Director George Stevens' modern update of Theodore Dreiser's classic novel An American Tragedy stands as not only one of Hollywood's all-time great love stories, but also a searing indictment of America's post-World War II class system. Combining artistry, thought-provoking themes, and powerful, indelible performances from Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters, A Place in the Sun won six Oscars, including Best Director, and remains a riveting - and devastating - film experience. A brand new restoration faithfully honors this unforgettable movie that makes its long-overdue U.S. Blu-ray debut as part of the Paramount Presents series. No doubt about it, A Place in the Sun is Stevens' masterpiece and it comes very Highly Recommended.
When people find out I'm a film critic, they invariably ask me the dreaded question, "So, what's your favorite movie?" I always hesitate to answer because the motion picture I revere the most (and have since I was a teen a few decades ago) is 70 years old and largely unfamiliar to even the most ardent film fans. To avoid a lengthy explanation that will likely incite blank stares, I hem and haw a bit, then toss out a blockbuster title like Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, or The Godfather before quickly changing the subject. The wonderful forum I have at High-Def Digest, however, allows me the luxury of at last telling the world in hopefully not-so-tedious detail why my favorite movie of all time is hands down A Place in the Sun.
The fact that director George Stevens' blissfully romantic yet heartbreaking adaptation of the classic Theodore Dreiser novel An American Tragedy is one of the last Best Director Oscar winners to receive a Blu-ray release shows just how far under the radar A Place in the Sun has flown over the years. And for the life of me, I can't understand why. When I first saw the film as an impressionable 16-year-old in the late 1970s at a New York City revival theater (anyone remember Theater 80 St. Marks?), it devastated me...and it still devastates me to this day. I can't watch A Place in the Sun very often, because as much as I admire and adore this Best Picture nominee and winner of six Oscars, as much as I appreciate the brilliance of Stevens' lyrical, inventive, yet understated direction, as much as the intensity and subtle nuances of Montgomery Clift's masterful Oscar-nominated performance bowl me over, as much as the beauty of a 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in her first substantial role takes my breath away, and as much as their love scenes transcend anything I've seen on screen before or since, the story is too raw, real, and emotional. Like most tragic tales, you know where it's going, and as the story unfolds and wends its way toward its shattering denouement, it's tough to suppress the slightly sick feeling that creeps into the pit of your stomach. If you're at all like me, you'll want to jump into the screen and rescue the characters you've come to love, alter the inexorable events that control them, and secure for them a happy ending... but you're powerless.
Only a great film can provoke such a visceral emotional response, and without question, A Place in the Sun is one of the great films and Stevens' unequivocal masterpiece. The first in what would come to be known as the director's American trilogy, A Place in the Sun might not possess the same cachet as Shane and Giant, but it's far more impactful because of its tale's timeless nature. Most Hollywood love stories can rarely tear themselves away from gooey romantic scenes long enough to explore potent themes, but A Place in the Sun so deftly weaves important social issues into its emotional fabric, it's a wonder more films haven't copied its approach.
George Eastman (Clift), the poor son of religious zealots who run an urban mission, hitchhikes his way into a nameless town to call upon his (very) rich uncle, who has promised to give him a job at his swimsuit factory. Impressed by his uncle's staggering wealth, stratospheric social standing, and ritzy lifestyle, the ambitious, starry-eyed, yet introverted George hopes to rapidly move up the corporate ladder and ingratiate himself into his uncle's rarefied world. He starts at the bottom, though, and while working on the packing assembly line he espies the shy, lonely, somewhat dowdy Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). A bit of serendipity brings them together, and despite a strict company policy prohibiting employee dating, the two strike up a relationship that quickly becomes intimate.
A few weeks later, George's uncle promotes him and invites George to a party at his home. That's where George meets his dream girl, the glamorous debutante Angela Vickers (Taylor). Sparks instantly fly, but beyond the magnetic romantic attraction, Angela represents everything George wants - beauty, grace, fun, wealth, and status. To him, she's an ethereal goddess, and to her, he's a brooding, sensitive, noble knight who's far more substantive than the pampered playboys who populate her social circle.
With head-spinning alacrity, the two fall hopelessly and passionately in love, but just as George's future begins to brighten, dark clouds roll in. Alice announces she's pregnant and becomes consumed by shame and fear. She and George explore an illegal abortion, but when that door closes and she learns of George's illicit liaison with Angela, Alice demands George marry her immediately. And if he doesn't, Alice threatens to tell his snooty, judgmental family about their relationship...news that will surely destroy any chance of a happily ever after with Angela and life of comfort and affluence. Feeling trapped, broken, and desperate, George begins mulling some nefarious thoughts that might solve his impossible predicament and save his American dream.
