Adapted from Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy (and, more specifically, Patrick Kearney's stage version thereof), the searing melodrama A Place in the Sun is rooted in class difference and the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots - which, despite the odd antiquated flourish, leaves George Stevens' film looking astoundingly modern; more so today, in fact, than its supposedly groundbreaking contemporary A Streetcar Named Desire. It all begins with smalltown boy George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) being lured away from his devout mother by the offer of a job in his rich uncle's textiles plant. Romance, and an unplanned pregnancy, with colleague Shirley Winters follows, but one sniff of the high life - and a glimpse of Liz Taylor's heiress Angela Vickers - and he's off. Matters boil over, symbolically, on the Labor Day weekend, by which point Winters is desperately in need of a holiday, and Clift is busy trying never to have to work another day in his life.
We may have Dreiser, or the Hays Office, to thank for the trace element of finger-wagging left in here; somewhere in the material lurks a stern-faced lecture on the perils of succumbing to temptation. What's remarkable is how the film makes the alternative - a life of virtue and righteousness, as represented by Clift's put-upon ma and a set of pious street singers - seem drab indeed, and that it understands that at no point can you question the hero's logic: even the purest of hearts in the audience might have pause for thought when presented with the opportunity to upgrade from Winters to Taylor, to swap cramped bedsits for crystal-clear lakes and vacations on the Florida coast. Clift, struggling to fill out Brando's white T-shirts in his early scenes as a hayseed, is more convincing as the budding, conflicted playboy: it's a sign of the underrated Stevens' adaptability that he could harness his star's brooding (as he was later to do with James Dean on Giant) in a manner that would make George Eastman appear sympathetic rather than unduly neurotic.
Also notable: the unusually intimate close-ups - striving to read, rather than merely observe, the characters' emotions (and thus giving Eastman something memorable to flash back to on his final walk towards infamy) - and the sophisticated deployment of signs and signifiers in Stevens' mise-en-scène. (No wonder Godard came to quote from the film in his Histoire(s) du cinéma.) "Have you written to your mother lately?," wonders an inscription at the Sally Army mission, while a flashing Vickers company logo nags away, like a thousand Hilton hotel signs, at the hero's conscience. In the last half-hour, as the emotional carnage piles up and the corporations make the deals that will help protect their brand's identity, it's worth keeping in mind that Clift and Winters spend their first evening together in a cinema: the film grasps that we all have cause to go looking for an escape every now and again - the tragedy is how George Eastman sets about, and eventually makes, his.
A Place in the Sun is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment.