#234. A Place in the Sun (1951)

Maybe it’s because his first appearance on the List was in Howard Hawks’s Red River, where he played a friendly and level-headed support role that contrasted with John Wayne’s loathesome lead, but Montgomery Clift, despite having played two persuasively detestable characters in The Heiress and here, in A Place in the Sun, seems exempt from the trap I keep falling into, that I discussed to some degree or other in essays about Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and The Day the Earth Stood Still: an actor does such a good job of playing either lovable characters or loathesome characters that I find myself responding, viscerally, to even just the sight of them in subsequent movies.

            Sam Jaffe was affable and avuncular in Asphalt Jungle—that’s how I’ve seen him ever since.

            James Mason was one of the List’s most detestable characters in The Man in Grey—now, with every subsequent appearance, he starts off with a negative likeability score for me, has to work his way up.

            Montgomery Clift, on the other hand, I like just fine. Even though he plays such loathesome fucks. And I’ll be honest: it might have something to do with how gorgeous he is. Or the fact that there’s something boyish and frail about him?

            Anyway. With A Place in the Sun he plays the kind of down-on-his-luck ambitious young man that I’d normally warm to right away, being something of the same kinda dude, who then, with little bits of success, allows his head to inflate. It’s not that he turns totally smug or entitled. He just becomes blind to his young wife, who clearly loves him more than he loves her, even from the beginning, and when, in the capacity of his new managerial position at his estranged uncle’s company where he started at the bottom, he meets an affluent young woman played by Elizabeth Taylor, he pays no mind to the fact that he’s married, and that his wife is pregnant with his kid. He lets himself fall in love and then surrenders himself to that love. Goes so far as to plan his wife’s murder.

            Awful as it is to say—his position’s kinda relatable. If you’ve ever gotten tangled up in a romantic or sexual situation from which you couldn’t free yourself because you were afraid of hurting the other person’s feelings, where you stood by while the other person just got more and more emotionally involved and couldnt bring yourself to just bite the bullet and end things, then you, like me, will look at Clift’s situation here and—while renouncing the choice to murder his pregnant girlfriend—maybe kinda nod a little. Bend your brow in a sympathetic way.

            Unless you’re the kinda person who had this happen to you, in which case you’ll probably wanna kill him.

            Anyway: Clift’s pregnant girlfriend can’t swim so he decides he’s gonna take her on what appears to be a romantic trip to the country where, oh hey, let’s rent a rowboat and go out on the lake. So they go out onto the water, he’s a bundle of nerves, his motives are written on his face. And I was pleased to see that his girlfriend (Shelley Winters) seems to pick up on it. We saw this gag of the male lover trying to drown his girlfriend, first, in F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and then it’s parodied in Charlie Chaplin’s weird Monsieur Verdoux—it’s not exactly postmodern or meta to see that Winters is picking up on her boyfriend’s motives, but I’m guessing that her inference is informed by her experiences as a moviegoer, and the fact that the people in these movies are openly influenced by their relationship with movies does seem like a step toward the self-awareness that’ll take a clearer shape in the 1960s and ‘70s.

            What happens though is he ends up chickening out, or his conscience comes into play (however you wanna look at it), but, in a freak turn of events, Winters accidentally stumbles over the side of the boat just as they’re reconciling. Drowns.

            Now Clift has no choice but to go forward with his plan.

            One thing leads to another and, since this is the early 1950s, Clift doesn’t get away with his crime. In the last scene he’s talking with Elizabeth Taylor from prison, he’s about to be executed, and we see him walking toward the electric chair in a way that reminded me of James Cagney at the end of Angels with Dirty Faces.

            A Place in the Sun isn’t a terrific movie, but it’s a really good story, and it gives me the same vibe I got about Only Angels Have Wings, the Howard Hawks adventure picture about mailmen, which is that this is a premise that, though well-executed and interesting, would simply never be made today. And simply because of the premise. Nobody would give their money over to it. Nobody would be sold by the trailer. So in that sense, it’s kinda bitter sweet.

            It’s the story that nobody would have thought to ask for, but it’s here, and it’s very much its own kinda thing, and it’s good. Seems the only movies we get now, with the exception of auteur stuff, is variations of what we already know we like.

            What’s also interesting about A Place in the Sun is what feels like its invocation of film history. I guess in the 1950s we’re seeing work from the first generation of filmmakers who’ve been going to the pictures literally their entire life. It’s in their bones.

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