Wednesday, October 17, 2007

 

Hidden in the shadows

This post is part of the Montgomery Clift blog-a-thon being coordinated by Nathaniel R at Film Experience.


By Edward Copeland
For a long time, I was sort of stumped about something to write about for the Monty Clift blog-a-thon. While I admired the actor in many films, nothing evoked much passion in me. Then, when I happened to catch up with the documentary George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey, it awakened my interest in that director again so A Place in the Sun seemed a likely place to revisit. Alas, my reaction was one of disappointment in terms of the film and Clift's performance.


Based on Theodore Dreiser's early 20th-century novel An American Tragedy, A Place in the Sun has a lot going for it, but it never seems to really get going, especially once Raymond Burr shows up as one of the hammiest district attorneys in the history of film. For those unfamiliar with the basic outlines of the story, Clift plays George Eastman, the nephew of a rich California magnate who comes his uncle's way in search of a job following his rearing by an extremely religious branch of the Eastman family. George is quiet and unassuming and once he gets a job with his uncle, he starts to date Alice, a co-worker (Shelley Winters), against the rules of the company. More importantly though, he begins to fall for high society deb Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) and much of the conflict stems from the class struggles and upper-class snobbery heaped upon George.

Of course, things get complicated when Alice finds herself with child and threatens George's preferred future with Angela. While A Place in the Sun does offer some crisp dialogue and an interesting premise, (I particularly like that the good girl/bad girl dichotomy is upended a bit, since Alice is the good girl and ends up pregnant but Angela is most decidedly the bad girl, taking chances at every turn.) the problem stems from the character of George and Clift's portrayal. Whether it was the actor's inclination, the director's instructions or the way it is supposed to be, George is a cipher. I have to believe this is intentional since so many of his scenes show him covered in shadows or with his back to the camera.

The opening shot of the film where he's hitchhiking along the highway sets this up to the point that in his dark clothing, he'd be nothing but a black blur at one point if it weren't for the credits running over his image. This could have been truly touching and sad, but once events lead to the introduction of Burr's D.A., it almost seems comical. It isn't helped that I kept thinking about two bits of comedy that stemmed from the movie and the original book. I remember in Horse Feathers, nearly 20 years older than A Place in the Sun, when Groucho takes the college widow out on the lake and mentions he's been afraid to get into a boat ever since he read Dreiser's novel. The other joke I remember comes from one of the multitude of AFI specials where A Place in the Sun popped up on the list and had commentary from noted film historians Harvey Korman and Tim Conway. I can't remember who said which, but one asked the other, "Would you kill your wife for Elizabeth Taylor?" to which the other comic responded, "I'd kill my wife for Shelley Winters."

Montgomery Clift was a fine actor who gave many memorable performances, but A Place in the Sun really didn't serve him well.


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Comments:
Wow, Edward. "A Place in the Sun" is one of my favorite films. I love the way Stevens tells two parallel stories: The closeups are love story and the long shots a class analysis.

For me, Alice and Angela transcend the typical Hollywood good girl/bad girl dichotomy. They are rich girl and poor girl, both illicitly in love with George, who in turn loves the way Alice loves him and loves Angela both for her beauty and her social class. That Angela loves him is a sign to George's rich uncle that George fits in.

Clift's performance is genuinely moving because I believed that he wanted to do right by both women and was trapped by the unplanned pregnancy. He knew he was guilty in his heart of wanting to get Alice out of the picture, but did he actually kill her? I don't know, which is why the movie still haunts me -- and obviously Woody Allen, who has used the plot both in "Match Point" and "Scoop."
 
The fact that it influenced Match Point is reason enough to burn every single print of this movie. But seriously, I think you're being a little hard on Monty here. He's not bad. I think he's out-acted here, but he's not bad.

We were assigned An American Tragedy in school. Everyone watched this movie. Everyone, that is, except that dumbass guy named Odie, the jackbutt for whom Cliffs Notes were a no-no. Of course, that guy usually was the only one to pass the tests the English teacher gave us to make sure we read the book. The teacher would be sure to ask questions whose answers differed from book to movie, and then BLAM!!! If you had one answer that came from the movie, he automatically flunked you.

This is a far far better Liz and Monty movie than Suddenly, Last Summer, the movie I would have written about if I got involved with this blog-a-thon. Harvey Korman may have said he'd leave his wife for Liz, but would he take a Brokeback Mountain special for her like those kids who ate Sebastian did?
 
As I said, I like Clift in many of his roles, but he's so subdued here, that it just got to me. I understand he needs to be seen in shades of gray so we debate whether the death was intentional, but for me it also made me not care what happened to him. Even worse, when Burr shows up with his over-the-top turn, I think it throws the entire tone of the picture out the window.
 
I remember liking Montgomery Clift in "A Place in the Sun," though I probably should take another look at the movie. It's been a while.
The previous year, Robert Stevenson directed "Walk Softly, Stranger," with Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli, and I found several parallels between that and "A Place in the Sun."
Could've been my imagination. Or not.
 
this is one of my favorite movies but i get why it turns some people away.

but I can't get over the Monty/Liz love connection. It's so convincing as screen chemistry for all sort of reasons... it works on a class level, basic attraction level personality wise, beauty and eroticism level, self delusional level and maybe even real level too... plus that cinematography. I really dig Monty & Liz together and wish I could have found a copy of Raintree County to explore that one which almost no one ever discusses.

as to the bad girl/good girl issue. I actually think that it's pretty complicated in this film since the good girl isn't so sympathetically portrayed and the bad girl isn't condemned. But I particularly love that Liz goes for broke with the madonna/whore angle, as i said in my post 'wanting to sex him up and save him'

It's one of my favorite Taylor turns "You'll be my pick up" is one of the sexiest line readings ever I think. and I love the oddity of her sudden dash from the dance floor 'are they watching?'
 
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