In adapting Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy for the screen, director George Stevens was faced with the difficulty of making the novelist’s grimly naturalist tale of class warfare interesting to a 1950s audience more eager for entertainment than political instruction.
His solution was brilliantly effective: to emphasise the erotic longings of George Eastman (Clift) for the beautiful Angela Vickers (Taylor).
A poor relation of a rich industrialist, George is sent to the man by his mother so that he can make good. But George, dominated by feelings of deprivation and exclusion, shows neither the drive nor the initiative to work his way up from the bottom.
In fact, he is so weak that he has barely begun to work at the factory when he violates one of its cardinal rules. Dating a fellow employee, he ends up impregnating the poor, desperate woman, in whom he has already lost interest.
Played as a kind of pathetic naïf by Clift, George’s principal asset becomes his beauty and gentleness. A Place In The Sun thus became one of classic Hollywood’s most touching and tragic romances – a result of Stevens’s careful coaching of the principals (who were told to emphasise body language rather than dialogue) and his artful manipulation of two contrasting styles.
George’s fairy-tale encounter with the innocent Angela is dominated by intimate camerawork, especially carefully juxtaposed close-ups composed in soft focus.
Scenes in the factory, with his first girlfriend Alice (Winters), and later in the courtroom, however, are photographed in a film noir style, emphasizing chiaroscuro lighting and unbalanced compositions that nicely express the threat circumstances pose to George’s desire for his “place in the sun”.
Pregnant, Alice threatens to expose George to his family if he doesn’t marry her. He is saved from this fate only because the town hall is closed for a holiday when the couple arrives.
George suggests a lake outing in a small boat – his intention is that there should be an “accident” and that Alice will drown. He cannot go through with the murder, but then Alice, frightened, tips over the boat.
She drowns because George doesn’t try to save her, and he pays with his life for his indifference.