I’m dedicating two years of my life to watching and reviewing every movie on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies, even the ones I’ve seen before. Here’s #92, A Place in the Sun. Watch me squirm as I say why this isn’t a good movie while trying to avoid insulting the memory of Elizabeth Taylor.
When you watch a movie that is often described as one of the greatest of all time, you shouldn’t have to watch the DVD extras to figure out why.
Taste is subjective, and not everything is to everyone’s tastes. However, when the claim is made that something is one of the greatest of its kind, there ought to be something objectively, universally and recognizably great about it that exists outside the realm of personal preferences.
For example, I can’t stand anything that guitar wizard/donut hater Yngwie Malmsteen has ever recorded, but the man certainly deserves to be on a list of the greatest guitarists/fury unleashers for his technical achievements and overall impact on the world of shred guitar. And while the first review in this series (#100 Yankee Doodle Dandy) criticized the movie for its naked jingoism, simplistic writing and propagandistic ends, it did acknowledge the film’s strengths.
But despite my belief in impartiality -- or possibly because of it -- I really can’t understand why so many people consider A Place in the Sun one of the greatest films ever made. “It’s not that great” is a very neutral thing to say, but the praise for A Place in the Sun is so hyperbolic that saying “It’s not that great” feels like trying to stay neutral on a moving train (PS. You can’t).
A Place in the Sun tells the story of George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), a poor young man who is offered a job by his rich uncle. After taking the job, he builds simultaneous relationships with his equally poor coworker Alice (Shelley Winters) and wealthy heiress Angela (Elizabeth Taylor, RIP). George starts to feel stuck once Alice becomes pregnant, but he wants to forget all about her once he finds out that he has a real shot at Angela and her lifestyle. Is he the kind of guy who will do anything to get what he wants? Anything?
The positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and the DVD extras for A Place in the Sun describe what must be a wonderful movie, but that just isn’t the movie I saw.
The positive descriptions talk about a man torn between two lives and two women, between honesty and glamor. They describe a lush, absorbing tale with richly developed characters and profound questions of morality. This characterization really feels like a stretch, because neither I nor my viewing companion picked up on a single one of those things while watching the movie. There are indeed scenes of George awkwardly discussing his poor roots and close-up shots of Clift’s face as he tries to reason through a dilemma. But those discussions of his roots never hint at greater aspirations, and those dilemmas are always simplistic. So what’s the conflict, what are the profound questions of morality?
It feels like writer-director George Stevens was so thrilled to have two sex symbols, Clift and Taylor, as the romantic leads in his movie that, if the story was ever about all of those grand things its supporters claim, he must have intentionally replaced that story overwrought, overlong scenes with Clift and Taylor professing their baseless love for each other.
This is a soap opera with better cinematography.
Speaking of this “love,” it is a bit difficult to understand exactly what brings them together in the first place. The affair seems to be the center of the action, yet it is barely developed. One minute they don’t know each other’s names, the next minute they’re talking about marriage. Observe the extremely brief courtship of Elizabeth Taylor:
I will admit that there is a bit of a spark in this scene, and the image of Elizabeth Taylor around a pool table is an iconic one. The scene is flirty and coy, suggesting that there is an attraction but neither is entirely sure how to pursue it. Potentially exciting stuff.
But then this is the very next scene with Clift and Taylor:
That’s their second date. And there you have it, that’s how George and Angela fall in love. Two meetings and Angela is ready to marry, while George is ready to murder.
There doesn’t seem to be anything that brings George and Angela together except that they’re the two most attractive people in the movie.
The “So What?” Factor
This is not a horrible movie so there isn’t anything to rip to shreds, but claiming that it is one of the greatest films of all time forces a spotlight on its flaws. How are we supposed to feel about George -- is he a sympathetic guy who gets put in an unsolvable situation, or is he an unlikely villain? If he is a villain, why does the film try to convince us that the heinous act he commits is out of love? If the movie is about him being torn between two worlds, why is it disguised as a grand love story? If George really falls in love with the life of affluence, why does he spend all his time at those parties hiding and playing billiards? And if it is a film about moral dilemmas, why is there some redemption for George in jail when Angela visits, for no other reason than she still loves him?
More importantly: Who cares?
This is a well-acted, well-shot, well-cast, profoundly uninteresting movie.
Don’t believe the hype with George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun. But do believe the hype with Stevie Wonder’s “A Place in the Sun”:
Comments: If you want a movie with all of the suspense, intrigue, class conflict, psychology, murder and tawdriness that everybody claims is in A Place in the Sun, see The Talented Mr. Ripley instead. Yes, Jude Law is in it, but just trust me.
Deserves to be in Top 100: No, and it was appropriately removed for the 10th Anniversary Edition.
Inspired: Every overwrought 1950s romance that I’m glad we stopped making, and every soap opera that we continue to make.
Next Week: #91 My Fair Lady.
Last Week: #93 The Apartment.
AFI 100 IS BROUGHT TO YOU IN PART BY THE FINE FINE PEOPLE AT MOVIEWORKS BOSTON WHO HAVE A SHITTON OF MOVIES. IT’S WHERE I GET MY MOVIES FOR THIS PROJECT AND YOU SHOULD TOO.
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