A Place in the Sun stands apart from other romantic dramas because of the moral conflicts it so incisively examines and because Stevens makes sure we care deeply about all three characters in the love triangle. Yes, Alice evolves into a shrill, demanding harpy who drives George to the breaking point, but she's a decent person at heart and pathetic figure who earns our sympathy. Angela easily could be - and in most films would be - portrayed as a vapid, snotty, selfish, manipulative socialite, but instead she's sincere, sensitive, and blindly devoted to George. Ironically, the femme fatale in this noir-tinged tale isn't a woman at all, but rather American society, which taunts and tempts George by dangling golden carrots before him, then betraying him when the chips are down. An outsider looking in who desperately yearns not only for Angela, but also for success and acceptance, George isn't always likable, but we can empathize with his dilemmas and rue the intangible forces that drag him down.
Stevens, aided by a literate, Oscar-winning script by Michael Wilson (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Planet of the Apes) and Harry Brown, expertly juxtaposes the two worlds George must navigate and finesse. Lengthy dissolves - a process Stevens pioneered - delicately and poetically link Alice's drab working-class existence with Angela's glittery gilded life and George's humble, austere past with his rich, sensual present. Extreme close-ups highlight the intimacy and intensity of George and Angela's connection, while natural lighting - sometimes so dark you can barely discern the actors in the frame - heightens realism and represents the forces of doom swirling about George as the story progresses. William C. Mellor's Oscar-winning cinematography beautifully realizes Stevens' vision, while Franz Waxman's memorable Oscar-winning music score enhances the emotion on screen without cheapening it.
Of course, the film's most famous scene - when George and Angela first profess their love for each other - still stokes the senses and raises the temperature. Shot in close-ups so tight we feel engulfed by their passion, the sequence celebrates love in its most organic form, and as acted by such physically beautiful performers as Taylor and Clift (and enhanced by Waxman's swelling strings), it's impossible not to be swept away by the fiery emotions. When Taylor finally purrs, "Tell Mama. Tell Mama all," the sparks of passion ignite, resulting in a kiss so sensual, it's amazing it got by the censors. I've seen A Place in the Sun in a theater on more than one occasion over the years and invariably the breathless audience - so enraptured by this magnetic scene - audibly exhales en masse at its conclusion. Watch it below:
After my first viewing of A Place in the Sun oh-so-many years ago, Clift instantly became my favorite actor...and he has remained so to this day. His performance here ranks as unquestionably his finest, and that includes his unforgettable turns in such classics as From Here to Eternity, The Heiress, and Judgment at Nuremberg. Brimming with intensity, anguish, and an understated rawness that makes his every look, gesture, and line-reading feel authentic, Clift's riveting portrayal not only earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination (sadly, he would lose to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen), but also helped usher in a new style and era of naturalistic screen acting. Other noted Method performers like Marlon Brando and James Dean would follow his lead (some would label them "The Rebels"), but the quiet, introspective Clift stands apart. His peerless work in the pivotal rowboat scene (just watch as beads of sweat pop out and drip from his brow) is a performance master class, his penetrating gazes speak volumes, and his fantastic chemistry with both Taylor and Winters enhances the impact of their portrayals, too.
Before A Place in the Sun, Taylor was best known for riding a champion horse in National Velvet and cuddling with Lassie in two heartwarming tearjerkers. She was a movie star, not an actress, but Stevens and Clift helped her mature and instilled in Taylor a respect for her craft that would help propel her to enviable heights and eventually two Oscars. Her role pales when compared to Winters', but Taylor brings to it a surprising depth of feeling and irresistible sincerity, elevating what easily could have been a bland cardboard part. And was there ever a more ravishing screen couple than Taylor and Clift? Two gorgeous (and gorgeously photographed) specimens playing star-crossed young lovers...it just doesn't get more romantic than that. It's no wonder that of all Taylor's feature films, only Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? receive higher IMDb ratings than A Place in the Sun.
The film also marked a career turning point for Winters, who shed her blonde bombshell image to play the mousy, dowdy, pathetic Alice. Though Taylor steals the spotlight, Winters nabbed the laurels for her heartbreaking performance, earning a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination. (She lost to another tragic heroine, Vivien Leigh's Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.) Her tense, awkward, ultimately painful scene with a fatherly doctor who refuses to grant her an abortion, as well as her devastated look of abandonment and despair when she opens her mailbox and sees a newspaper photo documenting George's betrayal prove what a powerful and intuitive performer Winters could be and what a formidable force she would soon become.
