Film noir…or not film noir? The question seems to nag this movie like a toothache.
Which I have to say is baffling to me. It’s hard to imagine a film in which fate lays its hand upon a protagonist more heavily than it does in A Place in the Sun. Having just watched it again, I’m convinced more than ever that the movie's depiction of young lives tragically disrupted is truly, deeply noir-stained.
But let’s start at the beginning.
George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) is a young man from a working-class background who’s been given a chance to get ahead thanks to a wealthy family connection. But from the moment we see him hitching a ride to his new job, we know he’s not going to have an easy time of it.
Clearly ambitious, George covets the American Dream. But though he’s attractive and personable and shares a respected name, he’s not readily accepted by the Eastmans and their circle. Nor is he able to make friends with his co-workers since his uncle has forbidden social contact between family and employees. George becomes infatuated with one of the smart set, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), who chooses to ignore him or just doesn’t see him. Disillusioned, he falls into a relationship with Alice Tripp, a factory girl who’s as lonely as he is. Played by Shelley Winters, she’s a plain but friendly young woman who clearly relishes the attention.
George for a time seems content with it all. Though he’s uneasy flouting his uncle’s rules, he feels he’s not doing badly – he has a steady job, some money to spend, a room, a car, a girl, perhaps a future. It’s a far cry from living at his mother’s mission, finishing his schooling at home, and working as a bellhop.
But then fate begins to show its ultimately deadly hand. At the moment that George and Alice’s relationship becomes intimate, his uncle promotes him and invites him – now as one of them - to the Eastman home. He’s formally introduced to Angela who now sees him as an Eastman. She flirts shamelessly with him and the attraction between these two impossibly beautiful people is immediate and intense.
However, it doesn’t take long for things to start to unravel. Alice announces to George that she’s pregnant and although at first he insists that he’ll marry her, he begins to retreat from her as he’s drawn further into the Eastman circle and to Angela. His place in the sun, now tantalizingly close, is all he can think about. Alice, angry at being neglected, threatens to tell all and undo the idyllic romance. George is distraught. His relationship with Alice is now the only barrier to the fulfilment of his dream. He feels that the fates are conspiring to send his life spiraling out of control. However, what he thinks of as ‘the fates’ could be his own moral frailty – the actions he’s taken, the choices he’s made, and his inability to deal with the consequences.
But then Angela suddenly provides George with what he thinks could be a solution to his problem. In passing, she mentions a drowning at the lake. He listens carefully. Angela has become an accidental femme fatale who causes him to stumble into a classic dead-end street where murder looks like the only way out. George moves ahead with a plan to kill Alice, but it’s hastily conceived and it’s clear that he’s ill-equipped to commit such a crime.
He takes Alice rowing on the lake but what happens is not what he’d planned. At the critical moment, he’s unable to kill her. Then Alice accidentally stumbles and falls into the water. Panic-stricken, unable to swim, she will drown. George has a chance to save her (as well as himself) but is unable or unwilling to do so and Alice dies – exactly as he’d wanted.
What is George to do? He could report the accident and face up to the consequences. But if he did report it, would anyone believe him? He had set out with the intention of killing Alice and given his premeditation, his innocence might be hard, if not impossible, for him to argue. The line between guilt and innocence is blurred at best. We know Alice had told George that she was afraid of water and couldn't swim. We see his reaction to Angela’s telling of the drowning at her lake. We watch him listen to the news report on weekend accidents with aroused interest. We listen to him lie to Alice with greater frequency and ease. We feel his anticipation as a plan takes form. And in the end, Alice dies because he makes no attempt to save her.
With his religious upbringing, George knows that guilty thoughts count as much as guilty deeds. There is no way out – he is doomed and he knows it. With scarcely a word in his own defense, he succumbs to the inevitable - capture, trial, condemnation. Unwilling to act to save his intended victim’s life, he’s unable to move to save his own. His loss of moral certainty, his vision of himself as the victim (rather than Alice or even Angela), and his inability to see the inevitable and tragic consequences of his actions place him at the very center of the noir universe.
Visually, A Place in the Sun registers as high noir. High-contrast lighting and multiple off-angle camera shots emphasize the drama’s overwhelming sense of despair. In one striking scene, George is on the first day of his new job only the morning after Alice has told him she’s pregnant. The film’s director George Stevens frames his interiors to suggest George trapped in a cage – an indication of his state of mind and a foreshadowing of the prison cell waiting. Stevens even subverts our appreciation of exteriors of great natural beauty, rendering them ominous and ill-disposed.
Costuming in A Place in the Sun also is central to its sense of noirness. Angela is dressed either in white or in black depending on whether she’s seen as part of George’s place in the sun or conversely as the catalyst for Alice’s death. George is dressed in light tweeds on his first visit to the Eastman family and is both dwarfed by the chair in which he is sitting and made invisible by the pillars and grandeur of the home. However, as he is accepted into that social circle, George’s clothing becomes darker and he increasingly dominates the scene.
A Place in the Sun is based on Theodore Dreiser’s epic novel, An American Tragedy, which runs over a 1,000 pages. Stevens replaces the sweep and detail of the novel with an intensity and focus that charts George’s incremental progression from an innocently ambitious young man to a confused, guilt-ridden wretch condemned for murder. As he’s led to his execution, his fellow inmates express the hope that he’s headed for a better world than the one he has known. Ironically, he was just beginning to know how good his world could have been. A place in the sun could have been his if he hadn’t been so blinded by the desire for it that he was prepared to do anything, even murder, to attain it. How could anything be more noir than that?