Steven's Dark Sun Turns Noir at the Castro
Last Sunday I ventured to the fabulous Castro Theater in San Francisco to take in a showing of director George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, an intriguing reworking and updating of Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” I’ve long harbored conflicting feelings regarding this seminal 1951 work, and therefore viewing this Sun has always been a frustrating, fascinating experience. The film was considered a work of major significance upon its release, with Charlie Chaplin calling Sun the greatest film about America ever. The film may not hold up to that lofty praise nearly sixty years later (or even that year, with A Streetcar Named Desire, Strangers on a Train, Ace in the Hole, The African Queen and others also in the running), but it remains a worthwhile, absorbing drama. Curiously, although I’ve never heard of the movie categorized as a film noir, it was deemed one on this occasion, as Sun closed the Castro’s eight annual Noir City Film Festival. Sun does contain a lot of dark themes and darker cinematography, but in tone and presentation the movie fits the description of a large-scale drama more aptly than that of a bleak noir.
I’ve never attended one of the previous noir festivals, and therefore I innocently Barted over from Oakland expecting to find a relatively small audience for the matinee showing of Sun. When I reached the theater, the line was at the end of the block, and I ended up being lucky enough to find a decent seat in the balcony just before show time (kudos to the Castro’s extremely well-organized concession stand workers, who zipped through the long line of popcorn patrons in record time). Watching Sun on a big screen for the first time increased my fondness for the movie, but also highlighted some of the film’s problems. Overall, it was a rewarding and memorable experience to watch the film unfold amid a packed house of Sun worshippers.
Stevens’ firm hand is clearly guiding every aspect of this production. It’s easy to admire his serious commitment to his films, as it’s clear Stevens cares deeply about the quality of these ambitious productions; however, he frequently over-emphasizes his themes, as if he doesn’t believe an audience will understand his key plot points otherwise. Sun contains some prime examples of the director’s tendency towards overstatement, with those constant overlapping dissolves and continual loon calls growing tiresome with their important overtones, until one wants to call out to the screen, “Alright George, we get it already!” (I’ll take the less contrived, and more entertaining Alice Adams, Gunga Din or The More the Merrier over any of Stevens “big” studio offerings). Still, Stevens total involvement in and control of Sun also draws viewers in quickly, and maintains their rapt attention until the film’s final fadeout/dissolve two hours later, as well as during repeated viewings of the movie.
Montgomery Clift was nearing his peak as an actor and star attraction in Sun, with the emphasis on attraction. He’s so ungodly handsome, the first time he turns towards the camera during the film’s memorable opening, it brought cheers and hubba-hubba whistles from the large audience. More importantly, Clift had swiftly established himself as possibly the finest young actor in films by 1951, and his ultra-sensitive performance as George Eastman puts the audience on the wayward character’s side from the get-go. When George is on the stand pleading for his life, Clift is so mesmerizing, fragile and convincing the character’s guilt or innocence becomes a non-factor: no one wants to see this man punished, even if it might be true George’s opportunism knows no bounds. Although his engrossing work may pale somewhat in comparison to his even more realistic and dynamic portrayals in The Search, The Heiress and From Here to Eternity, as George Clift admirably epitomizes the hero as anti-hero soon to become a staple in Hollywood films.
The role of Alice Tripp, a plain, naïve factory worker George becomes involved with, afforded Shelley Winters the opportunity to shun her glamorous image as a sexy, good-natured blonde and reinvent herself as a character actress of substantial stature. However, although she has some vivid moments as Alice, Winters and Stevens tend to overplay the victimization of the character, in a ploy to guarantee the audience’s utmost sympathy. In her early scenes Winters does a good job of illustrating Alice’s shyness and genuine feelings for George, managing to make the character sweetly appealing, but once their relationship begins to sour, in look and manner Winters’ Alice becomes progressively more pathetic (and Winters is deglamourized to such an extent that Alice’s physical appearance comes across as a doleful gimmick more than a natural aspect of the character). However, Winters incorporates a pallid, indistinct quality into the performance that is intriguing to watch, especially in the tour-de-force scene wherein Alice visits a doctor in an attempt to obtain an abortion (this moment sealed the deal for Winters’ Best Actress nomination). Winters is certainly playing against type as this introverted, insecure working girl, but it’s a relief when Alice finally gets fed up with George’s neglect and starts taking charge of matters, as Winters’ acting becomes much more persuasive when she employs the vivid, direct style found in her most successful work. You can believe Alice has the fortitude to convince George to stick by her, even with the luscious Elizabeth Taylor providing an alluring obstacle, as when Winters is doling out ultimatums, she’s a force to be taken seriously.
The rich, beautiful Angela Vickers serves as a stark contrast to drab, forlorn Alice as an object for George’s affections: as Angela, the teenage Elizabeth Taylor is composed, mature and compassionate in one of her best performances. Even though Alice is obviously the film’s cast-aside victim whose plight we’re intended to strongly identify with, Taylor is so touchingly believable it’s easy for an audience’s sympathy to shift towards this affluent-yet-vulnerable ethereal girl destined for heartbreak. Angela’s final meeting with George is probably the saddest, most heartfelt scene in the movie, and Taylor’s gentle, poignant acting is indelible and very moving. George encounters many trials, both figuratively and literally, in an attempt to establish a life with his true love, and Angela is definitely worth the trouble. Furthermore, Clift and Taylor generate great erotic chemistry, creating one of the screen’s most achingly romantic couples, with those huge Stevens close-ups and Franz Waxman’s lush score generously assisting this once-in-a-lifetime teaming (of course Clift and Taylor costarred later, but not like this).
Raymond Burr has a showy role as Frank Marlowe, the powerhouse district attorney who goes after George, but his intensity is often rendered in an overwrought fashion. Although Burr is obviously well cast, with flamboyant courtroom scenes that serve as a warm up for his forthcoming glory days as Perry Mason, in manner and action Burr attacks and/or is directed to attack the role using an unsubtle, heavy-handed method, resulting in some unintended guffaws from the audience as this bullish D.A. takes down the sincere, humble George in savage manner (Burr appears ready to bite Clift at any given moment during their key courtroom confrontation). An attempt to add some more realistic human dimensions to this unrelenting character would have been welcome.
Small touches I’ve never noticed on a television screen leaped out from the pristine print on view at the Castro (Paramount Studios may not distribute their classics with the verve of Warner Home Video, but they sure manage to keep their older titles looking fine): the bespeckled Laura Elliot/Kasey Rogers showing up as Miss Harper, saying “Yes Sir,” then vanishing from the picture a lot faster but less fatally than she does in Strangers on a Train; Kathleen Freeman working on the factory line wherein George first encounters Alice; Ivan Moffat, Sun’s associate producer, featured on the poster as the producer of the movie playing at the theater where George runs into Alice; and that painting of Ophelia in George’s room, which ominously foreshadows George and Alice’s destiny.
Sun won six Academy Awards (although the Oscars, in a rare lighter moment, chose the colorful An American in Paris over Sun and Streetcar for Best Picture) and was a major box-office success, thereby cementing its status as one of the keystone films of the early 1950’s. Time has been kinder to some of the other signature films of the period but, to varying degrees, Sun features interesting work and early career peaks for its three stars, and stylistically offers viewers possibly the most perfect example of what constitutes a George Stevens production.
The festival's terrific poster: