela Vickers ); Shelley Winters ( Alice Tripp ); Anne Revere ( Hannah Eastman ); Sheppard Strudwick ( Anthony Vickers ); Frieda Inescort ( Mrs. Vickers ); Keefe Brasselle ( Earl Eastman ); Fred Clark ( Bellows ); Raymond Burr ( Frank Marlowe ).
Awards: Oscars for Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography—Black and White, Best Editing, Best Music— Dramatic or Comedy Picture, and Best Costume—Black and White, 1951.
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When producer-director George Stevens made A Place in the Sun , based on the highly successful novel, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, in 1951, he faced the difficult job of turning a popular book into a worthwhile film.
Dreiser's book, a detailed work of 850 pages, had already been made into a film in 1931. Directed by Josef von Sternberg, the film was condemned by Dreiser as it changed the emphasis of the story, making the hero the precipitator of events rather than a victim of his society and environment. The celebrated Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein had also produced a treatment of the book when he came to Hollywood in 1930. This version emphasized the importance of society in the tragic events of the story, and was closer to Dreiser's book than any other version. However, Eisenstein's story never reached the screen.
Irving Piechl comments in his essay "Revivals, Reissues, Remakes, and 'A Place in the Sun,"' that Stevens's film is "not only exceptional in being more successful than the first  film, it is also the first remake . . . which is made as though for the first time. It tells essentially the same story as the earlier film but with a totally different emphasis and perspective." A Place in the Sun was a success on its release, earning six Academy Awards.
Stevens's story is not an "American tragedy" as such. The director changed the time period of the story to the 1950s and created a hero, George Eastman (Clyde Griffith in Dreiser's book), who has a chance at achieving his dream, and misses it through a string of circumstances which combine to bring about his downfall.
George (Montgomery Clift) is a bright, handsome, but poor boy with rich connections. He visits his successful uncle and gains employment at his factory stacking swimming costumes, but he quickly shows how determined and ambitious he is by suggesting improvements to his workplace. He meets and falls in love with Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), a rich young socialite who is dating Earl, George's cousin.
Much to her parents' horror, Angela reciprocates George's love. With his uncle's support, George overcomes their opposition. However, while dreaming of Angela George makes love to Alice Tripp, a girl who works with him at the factory. When she falls pregnant and tries to blackmail him into marrying her George's whole future is put in jeopardy.
Angela and Alice are presented in opposition to each other as lightness and darkness. Angela is always dressed in pure, virginal white or conservative sober black; Alice, in contrast, wears overly tight clothes, is weary, whiny, and slovenly. Angela is the epitome of wealth and luxury; Alice represents hard work and poverty.
It is hardly surprising that George considers murdering Alice. The fact that he changes his mind at the last moment leaves the viewer ambivalent when Alice finally overturns the boat and dies. Is George responsible? Did Alice die because of George's momentary hesitation before he tries to rescue her? Is his execution just?
In the scene when the boat overturns Stevens uses a long shot and then darkness to blur the issue. We do not see what happens but we know that when Alice upsets the boat she is frightened of George: we feel her fear. We are left to make our own judgement about George's guilt.
Stevens uses montage, close-ups, and very slow scenes to create an almost dream like atmosphere. The plot moves along slowly but with great fluidity. Similarly the use of steady slow drums as George contemplates murder creates a hot, dark, and menacing atmosphere. The viewer knows that something awful is going to occur.
The famous kiss between Taylor and Clift, which is shot with a six-inch lens in close-up, conveys the intensity and passion existing between the couple—a sensuality that never exists between Alice and George. It is the last thing that George thinks of as he goes to his death, showing that no matter what has happened his love for Angela is the most important thing in his life.
A Place in the Sun is a significant film not only because of excellent performances elicited from Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, but also because of the society it depicts. Although George has the opportunity to succeed—his upbringing, his own sense of morality bring about his downfall. In a sense George is doomed from the beginning—he is a victim.