Release Date(s)1951 (August 10, 2021)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Paramount Presents – #22)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A
When you look at George Stevens’ filmography, you have to be impressed at the range of genres and the quality of his movies—Alice Adams, Swing Time, Gunga Din, Shane, Giant, The Diary of Anne Frank. In 1951, Stevens adapted the Theodore Dreiser novel An American Tragedy, based on an actual crime, into A Place in the Sun, one of his finest productions.
George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), the poor nephew of a wealthy industrialist, leaves home and arrives in California expecting to find an opportunity in one of his uncle’s businesses. Instead, George is given a blue-collar job at his uncle’s factory. Though it’s against company policy, George becomes romantically involved with co-worker Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). When George does well, he is promoted and invited to a party at his uncle’s home, where he meets beautiful socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). She introduces him to the local high society and they fall in love.
Alice, however, is pregnant and wants George to marry her. During a dinner party at Angela’s lake house with parents, relatives, and friends, Alice calls George from the bus station and gives him thirty minutes to meet her. Otherwise, she will crash the party and tell everyone her story. George grasps for a way out of his dilemma.
Director Stevens and screenwriters Michael Wilson and Harry Brown have updated the story from the early 20th century to the post-World War II period. Despite having been made during rigorous enforcement of the Production Code, the film is unusually frank in its depiction of unwed pregnancy and a young woman’s desperate quest for an abortion, though the term is never used. Alice merely tells a doctor, “I’m in trouble.”
Stevens cast the film intelligently. Winters’ Alice is a sympathetic character, not overly nagging, and fairly level-headed up to a point. Alice is hardly the villain in what amounts to a tragic love triangle. Taylor, only 17 at the time and starring in her first adult role, masterfully conveys desire and romance. And Clift, a classically trained stage actor and one of the first screen actors to employ The Method style of performing, elicits sympathy even though his character is deeply flawed. George is seeking the American dream and his personal place in the sun, embodied by Angela and her upscale lifestyle, and feels weighed down by Alice and an unwanted pregnancy.
The rich are portrayed positively except for their self-involved focus on their own pleasure. It’s a world that one would aspire to, especially George, who grew up in relative poverty. He wants to move into this world; he’s hard-working, ambitious, yet humble. Things quickly look up for George—he’s promoted, is invited to posh parties, and begins to enjoy the perks of an affluent lifestyle.
A Place in the Sun traces George’s moral journey. He begins by leveraging his family connections through hard work and dedication. But after he meets Angela, he comes to regard himself as entitled, driving him to extreme actions to extricate himself from Alice and his responsibility to her so his aspirations can be realized.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the Paramount Presents Blu-ray release of A Place in the Sun is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 from a 4K film transfer. Director George Stevens and cinematographer William C. Mellor favor dark images, some with just enough illumination to see a bit of detail. This is most noticeable in the scene in which George and Alice make love in a darkened room. During night scenes, characters’ dark suits disappear into the background due to lack of backlighting. This is a conscious choice, so the photography complements the story’s darkness. The scenes with Angela, by contrast, are bright, from the white dress she wears when she and George first meet to the outdoor sun-drenched scenes by the lakeside. In keeping with typical filmmaking of the period, process screens are used for backdrops when characters speak in a moving car and when they are at the beach. Uncommon are very long dissolves, which give the film a languid pace. Stevens' extreme over-the-shoulder close-up of George and Angela kissing is the film’s most famous image and highlights the intensity of the characters’ relationship.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Other audio options include German, Spanish, and French mono Dolby Digital. Subtitle options include English, English SDH, German, Spanish, and French. Dialogue is crisp and clear throughout. Sound is mostly center front. There isn’t much of a multi-channel experience primarily due to the limitations of the original audio track. Franz Waxman’s opening credit music sounds more suitable for a grand epic than the intimate story of a love triangle, but becomes less obtrusive as the film unfolds. The love motif—George and Angela’s theme—is played throughout the film, either when both George and Angela are on screen or when George thinks about her. In a courtroom scene, the sound of the prosecuting attorney (Raymond Burr) smashing an oar to demonstrate how a murder was committed is loud and shocking. Ambient sound in the factory where George works features conveyor belts, an end-of-work-day bell, boxes being shuffled, and carts wheeling boxes.
Bonus materials on this 22nd entry in the Paramount Presents Blu-ray series include an audio commentary, a new Filmmaker Focus with Leonard Maltin, reminiscences by famous people who knew George Stevens, a featurette on director George Stevens, and theatrical trailers. A Digital code is included on a paper within the packaging. A reprint of the film’s original poster can be seen by turning back the cover on the slipcase.
