A Place in the Sun ★★★★½

There are two films that changed the world. Just two. They were both released in 1951 and both leading men were nominated for an Oscar. Neither won. Yet together, they reinvented acting. Together, they altered the course of film history. They may just be the most important actors of all time. Their names are Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. They are the stuff legends are made of.

A Streetcar Named Desire was Brando’s springboard and he transformed the film into a tour de force of bravado-naturalism. Brando was loud and abrasive. He was virile and he was authentic. Most of all, he was booming and emotionally unpredictable. It’s easy to see how Brando’s performance would inspire so many around the world. Interestingly, A Place In the Sun is nearly antithetic. Montgomery Clift’s performance is incredibly different from Brando’s, yet it is still equally monumental. Yeah, Brando could scream and yell. I get it, Marlon Brando liked to make noise. Montgomery Clift did not. What Brando could only express with a roar, Clift could do in complete silence. Brando’s rage inspired young men everywhere to pursue acting. Clift’s quietness taught them how.

Montgomery Clift was the cinema’s most beautiful loser. How a man so handsome and so talented could also be so absolutely and uniquely damned is one of film’s most poetic mysteries. A Place In The Sun is Clift at his most patient and disturbed. He plays a young man named George Eastman. Clift brings to George a tender, troubled quality that seems to imply self hatred. Clift’s character, though he never quite says it, is obsessed with suicide. In the film, Clift compartmentalizes everything. Nothing can interact with other pockets of his social and work life. He doesn’t mean to live two lives, he just wishes one would end if another, better life made itself available. Clift is impulsive and innocently, perpetually lovestruck. A dreamer without soul. He always seems so far away. Like something that’s been recently hollowed out. Clift expresses just how easily humiliated he is when forced to decompartmentalize. There is nothing more embarrassing for him than having to divulge information that is only pertinent to a certain, alternate category of people. Clift has been trying to divide everything in his life into neat sections. In his mind, they simply cannot cross-contaminate socially. When they inevitably do, his perfect compartmentalization comes undone, and with it, his abstract humanity. He had hoped to cultivate a strong persona. His different lives should have granted him that much. But they didn’t. Clift’s character still doesn’t belong anywhere. Sometimes he has horrible posture, an apt physical metaphor for those moments before you’ve completely blended into a new social setting and haven’t quite learned their special poses. He has a very strange disposition, one that is far more disturbing than he ever really lets on. Clift’s character is disarranged in the most desperate way possible. He is in love but he hates himself. All of his selfs.

Clift’s craft is of an immaculate precision. When he raises his voice, and this is only done once or twice, it’s as if a sonic boom thunders through your entire house. Clift’s acting was wholly extraordinary. His nuance and subtlety reinvented nuance and subtlety. It is his tenderness that is still unmatched. That orphaned remoteness, still without equal. When Clift wants to break you heart, he always cripples your spirit first. Clift makes you transcend. Every role of Clift’s can only be truly observed vicariously. If you don’t live the film with Clift, he’ll forever remain just out of reach. It’s his uncanny genius that propels this film. His even-tempered tour de force is more about cruelty than commentary.

Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters provide excellent targets for Clift’s peculiar passivity. Taylor is as beautiful and exquisite as ever. She and Clift have a phenomenal chemistry. Between them existed something palpable, passionate, and real. More real than it’s narrative boundaries were able to satisfy. There was something truly wild about their hearts. Something different, stirring, and heart-wrenching.

Though A Place In The Sun is technically unremarkable, save for a handful of elegant deep focus shots of Taylor, it is still a very good film. It is an actor’s film, not a director’s. It is a character study of a romantically, socially, and personally mortified young man. It is a film about humiliation within social stratification. It is an expertly acted melodrama. The film literally revolves around three distinct performances. In the end, it is utterly dominated by the softest one. Fevered and impassioned, A Place In The Sun is positively mesmerizing at times. I was ensnared by Clift’s staggering portrayal. It is a jigsaw. The plot’s the easy part. The character is the puzzle here. For every image molded, a larger one expands. A Place In The Sun blossoms still.

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