Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Place in the Sun. (1951) George Stevens

A Place in the Sun has its moments, but it has its problems, too.

Stevens won an Oscar directing the film in '51, and for the life of me, I can't see why. Most of the film's problems stem directly from the top, to the overseeing of production and technical aspects, the job of a film's director.

The film also took home an award that night for "Black and White Cinematography," and that, is just plain absurd. Also nominated in the B&W category that year were A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, The Frogmen and Strangers on a Train. I'm only familiar with two of those and it's been a long time since I've seen them, but I can't imagine their cinematography was any worse than A Place in the Sun; that it won suggests that promotional campaigns then might have been as fierce as they are now.

A Place in the Sun is so uninventive in its lensing as to leave actors' backs to the camera for minutes at a time with no narrative reason or rhyme. It also fails to bring light to quite a few of its darkened scenes, thinking that the lighting of a cigarette or the fact that there's a small bit of light in an open window is somehow a measure of success in dealing with nighttime shots. It isn't. Viewing these scenes today feels like the film was edited without looking at it; for it to receive an award for its visual presentation is laughable.

The story riffs on Sunrise, the 1927 silent by F.W. Murnau. Both films are about a man trapped between two women, with his responsibility leaning toward one but his sense of love and freedom leaning toward the seductive other. Both films have a rowboat incident in which the tense male lead has to decide whether or not to pitch his old flame overboard. Both are also about the fallout -- neither of the men following through with the crime -- but Sunrise is a tender, classy tale of temptation and betrayal and the ultimate test of loyalty, whereas A Place in the Sun is mostly meaningless schmaltz. It made quick cash for Paramount Pictures appealing to a mostly female fan base, but other than the women who saw it and are still alive, the film has been largely forgotten, and rightfully so.

For the record, even twenty-five years earlier Murnau knew how to light nighttime scenes. I've seen both films on the big screen, and I'll forever remember Sunrise as one of the all-time achievements in cinema -- nevermind the fact that it is a silent.

A Place in the Sun I hope to remember for Elizabeth Taylor, but even she might disappear into the lost jungle of my memory banks.

The reason I darted out of the house to catch the film on the big screen was that I'd just finished ripping on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and truth be told I was feeling bad for Liz. She's had a hard life, at least lately, and I've never written about her before lambasting a film she starred in in the sixties. I don't know too much about Taylor other than knowing about her failed marriages (and who can possibly not know that?), and of the friend she was to Michael Jackson all the way to his early demise. I've got youth on my side in my lack of Taylorian knowledge, but as a film guy it's a turd in my closet.

She was radiant in this film. Gorgeous, intelligent, and headstrong, she filled the role as best it could be done. She was radiant.

I suppose there was a time when she was radiant in general. I'll try to keep this in mind for continued investigation as I check out films from when she was lovely and young, and not the drunk I so despised in Virgina Woolf -- a film I am still trying hard to simply forget.

It's not that A Place in the Sun is horrible from beginning to end. Like I said, it has its moments. It's just not the film I was thinking it was, with all the awards and accolades I've seen along the way.

But the last half hour, which goes on into eternity, made me constantly fidget in my seat like my pants were still wet from a short run in the dryer. It's a 120 minute film that could have have easily wrapped at 90 minutes and not lost any of the steam it had built up to that point. It was at that point in the story that the male lead, played by a rather boring and dull (read for the ladies: mystique!) Montgomery Clift, was arrested in the woods and carted off to jail. Hitchcock would have abruptly ended the film right there, and he would have been right in doing so. Instead we get Raymond Burr as a prosecuting attorney (wasn't he just an investigative cop a few scenes before?), and a whole new film about the courts and juries and the penal system and the death penalty. We transition from some type of a love story -- or, rather a "caught between loves" story -- to Dead Man Walking, and wow, is that last half hour a total waste.

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