Lessons I learnt from “A Place in the Sun” (1951), dir: George Stevens

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This a story of an ordinary man who tastes the extraordinary only to realise that life gets cruel and canny the moment you start believing that you could achieve your wildest dreams. Montgomery Clift delivers a captivating, raw and heartbreaking performance as George. Elizabeth Taylor, as Angela embodies the perfection of privileged youth with the addition of deep emotion and the purest intentions. Shelley Winters, as Alice molds a desperate and doomed creature with the help of her distinctive fragile, high-pitched voice and her haunting gaze.

Watching the film I found myself coming up with a few questions spawned from the story, which could be considered my personal moral take-aways of the film. The situation of the tragic figures fermented due to the norms of an obsolete society however, if we gaze upon it with a fresh mind there could be found intertemporal truths and problems.

The reason for that lies on our primal instincts for survival that represent the core of our human nature. Also, tragic circumstances or the so-called “ironies of life” have never ceased to torment our pitiful, mortal existence and they never will. In moments where our survival is threatened, we need to make decisions that help us prevail and move forward in life. They could, nonetheless pose a threat to our well-established truths about ourselves and the things we consider ourselves capable of.

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Q: What makes the better girl (or guy)?

“I love you. I’ve loved you since the first moment I saw you. I guess maybe I’ve even loved you before I saw you.”, George confesses to Angela.

This quote is so rich in context as it adumbrates the source of George’s infatuation with Angela. She is the American Dream, the socialite you see in newspapers, graced with charm and elegance. In other words, her social status in combination with her kindness and genuine sentiment make her the perfect girl, a true Miss America. This divine existence also happens to accept and love him unconditionally right from the beginning (like almost every love declaration in the 50’s cinematic dramas), which makes him feel included into a world of wealth he is dreaming to become part of.

Alice, on the other hand is the chain that would forever hold him captive into poverty, misery and a destitute life.In the beginning, his need for human touch and intimacy in a strange city drew him to her but when new opportunities were born and his dreams started to materialise, Alice represented his past rather than his sunnier future.

A: The fact that you can imagine your future life with her/him because your ambitions for personal and social growth will be better achieved beside her/him. 

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Q: How much should I insist? 

It is painful to watch the scene where Alice, after having discovered the truth about the nature of George’s vacation, goes up to the lake and threatens to expose him. When they meet at the bus station she even goes on saying: “I’ll telephone the newspapers and tell them everything, and then I’ll kill myself”.  Harrowing  is also the scene where she describes her dreams about their common future, even though it becomes clear to her that her plans disgust George.

When blackmail, guilt and duty are the only incentives of a romantic relationship, the future seems bleak. Exerting pressure on someone who is emotionally unstable and clearly unwilling to share your dreams while on boat in a secret, dark location, then who is to be blamed if you end  up at the bottom of Loon Lake keeping company to the fish?

Beyond doubt Alice is the greatest victim of the story as she was desperate and totally dependent on George’s intentions. However, having the justice on your side is not a guarantee that you will get what you deserve. The more exhaustively demanding you become, the more you risk the danger of unleashing the monster inside others.

A: Body language and logic hold the key. The signs of intense distress are universal and easily recognisable. You might be in love and in need but circumstances shift quickly, therefore before placing your full trust into someone and becoming completely vulnerable, you should be sensible enough to prepare yourself for the worst possible scenario. 

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Q: What stands between my ambition and me?

George wants to be loved and feel included. The warmth of his expression when Angela describes her affectionate plans for their upcoming vacation together is deeply touching and transmits this relief that we all feel when unconditional love and acceptance knocks on our door (and with the promise of a luxury life as the cherry on top).

It is a fact that the obstacle is his girlfriend and future mother of his child, Alice and some people could argue their child as well. Abortion gets sadly off the table pretty quickly (although, it wouldn’t harm them if they looked for another doctor…) so Alice’s options are the stigma of promiscuity for the rest of both their lives (yeap..that is off the table too), or a respectful upbringing of her child inside a marriage.

George needs to choose between his happiness and that of Alice. Nowadays, resorting to spurious means could only be perceived as madness however, during an age of unbowed social norms, the only solution for him could be given if she were to disappear from the face of the earth. Of course, he grew up with a mother that served God and asked him to be ” a good boy”, which makes him more prone to guilt than murder.

A: In similar cases only the law and your moral code. An excellent choice of lawyer and a generous budget can save you from the legal repercussions of your murderous activities. Your moral code is initially formed according to your upbringing, but it can significantly change though your life. 

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Q: Guilty, or not guilty… ? 

“Things happen, you just don’t stay the same” – part of George’s apology to Alice.

George has suffered from poverty and social disadvantage all his life and just when his circumstances ameliorate, comes a “baby bomb” to shudder his chances for a better life. The tragic element of the story and George’s personality are the two reasons why I personally empathise with George. He is humble, hard-working and self-motivated, shy and private with his shoulders always leaning forward, covered by a shadow of melancholia. In other words, he does not fit the profile of a relentless, selfish, manipulative man, like the corrupted Tom that murders Dickie and assumes his identity in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999) to serve his best interests.

For George, who did not commit the premeditated murder but didn’t do much to save the drowning Alice either, the answer to my question lies in his prevailing sentiments and desires at the moment of the accident. What was he thinking falling in the water and listening to her screams? The interesting fact is that George doesn’t feel guilty up until the moment the priest suggests this way to unveil the mystery of his culpability. Asking him why he was physically unable to save her, what was crossing his mind during those few seconds.

Bizarre suggestion I would say… George wanted Alice dead for days and was handed the perfect opportunity to get rid of her without murdering her but by letting life take its course, so naturally his thoughts might have been “Is this God’s intervention to save me from a miserable future?! I could finally be happy with the woman I love!”, which is a very humane thing to do but not a highly moralistic, Christian thing to do apparently, thus the priest decides that “Then…in your heart was murder” .

My opinion is that no matter what he was thinking at that exact moment, he was already a sinner at heart. However, my question is this: Why should he blame himself out of a suggestion of what guilt means? It is perhaps for the best interest of our mental state not to ponder on theoretical and moral questions that could lead to our pointless torment, especially when there is nothing to be done (Alice was already dead.. not to mention that he would soon be dead himself).  Finally, it might do some good to admit our fragile nature and be more lenient toward our selfishness (as long as no one dies in the process of course…).

A: Guilt is there only because your environment taught you how to generate, preserve and feel it and it’s up to you to change that. 

 

 

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Author: CinémAmoureuse

I grew up in Athens and have adored cinema since I was a kid. My very first intense cinematic experience was the Titanic at the age of 5. I love the 40-60's b&w Hollywood era and I enjoy expressing my amateur thoughts on all films that come my way.

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