Raymond Burr goes a bit overboard (apologies for the bad pun) as a scowling district attorney (his bombastic courtroom ravings strike the film's only sour note), but aside from his futile - and all too obvious - attempts to steal scenes from Clift, A Place in the Sun is practically a perfect film. Though it lost the Best Picture Oscar to the far more upbeat and uplifting An American in Paris (another in a long series of Academy Best Picture blunders), Stevens rightfully bested Vincente Minnelli for Best Director. Constructing a love story that combines burning passion with a deep spirituality and provocative social themes in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner without it seeming the least bit syrupy or hokey is no easy task, but with fluid, confident brushstrokes and a keen sense of human desires and frailties, Stevens creates a lasting and immensely affecting work of cinematic art.
Some movies you love in your youth lose their appeal as you age and gain life experience, but A Place in the Sun - at least for me - remains just as fascinating technically and just as involving and heartbreaking emotionally 40 years after my first viewing. Though it took Paramount far too long to bring this classic motion picture to Blu-ray (before its release, A Place in the Sun and Ordinary People were the only Best Director Oscar winners since 1935 that hadn't received a high-def upgrade), the studio has at last given Stevens' masterpiece its due, preserving it for future generations and treating this immortal film - a favorite of mine and countless others - like the treasure it most certainly is.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
A Place in the Sun, at last, arrives on Blu-ray as part of the Paramount Presents series. The disc and leaflet containing the digital copy code are packaged in a standard clear case inside a sleeve with a fold-out cover that reveals a reproduction of the movie's original poster art. While I love the fold-out sleeve, I'm not at all a fan of the drab cover art that aptly juxtaposes George's two conflicting relationships, but won't mean a thing to anyone who hasn't already seen the film. Memo to Paramount: When you've got such beautiful icons as Clift and Taylor in their youthful prime, you've gotta put their pictures on the cover. (Ironically, even their names - printed in black ink - disappear into the artwork's dark blue sky.) Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A Place in the Sun has always been a problematic home video title due to William C. Mellor's naturalistic, groundbreaking cinematography. At times excessively dark, Mellor's Oscar-winning black-and-white photography effectively reflects the story's tragic themes but has often looked murky on home displays. This new Paramount restoration tinkers with the existing image just enough to make it look better than ever before, but thankfully stops short of destroying its integrity. The result is a very satisfying 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that faithfully honors Mellor's artistry, but might put off those who expect their Golden Age movies to be impeccably lit and crystal clear. Sure, the romantic interludes between Clift and Taylor look lush and glamorous, but there's also a film noir grittiness that engulfs Clift and Winters during their tense scenes together. The dichotomy reflects both the turmoil in George's soul and how he views each relationship, but it also provides the viewer with striking, memorable imagery.
Grain is evident throughout, though of course, it's a bit more noticeable during darker scenes. At times, nocturnal shots can look a bit fuzzy, but because I've seen this film so many times (and more than once on the big screen) I can assure you that's how they've always appeared. Blacks are rich, Taylor's white party dresses and swimwear exhibit plenty of detail, and the nicely varied grays in between bring out background elements and provide a greater sense of depth. Shadow delineation is quite good, the silhouette shots are lovely, and though some viewers might complain about crush, most of those instances are the result of artistic choices by Stevens and Mellor. A few of the exteriors can seem a tad overexposed (especially the film's opening scene), but that's likely a slight compensation to allow the darker scenes the greatest degree of clarity.
Of course, the proof of this transfer's pudding lies in its close-ups of Clift and Taylor, two of the most beautiful specimens ever to grace the silver screen. I'm happy (relieved?) to report they're all breathtaking. Stevens employs plenty of tight shots and they all highlight the fabulous faces of the two icons. Taylor's creamy complexion accented by a distinctive beauty mark, the hair follicles on Clift's olive-toned cheeks, the scar on his neck, the beads of sweat that drench his face during the fateful rowboat scene, their eyebrows and lashes...all are crisply rendered and help make the story more immediate and impactful.
