Elena Lazic talks to Peter Bradshaw about George Stevens’ classic melodrama A Place In The Sun (1951) ahead of the film’s screening in our Critics Central strand at Picturehouse Central in association with the Critics Circle.
*SPOILER ALERT* This interview contains major plot information about the film.
EL: When did you first see this film?
PB: I saw it about ten years ago as part of a George Stevens season at the BFI. I was preparing a lecture on Elizabeth Taylor for the Guardian at the time and I chose to talk about the scene in the film where the main characters George (Montgomery Clift) and Angela (Elizabeth Taylor) are at a party and they confess their love for each other for the first time. I just love it in the scene where Angela appears to be overcome by a kind of anxiety on saying to George that she loves him. She stops and gasps and there’s this amazing image of her looking directly into the camera and saying, “Are they watching us?” She has this strange, almost psychopathic convulsion of anxiety and paranoia that she’s being watched. It’s never again alluded to in the film: nobody ever asks her, “Who did you mean by ‘they’?” Presumably she means her family in the scene. But it’s an unforgettable spasm of fear and a foreshadowing of disaster.
Later on in the film the two lovers are at the lake and he hears a strange bird cry and says, “What is it?” and she says, “Oh it’s a loon”. He hears this unearthly cry, like something out of Edgar Allan Poe, and it’s very disturbing. He’s never heard that before. Again it’s a sort of horrible warning. Something terrible is clearly going to happen! But it’s superb. Like everything else in the movie, it’s terrifically composed. I can hardly think of any other studio director of that period – with the possible exception of Hitchcock – who has such flair for visual composition and for what we might now call ‘shot selection’. Everything is lined up with such self-conscious artistry.
EL: Maybe it’s because George Stevens hasn’t been studied so thoroughly or considered as influential as Hitchcock. But I feel like his style is even more unusual and strange. It’s very modern.
PB: Yes. There’s a very daring scene where Stevens holds a continuous, unbroken shot on George’s face, where the character realises that he can commit murder. You can see the thought dawning on him and again it’s very unusual for a director in a movie of that time to hold a single shot, an unbroken, unedited shot of a face. I think it’s kind of amazing. I love it.
EL: It’s interesting that none of the characters are straightforwardly likeable. The audience’s sympathies can’t really lie completely with a single character. George is basically a murderer.
PB: Yes he is! He is a cold-blooded murderer. He’s weak in the nastiest way. Some of the power of the movie is to be found in the way it invites you to sympathise with him as a romantic hero. We are invited to make an emotional investment in his weakness as someone who has no social status. Then we kind of realise too late that what we’re watching is the most incredible Noir thriller. George is now going to kill someone. In a more conventional thriller you would be quite extensively prepared, generically, for that transgression. You’d be made aware that you are in the presence of somebody who is a murderer, whereas this movie has something of a noir thriller quality but behaves as something quite different. The plot is like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) or Leave Her To Heaven (1945) in that you have the central idea of characters having to kill someone and yet there’s something even crueller about it, even more vicious and unforgivable. This woman who is pregnant with his child, she has nothing at all. It’s not the rich married woman who takes a lover and they conspire to kill her husband here. It is like that, yes, in that it follows the classic template. But this is even more horrible because the person who’s going to be killed is somebody who is simply inconvenient, has nothing and has done nothing. Somebody who we thought of as a principled, rather romantic young man is in fact demonstrated to be capable of this incredible, monstrous act.
EL: Usually in Film Noir, people have really strong principles, and that’s why they get into trouble. In Pick Up On South Street (1953) we follow a thief who steals Communist information from a Russian spy and refuses to give it to the police. He’s a pickpocket but he still has principles. These films often focus on people who have strong belief in something or who try really hard to be good people and fail. Sometimes they also really hate themselves like in In A Lonely Place (1950). The central character there feels bad, he has something going on and that’s why there’s trouble. George is just really passive in A Place In The Sun.
PB: He’s weak yes and yet everything about him has led you to suspect that generically he’s a tragic hero rather than a Noir villain. He’s caught between the young working-class woman and the upper-class woman and those are what constitute his tragic credentials. This film is also interesting because it’s about class.
I love the film because you’re kind of gripped by it because of these resonances with Hitchcock and Noir and yet it’s also a tragedy. In a way, the film refuses purely generic categorisation. Maybe that’s why it’s not very well known. It was marketed as a very stirring tragedy, based on a play by Theodore Dreiser, who at the time was a key figure in American culture. Now he’s kind of forgotten. But at that time he was a class act and he was certainly not just a sort of pulp melodrama guy by any means. This was a classy film with a classy cast. That’s partly why it’s still not very famous despite its having these amazing sequences, these passionate, mind-blowing scenes with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, who are so beautiful. They weirdly resemble one another. It’s almost like they’re looking in the mirror sometimes.
EL: Clift actually reminds me a lot of Tom Cruise!
PB: His face is kind of weird. Tom Cruise’s face is more round than Clift’s and Clift has a sort of asymmetrical jaw. But yes he has the same wide-eyed, boyish, kind of ingenuous look. It’s a very feminine look in some ways. In the scene at the pool table at the beginning – where she is seducing him – she’s basically playing the man and he gets to play the submissive woman. It’s an incredible scene, incredibly controlled, absolutely gripping and very erotic in a sort of displaced way.
EL: Is there a thematic element you find most fascinating in the film?
PB: I’m also always interested in swimming in films because swimming is about sex and it’s not about sex especially in movies of this era. The circumstances in which you were able to show attractive young women with few clothes on and in moments of intimacy were swimming. What I find fascinating about it is that George turns out to be working for a company that makes swimming costumes! I love that, as a kind of marker of sexual licence, the one-piece swimming costume, which you can see literally on the production line, is represented to the audience in terms of commerce. Shelley Winters can’t swim and gets into a boat fully clothed. Sexual abandonment is not for her because she’s poor and working class and sexual pleasure is one of the many pleasures from which she is effectively disbarred. She works for the factory making swimming costumes of the sort that will be worn by Elizabeth Taylor in the film. It’s a kind of accentuated horror and a fascinating irony.
Peter Bradshaw will introduce a screening of A Place In The Sun on Sun 22 Jan, 1PM at Picturehouse Central. Book here.