Audio Commentary – George Stevens, Jr. and A Place in the Sun associate producer Ivan Moffat share this commentary. The film and Theodore Dreiser’s novel are based on the real-life murder by Chester Gillette, a poor relative of a wealthy family, who was convicted of drowning his pregnant working-class girlfriend, Grace Brown, in 1906. After serving with Moffat in World War II, Stevens hired him to be an associate producer in Hollywood. A Place in the Sun, a uniquely American story, shifted the time period to right after the war. Clift’s George is the out-of-place outsider. Stevens made the decision to shoot A Place in the Sun in black and white because it better represented the mood of the picture. The casting of Shelley Winters was “a stroke of genius.” Previously known in movies for her roles as a glamorous blond, she downplayed her looks and dyed her hair brown to audition for Stevens. Her performance was sympathetic. Stevens’ use of long dissolves were groundbreaking and gave the film an unhurried pace. A slow, methodical director, Stevens had confidence that his pictures would be successful both critically and financially despite going over budget. By shooting from many angles, he gave himself the tools in editing to make a scene more compelling. Of the three main stages of filmmaking—preparation, directing, and post-production—Stevens said he would most likely forego directing, since the other two are most crucial in determining a film’s success. When A Place in the Sun was purchased by NBC for a 1966 TV airing, Stevens sued NBC, claiming that breaking up the film with commercials would violate his contract because it would diminish the film’s impact. The judge ruled against Stevens, noting that the film was so compelling, nothing could dim its impact. Stevens often told actors, “A little simpler,” attempting to elicit less histrionic, more believable performances. When A Place in the Sun was screened privately for Charlie Chaplin, he said it was the best American film he had ever seen. The studio turned his comment into a tag line that was helpful in launching the film but turned the critics against it because they felt pre-empted. Stevens believed that if the film is working, you can take your time at the end, which explains the slow denouement of A Place in the Sun.
Filmmaker Focus: Leonard Maltin on A Place in the Sun (7:35) – Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin refers to George Stevens as “one of the towering figures of 20th century cinema.” Stevens started directing Laurel and Hardy shorts and went on to direct features at RKO and Columbia. Maltin refers to A Place in the Sun as a dark film emotionally and cinematically, as many scenes are very dark, with just enough detail illuminated for the audience to understand what is happening. The look reflects the tone of the movie. Montgomery Clift made his screen debut in Red River. A Place in the Sun was only his fourth film. Elizabeth Taylor was already a star. For the first time, she felt she was playing a real character rather than a variation of herself. Shelley Winters took on a challenging role and was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Alice Tripp. Maltin singles out the frequently excerpted scene of Taylor and Clift kissing in extreme close-up, often copied in later films. “There is a guiding hand behind the entirety of the film… and that guiding hand was George Stevens.”
George Stevens and His Place in the Sun (22:22) – Stevens was regarded as one of the best directors in Hollywood. He started as an assistant cameraman, moved up to cameraman, then director. He worked at RKO and later Columbia. During World War II, he was commissioned as a major in the US army and headed a unit to document battles of the war and its aftermath. His unit shot footage of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Stevens wanted to make A Place in the Sun despite resistance by Paramount. He sued the studio and eventually forced it to make the picture. Stevens saw a way to adapt the story to a post-World War II setting with an outsider reaching for the American dream. Taylor was borrowed from MGM, the only studio she had worked for. Clift and Taylor had excellent screen chemistry. Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters comment on their experiences in making A Place in the Sun. Shelley Winters describes how much she wanted the role of Alice Tripp and the unusual audition she staged for George Stevens. Though Taylor never had formal acting lessons, her instincts were good. Taylor notes that her teachers were the directors and the actors she worked with. She notes the intensity of Clift’s performance and his dedication taught her to look more deeply into characters she played. Clift and Taylor would do two more films together—Raintree County and Suddenly, Last Summer.
George Stevens: Filmmakers Who Knew Him (45:28) – Eight filmmakers reminisce about the man they knew personally—George Stevens. The comments cover Stevens’ professional and private lives and contain a number of anecdotes that highlight the director’s working style, eccentricities, relationship to actors and crews, and dealings with studio heads. The filmmakers interviewed are Warren Beatty, Frank Capra, Rouben Mamoulian, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Alan J. Pakula, Antonio Vellani, Robert Wise, and Fred Zinnemann.
Theatrical Trailers – Three trailers are included: A Place in the Sun (2:39), Shane (2:03), and Sunset Boulevard (3:15).
A Place in the Sun is a film of moral complexity that mixes romance and murder. George Eastman starts out as a good man but loses his way and doesn’t realize he’s on the wrong path until it’s too late to turn back. A pretty strong film when originally released, it seems less sensational today but still offers exceptional performances by Clift, Taylor, and Winters.
- Dennis Seuling