Sunday, June 28, 2015
PLACE IN THE SUN, A
(August 1951, U.S.)
Wow! Feels like it's been forever since I've written a post for a classic black and white film (the last one would have been Stanley Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY. TCM's Robert Osborne is real pissed at me!). George Stevens' A PLACE IN THE SUN is initially billed as a romantic drama and even considered one of the best screen love stories ever filmed, though I have some real trouble seeing it that way. It's a strange love triangle, for sure, that includes the ill-educated, but ambitious social climber character of George Eastman (played by Montgomery Clift), spoiled society girl Angela Vickers (played by Elizabeth Taylor) and the incredibly irritating local factory worker girl Alice Tripp (played by Shelly Winters). When we first meet George, he's shy, quiet and not entirely sure of himself and his intentions (as it seems that was how actor Clift generally came off on screen in any of his roles). Only by distant relations is he able to secure a rather lowly position in his rich Uncle Charles' industrialist company. While there, almost out of sheer boredom, it seems, he takes up with Alice and has an affair with her, but I'll get deeper into her character later. As mentioned, George is a potential social climber, so when the opportunity knocks to hook up with Angela, he grabs it hard and fast, while still managing to maintain his somewhat distant and reserved demeanor. As a viewer from the outside, we're not entirely sure this is just his natural persona or rather a clever, diabolical cover up to his image as he slowly seeks out what he wants.
Now as with an traditional love triangle, there's who loves who, who doesn't love who, and sometimes who would like to see who disappear completely from the situation. By the time George has landed Angela and she's fallen in love with him, Alice is not only pregnant (after just one night - of course!), but is being a real persistent, unreasonable pain-in-the-ass about it, demanding that George marry her right now! What's George to do but try and concoct a plan to get rid of Alice so he can continue to climb the social ladder with Angela and her family. Murder soon follows and so does the inevitable trial and conviction. However, more questions arise about not only if it was really murder that took place, but the viewer also, in my opinion, is forced to question the real motives of love between our three characters.
Allow me to explain - actually, wait, allow me to address another issue first. As a famous actress, I have been able to recognize the natural talents of Shelly Winters. But so help me, there tends to be something persistently irritating about too many of her characters. From Kubrick's LOLITA (1962) to even THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972), she tends to constantly play a nagging, whining and downright infuriating presence in somebody's world. A PLACE IN THE SUN has got to be the all-time low for Winters' personality, because despite the fact that we are, by all practical measures of human decency, meant to feel for her character because she's been knocked up by a man who truly despises her, as well as the fact that she cannot get an abortion because this is the 1950s and these times are very different for women in such predicaments, we are, instead, in my humble opinion, on the side of George for wanting to kill her. Alice is just that annoying! Like a desperate and clinging puppy, she refuses to allow George to breathe for even a moment and is a constant threat in his life. Right is on her side, yes, but the dark side of our human nature can't help but want this crazy bitch dead! By now, it's not even about wanting George to be free so he can marry Angela and rise to the top with her rich family and friends. We simply (well, I simply) just want to see the always irritating Shelly Winters gone and out of the way! When she is finally gone, I can't help but breathe a true sigh of relief. And yet, it's important to point out that when she is finally disposed of in a rowboat out on a very isolated lake, we're still not entirely sure of what happened. Just when the point comes where she's about to go into the water (Alice can't swim, by the way), the scene changes and we're not given a very clear picture of whether she was sent into the water deliberately or if it was an honest accident, despite the fact that George wanted her dead deep down inside his mind and his heart. He may have just had a change of heart at the very last moment and couldn't deliberately go through with it. We're not sure. Still, a prosecuting attorney (played by Raymond Burr in a pre-Perry Mason role, no less) and a jury have convicted George of murder and he will die in the electric chair. There lies the human tragedy of it all where ambition, love and lust inevitably turn to murder and death (love sure sucks, doesn't it!).
But now I must also question the true motive of love in a film that sells itself as a tremendous love story. George clearly doesn't love Alice, we know that off the top. Alice may or may not love George or she simply may be confusing love with an unreasonable and desperate attachment to the father of her child. George claims to love Angela, but may only be allowing himself to be played into her hands, romantically or not, in order to hold onto and desperately protect his newly-acquired social position. Angela, on the other hand, repeatedly claims throughout the film that she deeply loves George, but I often have trouble figuring out why, as his character tends to only allow himself to be lead around by her and offers no true romantic or spiritual reciprocation with here. Does Angela truly love George or is it simply some poor little rich girl's ploy to get back at mommy and daddy for giving her too much financial and social status and not enough real love? Evidence may prove true love when Angela comes to George's jail cell to say goodbye before his execution, but I'm still not entirely convinced. Angela may simply just be doing "the right thing" as a human being and I sense she may move on quickly to the next available and eligible man as soon as he comes along. So like I said, love may not be true love in the case of this film, which still plays out as a thrilling drama, but either way, it still sucks!
Finally, one other thing I have to mention. In 2005, there was a popular Woody Allen film called MATCH POINT in which a young man socially climbed his way to the top with a rich girl and her family while having an affair with a hot, yet somewhat unstable common girl, before he inevitably kills her to get her out of the way. The film was considered quite original for Woody Allen and was even nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Okay, seriously, am I the only one on this fucking planet who considered the story a very close remake of A PLACE IN THE SUN, as well as a repeat of themes Allen had already explored in his own film of CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989)??? It's absolutely astounding to me as to what and how some people will dote the honor of originality on a film, undeservedly so sometimes!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Angela: "Goodbye, George. Seems like we always spend the best part of our time just saying goodbye."