Welcome to (Ahead) Of Its Time — a new column that dives deep on older movies praised for their foresight, questioning the validity of such an assessment.
The first time we see Montgomery Clift‘s George Eastman in A Place in the Sun, he’s walking along a vast highway and pauses for a brief moment to admire a billboard advertising his uncle’s company. It’s a billboard promising all the fruits of the labor that is the American dream and a larger than life testament to all that George aspires to when he begins working for his uncle. One needn’t be a cynic to assume there’s a hint of irony to be found in George’s wide-eyed gaze towards what he hopes to be the future laid out before him.
Indeed, this expanse of open road and the bright future it seems to offer George exists in stark contrast against the dim and claustrophobic confines in which he finds himself at the close of George Stevens‘ 1951 film. By the end of A Place in the Sun, George has experienced impossibly high highs and frightfully low lows while the film reckons with his ambition.
At the time of its release, the film was a financial success and it went on to win multiple Oscars. Its daring dramatic themes were commented on by critics, but since then A Place in the Sun has not been canonized as a groundbreaking masterwork. Take, for example, a recent review from Dave Kehr that commends its successful initial reception but laments that the film is dated and melodramatic. A similar sentiment is seen in a 2011 review by David Parkinson that states the film has a naive perspective. A helpful statistical comparison might be that A Streetcar Named Desire, a film released the same year, has five times more audience ratings on IMDB than A Place In The Sun. George Stevens’ film hasn’t faded into obscurity, but it also hasn’t been recognized as the landmark film that it truly is.
The film’s thematic elements tiptoed around Hays’ code regulations and by keeping certain plot points in the realm of subtext and innuendo, the film was able to address quite a few bold topics. It’s no surprise that this suggests the film might be considered ahead of its time.
But perhaps that notion can and should be reconsidered. “Ahead of its time” is typically applied to films and people and stories as a compliment. This is a way to praise something perhaps misunderstood initially or to recognize that a film provided insight into a topic in a way others at the time did not. Or, this praise is used — to put it bluntly — to praise ourselves and our time for being more advanced than the past. To call a film ahead of its time because it’s keen to tackle contentious social themes or to call into question certain standards of decorum is to say that we have advanced to the point that what was daring in, say, the 50s, is normal for us.
This is not to say that there are not certain exemplary films that put to the screen ideas not typically discussed or investigated in polite society. It is to say that there’s a hell of a lot more to a film’s relationship to its own time period than either reacting against the norm or conforming to it.
A Place In The Sun is one of an endless number of examples, but it’s a fine place to start. The film follows George Eastman, a working-class bellhop from Chicago whose chance encounter with his wealthy but estranged uncle brings him to New York with the promise of a job at the factory of his family’s empire. A brief romance with Alice (Shelley Winters), a woman working in the factory, is complicated when she finds out she’s pregnant after George has already moved on to debutante Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). While George and Angela are falling madly in love the way only two people as beautiful as Clift and Taylor can fall in love, Alice fails to procure an abortion and pressures George into marrying her.
Unable to relinquish his new high society life and the girl on his arm, George conspires to kill Alice. He can’t go through with the plan, but when she accidentally drowns, George can’t escape the breadcrumb trail of evidence that leads to him. He’s convicted for the crime, ultimately accepting a priest’s advice that though he did not commit the action of murder, he failed to save her because he was thinking of Angela. The truth, as it turns out, is a hell of a lot murkier than either guilt or innocence.
Certain elements, particularly a scene in which Alice asks her doctor for an abortion, use thinly veiled language to skirt around the production code’s decision that this topic was strictly verboten. The word abortion is never said, but the implication is there clear as day when she laments being a woman alone who needs someone to help her. The film is also firmly sympathetic to Alice. She is not vilified for seeking out other options than continuing with the pregnancy. The doctor’s staunch attitude that she must have the child is what causes so much devastation and destruction in the film, and what dooms these characters to their tragedy. Winters’ committed performance is especially commendable in this scene as a woman at the end of her rope and her desperation is palpable and pitiful.
