Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: A Place in the Sun (1951)
Studio Line: Paramount Home Entertainment - I'm in trouble, George... bad trouble

George Stevens' stunning adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy garnered six Academy Awardsģ (including Best Director and Best Screenplay) and guaranteed immortality for screen lovers Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Clift stars as George Eastman, a poor young man determined to win a place in respectable society and the heart of a beautiful socialite (Elizabeth Taylor) . Shelley Winters plays the factory girl whose dark secret threatens Eastman's professional and romantic prospects. Consumed with fear and desire, Eastman is ultimately driven to a desperate act of passion that unravels his world forever.

Director: George Stevens
Cast: Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters, Anne Revere, Keefe Brasselle, Fred Clark
Won for Best Director; Best Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Best Costume Design; Best Film Editing; Best Music-Franz Waxman. Nominated for Best Picture; Best Actor-Montgomery Clift; Best Actress-Shelley Winters.
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 13 chapters; not rated; 121 min.; $29.99; street date 8/14/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary from Ivan Moffat and George Stevens, Jr.; ďGeorge Stevens and His Place In the SunĒ Documentary; ďGeorge Stevens: Filmmakers Who Knew HimĒ Documentary; Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/C+/B

Hopefully youíve noticed that we support a variety of special pages on this site. For example, we offer one devoted to every Oscar Best Picture winner, and another that relates all of Disneyís animated features. Those two have broadened my cinematic horizons to a degree, but not to a tremendous extent. As a big Disney fan, Iíd have checked out all of the various films with or without the existence of the page. My knowledge of Oscar winners wasnít as deep, but I still had witnessed many of them prior to the creation of the special page.

The same qualification exists for another of our dedicated listings, that of the AFI Top 100 films. To be certain, I was acquainted with many of those movies in advance, and most are quite well known. Nonetheless, Iíve had to branch out toward less familiar fare along the way, something thatís happily allowed me to learn more about well regarded flicks from the past.

Iíve needed to watch a slew of pictures I otherwise may never have seen, and some of these movies have come as pleasant surprises; for example, I had no idea Iíd enjoy offerings like 1939ís Stagecoach, 1962ís The Manchurian Candidate, and Charlie Chaplinís The Gold Rush. On the other hand, I experienced some disappointments such as 1967ís Guess Whoís Coming to Dinner? plus 1956ís The Searchers and 1969ís Easy Rider.

Somewhere in the middle we find 1951ís A Place In the Sun. Prior to my screening of this DVD, I was acquainted with this film in name alone. I knew of its existence, but that was about it. From the title and other elements, I inferred that it would be a romance, but otherwise, I lacked any foreknowledge.

My prediction was accurate, at least to a point. Sun relates the tale of George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), a struggling young man with a connection; his uncle Charles (Herbert Heyes) runs a womenís clothing company, and George gets a job there. However, the relationship seems pretty tenuous, as the uncle knows little about the nephew. Nonetheless, George gets his foot in the door and he appears happy to do so.

Most of the Eastman employees are females, and company policy strictly forbids romantic dalliances between any workers. However, George quickly hooks up with frumpy Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters) and has a surreptitious affair. Despite this minor romance, George has his eyes elsewhere. He clearly covets the prosperous life led by his more successful relatives, especially when he gets a gander of Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor).

Matters intensify between George and Alice, mainly because he gets her pregnant. Despite that factor, George and Angela start to date, and he must lead something of a double life. He attempts to disconnect from Alice, but she wonít allow that, and he considers sinister possibilities to get rid of her, especially when she threatens to blow the top off of their relationship and tell everyone.

Iíll leave the rest of the film a mystery so I donít ruin it for anyone who never saw it. Suffice it to say that after the relatively romantic and light elements of the first half, the flick takes a darker turn during its second hour. George needs to deal with the conflict between his potentially obtainable fantasy and the reality into which he put himself, and not everything will necessarily end happily.

Sun actually remade an earlier flick, 1931ís An American Tragedy, which itself adapted Theodore Dreiserís novel of the same name, which itself was based on real events from the early part of the 20th century. Personally, I liked the name change, mainly because I didnít expect the dramatic turns of the filmís second half. Obviously An American Tragedy reveals much more of the tone, while A Place In the Sun maintains a greater sense of distance and mystery.

I never saw the earlier movie or read the book, so I donít know how they compare, but on its own, Sun presents a reasonably strong work, though I donít know if I agree with its elevated stature. Frankly, I think this is one of those films that earned its place on the AFI list mainly due to innovative factors at its time of release; the movie hasnít aged tremendously well, but I canít deny that it was something new and fresh 50 years ago.

Still, I thought the movie worked fairly well, and it kept me interested. Clift has a nice sense of doom and stupidity about him that served the lead role. I found him to seem worthy of compassion but also vaguely unlikable at the same time. George is not a clear-cut hero or villain, and that sense of vagueness is positive. Naturally we lean toward him; heís put in the protagonist role, and he feels like a traditional leading man. However, the characterís flaws come through clearly, and Clift plays George with a sense of desperation and moroseness that fit him.

Winters also offers a solid turn. Though she worked as a glamour gal prior to Sun, she frumped herself up good for the role, and it comes across appropriately. At times, she makes Alice seem a little too forceful; she probably should appear more weak and pitiful. Still, Winters does this with an attitude of emotional breakdown that seems logical; Alice is forced out of her wits to a degree, so the character alterations appear acceptable.

As for Taylor, sheís never been a favorite of mine. Actually, her minor turn in The Flintstones is the most enjoyable performance Iíve seen her give; the cartoon setting fit her acting style. Taylor certainly looks good as Angela; frankly, Iíve always felt her beauty to be overrated, but I still think she seems beautiful. Her performance is nothing special, but it appears adequate for the role, especially since she really doesnít need to be much more than a glamorous goal for George; any actual personality attributes are a plus, but theyíre not necessary.

