An update of the Theodore Dreiser Novel, An American Tragedy, A Place In the Sun (1951) tells of a poor young man who seeks advancement under the auspices of rich relatives. George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) is asked to prove himself working in the stock room of the family swimsuit factory, where—against strictest company policy—he falls into an affair with lonely working girl Alice Tripp (Shelly Winters). Showing himself a man of ambition and promise, George is eventually included in exclusive family functions, where he meets dreamgirl Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). The two are smitten with one another and everything he ever wished for seems to be within George’s grasp… But Alice is pregnant and tenaciously refuses to relinquish her claim on him. With his dreams turning into a nightmare, George contemplates murder.

This is the quintessential melancholy movie romance. Even if you aren’t familiar with the film itself, you very likely would recognize the climactic kiss that crystallizes the lovers passion. It’s become an iconic movie image. Fleeing the prying eyes of a family party, George and Angela huddle on a secluded terrace. She senses something is wrong. He can’t begin to explain what it is. She speaks of the two of them together in happy summer days to come. He knows his reality is a lot more complicated than her sunny fantasy. “Tell Mama, tell Mama all,” she whispers as they fall into impassioned embrace. Shooting Clift and Taylor’s exquisite faces in tightest close-up, director Stevens creates a voluptuous, almost abstract image that haunts the rest of the picture. It’s that dream of romantic perfection that George can never quite reach again. It melts like a ghost over him at the end of the movie. It’s this passionate moment that moviegoers also long for in their own romantic embraces.

For me, A Place In the Sun has a lot to do with the bittersweet irony of being an American—of living with all our dreams hypothetically within reach… and usually just out of grasp. It’s about class, it’s about capitalism, and intentionally or not, it’s about movie star glamour. Clift and Taylor were youthful stars on the fast track in 1951 and the film catches them at a moment of stunning promise and beauty. But that was also kind of a fantasy. Clift was a secret homosexual and tortured soul who never quite recovered from a terrible auto accident a few years later that left his face badly scarred. He went on to acclaimed roles in From Here To Eternity (1953), The Misfits (1960), and Judgement at Nuremberg (1961). But his career petered out in the mid-sixties and he died prematurely at age 46. Taylor, of course, became a celebrated—some might say notorious—beauty who had many husbands and was the first star to take home a $1 million paycheck (for Cleopatra in 1963). She made some pretty good movies working under the guidance of strong directors—Giant (1956), Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)—and won two Oscars. We’ll ignore all the bad ones. The two stars were romantically linked by studio publicity at the time that was mostly fiction. Instead Clift and Taylor became close friends who worked together again on Raintree County (1957) and Suddenly Last Summer (1959). They were scheduled to be reunited for Reflections In a Golden Eye at the time of Clift’s death in 1966.

One of the best Hollywood films of the 1950s, A Place In the Sun won six Oscars: for Director, Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Costumes, and Score. But lost Best Picture to the more cheerful American In Paris. Particular praise is due William C. Mellor’s evocative imagery (associating Alice with darkness and shadow, Angela with sunlight) and Franz Waxman’s lush, moody music. Stevens and company create a world in which cruel fate always seems to be hovering inevitably on the horizon. It’s in the flash of a neon sign in the night sky, the lonely cry of a loon on a secluded lake, and in the wail of distant sirens as George sleeps fitfully on Angela’s shoulder. Reality is always closing in on the dream. Happiness is fleeting illusion.

At right, A Place In the Sun memorabilia from the Teegarden/Nash Collection: a Belgian poster, movie still (Winters and Clift), and lobby card (Clift and Taylor).

—John Teegarden 

This article originally appeared in Audience Magazine (