a place in the sun (1951)
One of the more quietly brilliant pieces of work from the early 1950's, Stevens' A Place in the Sun is a genre mashup on the surface and a deep dive into the subconscious dreamscape for much of its runtime. Its romance practically falls away into film noir and procedural yet never ceases its shifting until the end. The beauty of Stevens' images is what we're left with throughout, the beauty of Taylor, of Winters, of Clift and those high contrast closeups, voyeuristic in their imperfections. Taylor at one moment gasping, "are they watching us?" and fleeing the gaze of the audience. Deeper and deeper we dive into private worlds, private thoughts, the deepest of love and desire, all feelings we can never share suddenly laid naked in front of the judgmental eyes of a jury, the press, family. A Place in the Sun is as much classic Hollywood romance as it is Freudian fever dream. It is Stevens' readiness to dive into unabashed desires and fears that form the backbone of the picture, the ambitious youth riddled with insecurity, the high anxiety of coming of age in an era when all dreams are attainable and the upward climb of the American capitalist ladder is just in reach. The peasant who finds himself in the palace with the princess, Clift anchors the entire proceeding with an earnest performance, watching him quietly unfold George Eastman is a revelation and brings much of the gravitas to a a deep internal struggle that Stevens' smartly chooses not to over-indulge in, allowing him to emote most in darkness or when his back is turned to the camera. It is this delicate balance of honesty that allows A Place in the Sun to resonate with all of its power, choosing dream logic against all else, catching us in the whirlpool, the stiflingly ordinary factory floor and tweed suits dissolving into the champagne and tuxedos of the upper class. Stevens' key use of dissolves and overlays brings artistry and beauty to otherwise traditionally-shot sequences. A Place in the Sun is a triumph of craft and care taking over in cinema to blend the screen dream beyond anything the script could possibly convey.
Where Stevens' excels most is in precocious feelings of love erupting in a beautiful honesty, those first raw feelings, perhaps the first time truly experienced. "I love you too. It scares me" confesses Taylor "But it is a wonderful feeling". Like no other romance film A Place in the Sun paints these moments with grace. Lovers on the run from the world, always emoting their ambitions to leave all else behind and exist in a private world with the lover for eternity. Winters' hope that, as they float alone on a lake, the rest of humanity might vanish so that when they return they'll be the only two people left in the world. The perfect dichotomy of desire and crushing reality. The impulses of youth and a world that feels too big to possibly contend with. Our three leads are equally tragic figures, of course, as each are caught in the legacy of their birth, the expectations of those around them, their own desires. Like all great 50's movies about youth, they are glorified as the raw innocence of the human being, caught in a world they did not create and traveling down a dark path to contend within it. Poverty to Clift's Eastman sounds like a death sentence, the rigors of religious upbringing seem to have left him numb and uninitiated with the world around him. His yearning for survival in all senses, a desire to live and love condemn him, an evasion of responsibility, a selfish callousness and above all a deep and unsettling confusion for the truth of his own actions. As the internal human experience is suddenly translated into an external "all the facts" courtroom depiction, we see the senseless act of judgement over another's life. Just as he's been tested and re-tested by his elders to gain him access to the house on the hill he so desperately wants to enter, it is the females in his life who seem to bring unconditional love in stark contrast. A Place in the Sun could of course be unpacked as a depiction of a boy without a father, endlessly appealing to father figure types for acceptance, even the state prosecutor fills this role. A Place in the Sun is best left to the cinematic senses, the emotional highs of each punctuated burst of raw feeling, the deep dark parts of the mind displayed in full. Lust in all of its beautiful and gruesome detail plague the film, and the expressionist imagery find a deft balance of heightened representation and verite. It is this balance of the altogether unpolished and the highly crafted that combine to the film's power.
The film concludes in a sequence that is equally quiet in its tragedy, as with the rest of the film, a cathartic and satisfying blend of melancholy, a love that can never be. Though they were for an instant, Taylor's utterance of "Seems like we always pend the best part of our time just saying goodbye" that provides the perfect summation of one of the screen's best love stories. Tragic love trumps the happy ending here. In lieu of a triumphant conclusion, Stevens' rightly gives us feeling, in lieu of logic, Stevens' gives us passion. This is the essence of A Place in the Sun, a film that favors the beautiful moment over the sensible story or the moral road taken, it is a tale told with fervor of the pitfalls of falling into ones' emotion. Like a serene and deadly lake set in the majestic mountains, it is the coldest water. Taylor, the tragic female, to both hers and Stevens' credit is always the object of our sympathies, we are played against form of what could be construed as a temptress of femme fatale and left only with an earnest little girl so in love that she cannot see through her lover's deceptions. The constant forthright narrative always pushes through cliche and trite answers that might fill our minds, the dream and the nightmare of existence are always at play, in a dance with one another until the final fade out. If only those moments, dancing cheek to cheek could last forever, if only those feelings could remain. A Place in the Sun always finds its characters hiding in the dark, running from the truth they'd hoped would vanish. Like the best of cinema we hide in the dark theater in a dream Stevens has dreamt for us. A haunting film, A Place in the Sun won't vanish upon waking.