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Two men share the credit for the excellence of "A Place in the Sun." One, of course, is Theodore Dreiser, from whose novel "An American Tragedy" the film was taken. The other is the director, George Stevens.
In some films it is hard to discover what the director's contribution is, if any. But in "A Place in the Sun" there is very little trouble in detecting the work of a man who knows his profession well. To begin with, he has used three performers, Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters--who up to now have shown little or on capacity for honest and mature characterizations. From them he has drawn three exciting and moving performances.
There is a sharp contrast of personalities in the film. Clift plays an insecure but ambitious young man who goes to work in a factory owned by a distant relative; while he is there he meets two girls. Shelley Winters plays the first--a factory girl who seems attractive at first, mainly because she gives him the affection he needs, but who soon becomes a mere drab. The second girl, in the person of Elizabeth Taylor, is not the boss' daughter, but the next thing to it. She is rich, beautiful, clever--and above all, she represents the security and luxury that the young man yearns for. The triangle has been set up, and it seems that Shelley Winters' side is a lot shorter than the other two.
Miss Winters has made a fine showing, especially after her long career as a sultry siren of the South Seas. She acts with no great fund of experience, but with intelligence and emotion. Elizabeth Taylor manages to play the rich young lady as a warm and sympathetic human being, not a type. Add to that natural physical charm and you've got a good deal. Clift plays a character between these two extremes of drabness and vivacity, and he moves easily and naturally from one life to the other.
Director Stevens may have used some sort of magic to draw out these three fine performances, but at the same time he has used some down-to-earth technical tricks to compliment the depth of emotion in the acting on the screen. It is to his credit that none of these tricks is ever obtrusive. He uses really close close-ups, and is not afraid to hold the camera on his subject for more than a split-second; he uses light and shadow to reveal or conceal, as he wishes; and he seems to have spent a good deal of time on the sound effects for the film. They are no more than the wail of a distant siren, or the call of a loon on a lake, but they are immensely effective.
"An American Tragedy" has had a long career, from novel by Dreiser to play adaptation by Patrick Kerney to screenplay by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown. It is highly satisfying to see that this effort has resulted in an intense and exciting dramatic motion picture.
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