Although the production code dictated the language that could be used surrounding a taboo subject, the film’s willingness to address the topic without positioning Alice as a morally bankrupt harlot for even so much as asking her doctor is notable. What’s even more notable is that this didn’t seem to be shocking to viewers.
In reviews at the time, critics commented on the film having a degree of boldness, but it’s apparent that A Place In The Sun wasn’t as audacious as its subject matter in a 1951 context might lead some to believe. Reviews from Variety and The New York Times comment on how the story has actually been modernized from its source material, a 1925 novel. What we might see as a film being forward-thinking appears to actually be a marker of its time period and common sensibilities. Of course, had this film been made outside of the production code, its content would have been different, but its perspective on the subject matter and its willingness to foreground these narrative elements aren’t as dated as some in the present seem to think.
The film uses subtext to avoid explicitly discussing Alice’s potential abortion, and in doing so adheres to the production code while addressing the topic in a sympathetic way that engages with modern sensibilities. But this wasn’t the only aspect of the production code that the film both worked with and against.
On the surface, the end of the film punishes George for his wrongdoing. He accepts his priest’s assertion that he is guilty and walks to his death. But the film so brilliantly refrains from positioning any one character as entirely wrong. There is the ultimate tragedy — each is sympathetic, flawed, and deeply human. Even George, convicted by the jury and his own admission as a murderer, is more complicated than this. From the start, the film entrenches this into his character.
When he first begins seeing Alice, she comments that, as an Eastman, he has untold privileges in the company and society. But among his wealthy relatives, George is still considered an outsider. Of course, both are true. He has gotten here because of his last name but he can’t break all the way in because of his circumstances, having grown up outside of this world.
There’s a recurring motif of George being framed through some sort of bar. This happens early on when he watches a party Angela is attending through the house’s front gate. George gazes longingly at a world barred to him; the lifestyle that he longs for is glimpsed through a fence, turning his mentality, his hopeless ambition, into a prison.
This occurs later when George is incarcerated after being convicted. This time the bars exist in the most literal sense, he is jailed without hope of release. For a time, he believed that he could and in fact did cross through from his humdrum working-class life to one of estates and parties, that he did transcend the distinction represented by the gates. During the trial, his lawyer makes the distinction between thought and deed. Although George plotted to kill Alice, her death was an accident. How much that should inform an understanding of his guilt is never made explicit. As a New York Times review from 1951 notes, “The questions of [George’s] morals and intrinsic cowardice here are placed squarely in the eyes of the viewer.”
This is a film intent on exposing the faults of so many distinctions. Regardless of George’s familial relationship with the Eastman dynasty, he was to them always an outsider. Regardless of whether George crossed into the high society life he once desired, he ended up being removed from it. Regardless of whether George is guilty in action, his thoughts doomed him. The murky and nuanced experience of his life are given little consideration by the forces around him. He is trapped in various boxes, locked behind literal and metaphorical bars.
At the close of the film, George marches to his death having accepted his fate. The script of the end title curls across his face in a markedly similar fashion to the gates early in the film. The irony of the end is that for such a prominent title card, there is no resolution, only a man further imprisoned by his limits, his (in)actions, and his own story.
The most overtly “ahead of its time” quality in A Place In The Sun is its discussion of abortion, a conversation that had to very carefully work within the confines of the production code. But beyond this point, the entire film is cloaked in difficult, contentious ideas that were themselves modernized to suit the 1950s and recognized as such at the time. The film has yet to be canonized the way other comparable movies have been, partly because of incorrect and reductive assessments of what the norms were in the 50s and an attitude that melodrama and nuance cannot go hand in hand.
The fact is that A Place In The Sun was praised in 1951 for being a sweeping, emotional narrative more than willing to wrestle with — but not provide any easy answers for — difficult questions about morality and guilt. It offers a bleak and honest portrayal of blind ambition, the promise of the American dream, and the fruitless endeavor of social climbing on a rigged ladder. Melodramatic style or not, these are themes that have a place in our world as much as they did in the world of the 50s. If A Place In The Sun was ahead of its time, maybe it’s still ahead of ours.