Ultimately, I found A Place In the Sun to be an interesting but unspectacular work. After I wrote my comments, I checked out the movieís reception on IMDB. Usually older, well-regarded flicks like this get a rapturous reception, and indeed many folks think highly of it. However, I was surprised to note the relatively high number of outright pans; I canít recall a classic that got so many negative comments. Personally, I fall between the two camps; Sun didnít seem like a tremendous piece of work, but I thought it had something to offer.

The DVD:

A Place In the Sun appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though it displayed a moderate number of problems, Sun presented a fairly solid picture for a 50-year-old film.

Sharpness looked reasonably crisp and accurate. Some soft focus came into play during a few close-ups of Taylor. This seemed odd; I normally associate that technique with older actresses who want to hide flaws. Taylor was a teen at the time, so I seriously doubt she needed this kind of obscuring. However, it seems that most directors of the era did this; Hitchcock often featured it in his works, although I canít imagine Kim Novak in Vertigo or Tippi Hedren in The Birds really had too many flaws to cover. In any case, the technique only appeared a few times, and most of the film remained clear and accurate. Some jagged edges popped up at times, but I detected no problems with moirť effects.

Black levels appeared to be nicely deep and rich throughout the film, and contrast also looked precise and strong. Shadow detail came across as appropriately opaque but not excessively thick. Low-light sequences showed nice accuracy without any significant visibility concerns.

As one might expect from a 50-year-old movie, print flaws caused the most substantial problems, though they remained reasonably modest for a flick of this vintage. I saw the usual roster of issues. Some grain appeared, and I also witnessed speckles, grit, spots, and a few vertical lines. As a whole, however, I thought Sun offered a rather attractive image that often failed to betray the filmís age.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of A Place In the Sun adapted the original monaural mix, but it didnít stray far from the source. I detected some modest side and rear spread to the movieís score, but otherwise, I didnít hear any audio that moved from the center. Some minor effects ambience may have occurred, but if so, it stayed very modest, for I really didnít discern anything that moved from the center.

Audio quality appeared fairly typical for the era. Dialogue sounded somewhat thin and reedy, but speech remained acceptably distinct and it showed no problems related to intelligibility or edginess. Effects offered a relatively minor aspect of the mix, but they stayed clear and adequately realistic, though they offered little depth. Music fared a bit better, as the score showed modest dynamics. Of course the track never displayed great fidelity, but the music sounded surprisingly warm and rich at times.

Based on the above-related factors, I should have given the soundtrack of Sun a ďBĒ, because it worked considerably better than Iíd expect of a mix from 1951. However, the audio lost points due to some noise problems. The disc appeared quiet from the start, but as it progressed, background flaws became a more significant problem. These never were overwhelming, but I thought they seemed to be moderately distracting at times. As such, I felt I needed to lower my grade to a ďC+Ē; the soundtrack still appeared to be a little above average for the era, but the source defects caused a definite problem.

We find a decent roster of supplements on A Place In the Sun, starting with an audio commentary from associate producer Ivan Moffat and George Stevens Jr., the directorís son. The two were recorded together for this running, screen-specific piece. When they spoke, the track added a fair amount of solid information. They covered issues in regard to the storyís translation from the original novel, and they also went into concerns about the original 1931 version of the film. They also talked about production topics, story and character interpretation, and a mix of other issues.

Unfortunately, the commentary suffered from an excessive number of gaps. Quite a lot of the action passed without discussion, and the spaces grew rather large at times. For fans of the film, the material covered merits attention, but this was still a somewhat frustrating track.

In addition to the unintentionally funny trailer - which touts ďthree flaming young starsĒ, an appellation I think applied mainly to Clift - we get two interesting documentaries. The first deals mainly with Sun itself. George Stevens: His Place In the Sun focuses on the filmmaker but relates these details largely as connected to Sun. The 22-minute and 15-second program combines archival materials with interview snippets; it includes new clips from Stevens Jr., Moffat and Elizabeth Taylor plus 1983 bits from Shelley Winters.

I found this to be a pretty compelling piece. The program tosses in a nice little biography of the elder Stevens, and it goes into some solid details about Sun itself. Somewhat surprisingly, Taylorís remarks were the most interesting of the bunch. She related nice notes about her experiences on the flick, especially in regard to her relationship with Clift and the impact the experience of making Sun had on her career. Itís a solid little documentary that merits a look.

Next up is George Stevens: The Filmmakers Who Know Him, a 45-minute and 20-second discussion of Stevensí work by a slew of cinematic notables. Apparently filmed in 1983 for little Georgeís A Filmmakerís Journey - his tribute to dad - this program consists entirely of other folksí remarks about Big George. We hear from Warren Beatty, Frank Capra, Rouben Mamoulian, Joe Mankiewicz, Alan J. Pakula, Antonio Vellani, Robert Wise, and Fred Zinnemann. Each manís comments last between three minutes, six seconds (Mamoulian) and 11 minutes, 31 seconds (Pakula).

Not surprisingly, the statements from the older filmmakers relate mainly to their personal experiences with Stevens, while the younger men talk more about their feelings toward his work. While the former can be quite entertaining, the latter offer the greatest substance. I liked most of the material here, but the bits from Beatty and especially Pakula were the most compelling. All in all, this was a good package of information.

Across the board, A Place In the Sun was a solid DVD. The movie itself hasnít aged enormously well, but it remains a fairly intriguing and provocative piece. The disc itself offered reasonably positive picture and sound plus a surprisingly deep roster of extras. Classic film fans should be very pleased with A Place In the Sun, and others curious about this member of the AFI Top 100 also might want to give it a look.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.5555 Stars Number of Votes: 27
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