Fabric textures are wonderfully distinct, the rock-solid clothing patterns resist shimmering, and no nicks, marks, or stray lines mar the pristine source material. Because A Place in the Sun is my favorite movie, I viewed this transfer with a hyper-critical eye and am more than pleased with Paramount's efforts to preserve this classic film and present it in the best possible light. Is the transfer dazzling? Occasionally. Do I wish it was consistently dazzling? Of course! The film's limitations and artistic style, however, prevent that, and kudos to Paramount for not compromising the integrity of Stevens, Mellor, and one of Hollywood's most passionate and devastating love stories.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track doesn't pump out any noticeable surround effects, but supplies clear, well-modulated, and occasionally robust sound. (Why the original mono track is not included as an audio option remains a mystery.) Stevens focused intently on artfully employing sound throughout his career (some would call him a trailblazer), using it to heighten dramatic effect and drive home a narrative's themes. Shane and The Diary of Anne Frank are often cited as prime examples of his meticulous attention to audio elements, but A Place in the Sun flaunts a beautiful and effective soundscape as well.
Sonic accents like recurring sirens (both faint and blaring), speedboat engines, barking dogs, shattering glass, screams, the slamming of the oar on the boat in the courtroom, and the judge's banging gavel are crisp, while subtle atmospherics like wind, cooing loons, chirping crickets, and heavy breathing are wonderfully distinct. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Franz Waxman's glorious Oscar-winning score with ease, and all the dialogue - even when spoken in hushed tones - is easy to comprehend. No age-related hiss, pops, or crackle break the film's hypnotic spell and no distortion mucks up the mix. Sound is an important subliminal element in A Place in the Sun, and this track masterfully maximizes its impact.
In addition to a new assessment of A Place in the Sun by film historian Leonard Maltin, all the extras from the 2001 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release.
"Filmmaker Focus: Leonard Maltin on A Place in the Sun" (HD, 8 minutes) - The noted film historian examines the movie's themes, equates the film's dark look with the darkness of the story, celebrates Clift and his intense acting style, and praises the work of both Taylor and Winters. Photos and film clips augment Maltin's cogent comments.
Audio Commentary - George Stevens, Jr. and associate producer Ivan Moffat sat down for this absorbing and insightful 2001 commentary in which they share their respective recollections of the film's production. In addition to praising and analyzing his father's technique, some of which he classifies as "groundbreaking," Stevens, Jr. calls A Place in the Sun "a uniquely American story" and the main character of George Eastman one of his dad's typical "outsider" figures. He also discusses the "observing camera" at length and believes the stringent motion picture production code in place at the time strangely strengthens the story's impact. Moffat recalls how he came up with the film's title, addresses the casting of Winters, and points out how the film emphasizes romance over the novel's social themes. In addition, the two talk about the taboo issue of abortion, Stevens' trademark slow dissolves and penchant for many takes, and share several anecdotes. A few too many gaps are littered throughout, but this is still a worthwhile commentary that any fan of A Place in the Sun will enjoy and appreciate.
Featurette: "George Stevens and His Place in the Sun" (SD, 22 minutes) - Archival reminiscences from Taylor and Winters highlight this quality 2001 featurette that honors the Oscar-winning director of A Place in the Sun. A brief bio of Stevens, clips of the color documentary footage he shot during World War II, and memo excerpts also distinguish this piece, which also includes a look at the film's Oscar-winning costumes and interviews with Stevens, Jr. and Moffat. Winters recalls how she got Stevens to test her and the stress of filming the critical boat scene, while Taylor talks reverently about Clift and how he influenced her development as an actress.
"George Stevens: Filmmakers Who Knew Him" (SD, 45 minutes) - These outtakes from the fantastic 1985 documentary George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey feature remarks from such esteemed directors as Warren Beatty, Frank Capra, Rouben Mamoulian, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Alan J. Pakula, Antonio Vellani, Robert Wise, and Fred Zinnemann, all of whom praise Stevens' artistry, versatility, and commitment to his craft.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - A couple of alternate takes are included in this preview that promises A Place in the Sun "will take its place among the screen's immortal love stories." Rarely does such hyperbole come true, but in this case the words proved prescient.
One of Hollywood's greatest love stories also stands as one of the most devastating portraits of American society ever filmed. Though it took far too long for A Place in the Sun to make its way to Blu-ray, Paramount has finally given director George Stevens' enduring classic its proper due. A brand new restoration presents this beautiful film in the best possible light and allows us to fully absorb the affecting performances - and timeless allure - of Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters. Solid audio and all the extras from the 2001 DVD (along with a new featurette) enhance the appeal of this long-awaited release of a six-time Oscar winner that captures the heart and sears the soul. Highly Recommended.