Young, poor and working class, George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) leaves Chicago and his religious mother, hoping to build a better life working at the business run by his wealthy uncle Charles (Herbert Heyes). On the factory floor George befriends timid wallflower Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), whom he begins courting after work. Since fraternising with co-workers is strictly forbidden, they keep their relationship a secret. At a high society bash, George is smitten with beautiful socialite Angela Vickers (a dazzling Elizabeth Taylor), who in turn falls deeply in love with him. They plan to marry, while George seems set to rise into the upper echelons of the jet set. Until Alice falls pregnant, driving George into a desperate act that proves his undoing.
Theodore Dreiser’s novel “An American Tragedy” had been filmed before in 1931, as a piece of heavy-handed moralising by Josef von Sternberg, but A Place in the Sun eclipsed its predecessor to become an American classic. It won six Oscars, propelled Elizabeth Taylor to super stardom and cemented Montgomery Clift’s reputation as the finest young actor of his day. In lesser hands George Eastman could come across as a despicable social climber, but thanks to the sensitive script and Clift’s delicately pitched performance - which neither plays for sympathy nor stresses any all-consuming urge, just drifts sadly towards a sorry fate like a leaf blown on the wind - he emerges a profoundly affecting, flawed antihero. His big scene in the rowboat with Alice runs the gamut from heartrending pathos to mounting suspense and eventually tragic irony.
All George wants is his piece of the American Dream, something so many disenfranchised and desperate young men were searching for around the post-war period and which, for the first time, seemed within reach of ordinary, blue collar joes. Angela Vickers comes across as the living embodiment of this picture perfect ideal. Far from some hoity-toity, high society princess, she emerges as someone spirited yet warm and loving. Aged just seventeen, Taylor not only radiates star quality but delivers a remarkably self-assured turn, transforming her famous line (“Tell Mama”) into a devastating composite of compassion and sensuality. Nonetheless, the film implies Angela remains an unattainable dream for someone whose crippling self-loathing derives from social adversity. Towards the finale, director George Stevens pinpoints society’s tendency to favour swift justice over social analysis, largely because whatever answers might be derived would likely rattle bourgeois complacency. And yet George’s psychological state and ensuing actions remain ambiguous, not only to viewers but to the confused, conflicted protagonist himself, right until the achingly poignant fadeout.
All of which makes A Place in the Sun sound oppressively bleak and yet Stevens eloquent direction ensures the film flows beautifully. His visual ingenuity has the camera soaring along with Franz Waxman’s glorious score and turns the ingredients of melodrama into something genuinely heartfelt and poetic. Restrictions of the period mean the film has to tread carefully around the subject of pre-marital sex, pregnancy and abortion, but does so with a subtlety and sensitivity that dilutes none of its dramatic power. Shelley Winters, whose atypical appearance here was something of a dramatic departure from her then glamorous image, is heartbreaking as the awkward, ordinary girl whom George romances then dumps when drawn by the irresistible allure of high society as embodied by luscious Angela Vickers. Also look out for a young Raymond Burr doing a dry run for his long stint as Perry Mason in the role of the bullish prosecutor.