A Place in the Sun ★★★★★

Rich/poor. Innocent/Guilty. Virtue/Sin. Modest/Sexy. Day/Night. The dualities dominate George Stevens' masterpiece, A PLACE IN THE SUN.

Montgomery Clift plays George Eastman, a poor young boy from Chicago who gets a new lease on life when his rich businessman uncle invites him west to take a job in the family company. George is respectful, thoughtful, and ambitious. He's also stupid. On his first day at the job, he is told that one of the company's most strict policies is that men and women working for the company do not date. So, of course George falls into the arms of a mousy employee named Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). It's a tragedy waiting to happen.

Tragedy strikes in the form of the stunning Elizabeth Taylor as Angela Vickers, a wealthy debutante who wins George's heart after poor Alice has won the unenviable role of George's baby mama. Alice expects to be married to preserve her integrity. George is afraid of losing his job and having to start over, and of losing the love of Angela. It's quite a predicament for the young man, leading him to a rather ambiguous solution.

Stevens' film was a remake of AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY in 1931. That film flopped, so Paramount was initially wary about giving Stevens another go around. But Stevens assured them the problem was the original didn't stick closely enough to Theodore Dreiser's source material. They let him shoot the film in 1949. It was scheduled for release, but when Paramount realized that SUNSET BLVD. would be their award-winning blockbuster in 1950, they postponed the release of A PLACE IN THE SUN by a year. Many took it as a sign that the movie was a wreck, but instead it positioned the film to be its own Oscar juggernaut. A PLACE IN THE SUN was a major hit for the studio. It was nominated for 9 Academy Awards and won 6, including Best Director for George Stevens.

A PLACE IN THE SUN was quite deserving of its accolades. On the surface it is a seedy melodrama about a confused young man in love with two women. Underneath that surface is a powerful film about the derailment of the American Dream. Clift's performance is the best of his career as he reveals that the true American tragedy is ambition at the expense of the soul. The more Eastman is driven by his desire to improve his station in life, both professionally and personally, the more he loses touch with his real self. It's a theme that runs deep in the heart of this film.

In addition to the resonant themes, A PLACE IN THE SUN also has a remarkable performance by Shelley Winters. Before she was cast as Alice, she was mostly typecast as sexpot characters; she tricked Stevens into casting her by asking for a meeting at the Hollywood Athletic Club in which she showed up, unannounced, as a plain young woman and waited until he was about the leave before introducing herself. Ironically, after playing this Oscar nominated role, she was forever typecast as dowdy, timid types.

And then there's Elizabeth Taylor. For as strong as Clift and Winters are, Taylor barely has to do anything to stoke the flames of passion. She was never more beautiful than in this picture, wearing Edith Head's remarkable costumes. Like Marilyn Monroe, Taylor made love to the camera, and it's impossible not to understand here why Clift's character falls madly in love with her. From the moment she picks up a pool cue, she has him -- and us -- in the palm of her silky hands.

A PLACE IN THE SUN is golden age Hollywood at its best -- thematically arresting, scintillating, gorgeous to look at. When it comes to enjoyment, there is no duality.