Theodore Dreiser’s much-discussed novel of the ’20s, “An American Tragedy,” is here transposed to the screen for the second time by Paramount. The first version was made in 1930 by Josef Von Sternberg under the original title, and starred Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney and Frances Dee. This new version, brought completely up to date in time and settings, is George Stevens’ initial production for Paramount and distinguished beyond its predecessor in every way. It is being released under the label “A Place in the Sun.”
A cast whose surprisingly able performances equal its high-powered marquee value assures an audience for the epic story. Its potential beyond being an undoubted artistic success will hinge on not-too-subtle selling of the sex angle. Since sex was a built-in quality of the Dreiser novel and Stevens’ apt direction leaves nothing to be desired in making the most of it, Par can no doubt be counted on to provide exhibs with the materials to market it.
Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters and Elizabeth Taylor give wonderfully shaded and poignant performances. For Miss Taylor, at least, the histrionics are of a quality so far beyond anything she has done previously, that Stevens’ skilled hands on the reins must be credited with a minor miracle.
Stevens has mounted his production lavishly. Undoubtedly cognizant of the shortcomings of the story itself as popular “entertainment,” studio toppers have wisely permitted the film every possible compensating advantage. The result is a “big” picture in both concept and execution.
Stevens has given meticulous care to every aspect of “A Place in the Sun.” Michael Wilson and Harry Brown have prepared a screenplay that not only appropriately updates the action to circa 1950, but that in all but one aspect fully catches the basic quality of the emotional web that spins the three characters in its tragedy. Stevens has obviously given tremendous thought to every nuance of his own direction to get credibility, movement and all the touches that contribute to making a good film a fine art form. Most of all, Stevens recognized that because of the basically grim nature of the tragic story, with its “hero” walking to the electric chair for the film’s windup, he had to make the most of the sex angles if he was going to have anything but an artistic success. He therefore played this aspect hard in the script, assembled a trio of players each of whom has a strong and distinct s.a. quality, and has gone heavy on it in his direction. The Breen office has been astonishingly cooperative in this regard, and justifiably so inasmuch as the story is always in good taste, with the sex an integral part of it and in no sense dragged in.
While to oldsters Dreiser’s novelization of the real-life Chester Gillette case may be a bit on the tired side, there’s a vast new generation which undoubtedly knows it only very vaguely, if at all. Fortunately, the latter will find suspense in what the former may find tedious from familiarity with the outcome.
Tale, of course, is of a poor and lonely boy and girl who find comfort in each other. Unhappily, while the girl progresses to real love of the boy, he finds love elsewhere in a wealthy lass of a social set to which he’d like to become a part. His first attachment is not easily broken off, however, because the girl discovers herself pregnant. When she appears at a mountain lake resort where he is spending his vacation with the femme who has by this time become his fiancee, his confused emotions lead him to take her into a boat with intention of drowning her. He can’t go through with it, but a misstep ends in the tragedy occurring anyhow and his resultant trial and conviction.
Miss Winters plays the poor gal, Miss Taylor the rich one. Clift at times seems overly-laconic, but the more serious defect in the script is the difficulty in believing that the “nice boy” he plays could ever get to such a confused emotional pitch that he could even consider the drowning solution. That leads to some confusion of sympathies on the part of the audience. It is not a minor point, but also not one likely to mitigate against the critical success of a film of such excellence in so many other respects.
1951: Best Director, Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture, Editing, B&W Costume Design.
Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Montgomery Clift), Actress (Shelley Winters)