Saturday, July 11, 2009

Tell Mama

A Place in the Sun (U.S., 1951) by George Stevens, 121 minutes

The film director Paul Schraeder recently said in an audio interview on BBC 4 that sitting in a dark room with strangers watching a film in a theatre was rapidly becoming a thing of the 20th c. not the 21st. But it is hard to imagine a film of this quality and beauty on a small screen. Despite the melodrama of the plot, the b&w images are so vivid, so lovely that they still enchant fifty years later.

The film was based on Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. The plot of the book was based on a true incident. According to The Literary Encyclopedia the book demonstrates "the strong desire felt by the have-nots for what they see as the almost mystical world of the moneyed; a world, they are taught, that is the rightful aspiration of everyone, and worth obtaining at any price".

I remember the book, which is actually much more lurid and complex than the film. There is more of a back story as to the central character Clyde Griffiths' motivations and history (here named George Eastman). The desperation is more pronounced, more understandable in the book.

It seems fitting that the first image that George Eastman (Monty Clift) has of the good life is a glamorous cheesecake ad for his wealthy uncle's company. He travels from Chicago where he works as a bellboy and soon gets a position in his uncle's lingerie shop having impressed his uncle.

A lonely, insecure boy he glimpses Angela Vickers (the exquisite Elizabeth Taylor) at his uncle's home and instantly falls in love. Lowly George, the son of black sheep Asa a Christian missionary, is not deemed good enough to associate too closely with his uncle's family or circle. Presumably Asa is deemed a failure as he is financially unsuccessful and has not achieved the material success his brother has.

George must settle for the sweetly simple but common Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), an Eastman factory girl and to frequenting low rent dives for entertainment. That is, until he receives a justly deserved promotion and appears to be, perhaps, finally accepted into his uncle's affluent circle.

The longing look he gives Angela is no less intense than the one he casts at his uncle's home or belongings when he is finally permitted to attend a social event at his home. Material acquisitiveness commingles with lust for George. In the setting of the beautiful home, among beautiful things and glamorous people, George and Angela fall in love while Alice pines for him in her shabby bed sit and George arrives four hours late for a small birthday celebration that she has prepared. Alice is not as simple as George might imagine and immediately intuits that George has become seduced by his uncle's lifestyle and Angela.

The chemistry between the Clift and Taylor is magical ... particularly during the oft shown dance sequence at Angela's parents' party where they profess their love for each other. The camera is poised over Angela and George's shoulder and fixed on their beautiful faces as they whisper endearments to each other. I had read that Stevens, the director, had coached Taylor as to what to say to Clift in this scene (the "Tell Mama" line). And there is a glimmer of something in Clift's face, of surprise, or arousal, which greets this line and makes the scene more poignant.

Things quickly sour when Alice tells George that she is pregnant. She attempts to find an abortionist but fails and gives George an ultimatum at the beginning of the summer: he must marry her by September 1st or she will go to the local papers.

Angela invites George to her cottage and soon a plan formulates about how George can rid himself of the whiny Alice. It's comic how quickly the sweetness and simplicity of the Alice character turns to annoying and nagging. And as dastardly as George's actions are, one can't help wishing Alice out of the way especially when she threatens to expose him before the Eastmans and Angela.

Alice is soon disposed of although it is unclear if George meant to follow through with his plans. George must pay for his avarice or his desires ... he must atone for aspiring too much and paying the ultimate price for this.

When the person who is convicted of Alice's death is on trial, the sequence feels more drawn out than it should be in the film as if to convince the viewer that he must suffer commensurately for his crime. The crime of desire. The desire for life, for wealth, for beauty. All of which elude George.

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