Over at The Film Noir of the Week (what a site!) there is a discussion of whether or not George Stevens’ 1950 film, A Place in the Sun qualifies as noir or not. I see the point of the reviewer who thinks that it does, but I don’t buy it. To me, this is a great romantic melodrama, with a good dollop of dark social realism, but the main characters do not make it as noir for me: Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) is too vulnerable, unformed, and innocent; and George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) lacks any inner tension over his own moral failings. He has only guilt, and fear of being found out: he doesn’t live his contradictory morals as so many ‘flawed’ noir heroes do. I see this story as one of obsession and l’amour fou.
The set up for the entire film is right there at the start. George is hitchhiking on a highway, and gazes at the billboard advertising the swimsuits of his rich uncle’s factory, the one where he hopes to get a job and a lifeline to the good life. He’s left behind his deeply religious mother and the life of sidewalk missionaries.
A car goes by: a short-haired brunette is barreling past in a light convertible Cadillac. He follows it with his eyes, but it does not stop. As if by magic, when he turns back to face the oncoming traffic, a broken down jalopy with a ragged driver is stopped to give him a lift. He hesitates, looks down the road as if to see if anyone will see him getting into this heap or as if he is considering whether or not to go. He gets in, his posture saying, “It’s not what I want, but it will have to do.” Later we see him laughing and thanking the driver, but we know what he really wanted. He wanted to be in that Cadillac, and he is in love with the woman driving it. In love with her, whoever she is, and everything she and that car represent. His undoing is assured. He was fleeing God, and is hellbent for mammon.
The woman in that car sure looked like Angela Vickers; we cannot know for sure, but when George sees Angela in a chance encounter outside of his uncle’s factor where he is now employed, she and her car are a perfect match for it. He was already in love with the idea of her, but now he has the real thing. As he tells her later, “I loved you from the first moment I saw you.” Whether it was on the highway or in the parking lot, it hardly matters.
Some people see the arc of George’s tragedy (the film is a second attempt to adapt Theodore Dreiser’s book, An American Tragedy) as driven by his bad choices and obsession with achieving the American Dream of rising from the working class to the deluxe class of his frosty relatives. He is bright, and works to improve himself and generate ideas for the factory in his boarding house room where the name “Vickers” flashes at him endlessly from the roof of the nearby factory owned by Angela’s family – a visual ‘thought balloon’ of his preoccupations. He is lonely, and takes up with Alice, a poor factory girl played by Shelly Winters, and he gets her pregnant.
From this viewpoint, the story is essentially a morality tale of irresponsibility and the harsh way society deals with those who step out line in the class hierarchy or violate the rigid code of sexual morality. There is a lot of this there, and the social scenes are directed with great flair: Clift, always strikingly handsome, is nevertheless ‘invisible’ to the young women at his uncle’s house until they are instructed that he is ‘one of them.’ The contrast between the life of the upper crust and the factory workers is stark. The trial sequence, rather mechanical and overlong, despite Raymond Burr’s star turn as an limp-legged prosecutorial avenger, seals the deal: the rules must be obeyed!
But I don’t see the two young lovers as soul-mates. Neither understands the other. Angela is young, inexperienced, and vulnerable. At first, we see her as an air-head society girl, but she shows herself more genuine. George simply wants what he wants: money, leisure, sex, and the love of a beautiful rich woman. He is haunted, even scarred by his childhood with a pack of fire-and-brimstone evangelicals. (Hmmm… as my wife said, there’s nothing in this film that isn’t true today. When will there be a remake?)
During the mind-boggling claustrophobic scene of their first kiss, Angela says to George, struggling to explain his deepest hopes and fears, “Tell mama. Tell mama all…” Taylor reportedly balked at those lines, thinking them ridiculous, but Stevens knew better. Like lovers using baby talk as foreplay, they hint at the deep, deep psychological needs and drives that are bonding these two people together, and it’s not all that pretty to contemplate. Perfect l’amour fou.
When George walks down the hall to the electric chair, convicted of murdering Alice, a fellow convict tells him that maybe he’s going to a better world than this one. All George sees is that kiss. That was his better world.
A note about that title: the phrase a place in the sun, has always had overtones of nasty Darwinian struggle for me. Plants, and more advanced living things struggle for the sunlight. The phrase is also associated with a major change in Germany’s foreign policy in the late 19th century, when the Kaiser switched from Bismarck’s Realpolitik to his own Weltpolitik. Bismarck was not much interested in colonies, but Wilhelm, wanting to keep up with his cousins on the throne in England, had his foreign minister declare, “We have no wish to put others in shadow, be we also claim our place in the sun“. Well, we know what Willy’s dreams led to.
George Stevens was deeply affected by is experience in Germany during WWII. Could there be a connection..?