Hollywood’s beautiful people: A Place in the Sun

In the Oscar-winning tragedy A Place in the Sun, Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor play lovers from different sides of the tracks. Is this – as Geoff Andrew suggests – one of Hollywood’s most ravishing pairings?

Watching A Place in the Sun (1951) again, for the first time in many years, to see whether it might be suitable for a rerelease to coincide with our Montgomery Clift season at BFI Southbank, I was struck by a number of things.

First, the answer to the question of whether it deserved a revival – an immediate, unqualified ‘yes’. The film, seldom seen on the big screen these days, is very strong indeed. I was hooked from the start, gripped throughout and very moved by the end. It felt more adult, much more honest than most Hollywood love stories, because it steered clear of cuteness and sentimentality and overheated romanticism. Those qualities are sometimes enough, but usually it’s the subtler, more understated, less determinedly feelgood movies that hit hardest, for this writer at least.

Second, I recalled that this terrific movie, adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, was directed not by one of the great auteurs but by George Stevens. True, he made many lovely films in the 30s and 40s, including comedies, musicals, light romance and nostalgic Americana like Alice Adams (1935), Annie Oakley (1935), Swing Time (1936), The Talk of the Town (1942) and Woman of the Year (1942). But he’s better known for the later Shane (1953), which I always thought overrated, and increasingly portentous fare like Giant (1956), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).

James Dean in George Stevens’ Giant (1956)

Made in 1951, between the charmingly cosy recreation of an earlier age in I Remember Mama (1948) and Something to Live For (1951), reputedly a rather clumsy, overblown look at alcoholism, A Place in the Sun was perhaps something of a turning point in Stevens’ career. While it deals with issues – sex, money, class, criminality – that are as ‘serious’ as those found in his later films, it does so with a lightness of directorial touch more in tune with some of his earlier work.

Something to note: the great Josef von Sternberg also filmed a version of Dreiser’s novel, in 1931, but against the odds, and notwithstanding the fine first half of the earlier film, Stevens made the better movie. It feels strangely modern in the way it’s shot and edited, while the ending – different from Dreiser’s – is almost Bressonian.

The third thing that struck me was the sheer physical beauty of its two leads and how Stevens used that to reinforce the mood of rapt, irresistible sexual desire that fuels the film. Of course, Hollywood stars were generally supposed to be good-looking, but there are some – perhaps at a particular point in their lives, or lit and made up in a certain way in just a single film – who succeed in transcending even Tinseltown’s abiding obsession with attractive physiognomy.

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951)

Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in Stevens’ film certainly belong in that pantheon. Other Hollywood examples, off the top of my head, would include Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in Morocco, 1930; Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in Notorious, 1946; Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster in The Killers, 1946; Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past, 1947; and maybe, just maybe, old Bogie and young Bacall in The Big Sleep – funny how the now almost lost art of black and white cinematography feels essential to this!

Stevens wisely makes the most of his stars, using long, lingering close-ups of the couple’s unforgettably lovely faces to create an almost unsettlingly authentic portrait of the complexities of human passion. And in so doing, he gave Taylor and Clift their very own place in the sun.

Hollywood’s beautiful couples

Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in Morocco (1930)
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