The name of the novel on which it’s based is An American Tragedy… so it’s kind of a given that 1951’s A Place in the Sun is a bit of a downer. Worse – or maybe better, in this particular case – the film completely misses the mark as a critique of American society. We’ll get to that.
Essentially, the 1920s novel attempts to show the American rich and insensitive and useless parasites of society by depicting the struggle of a poor member of a rich family to earn his “place in the sun”.
Unfortunately, watching the film leaves one with precisely the opposite sensation. It’s invariably the rich characters who act like decent human beings towards him, without exception and without fail. The “everyman”, as represented by the woman who isn’t Liz Taylor, by the police and the lawyers, and by the angry mobs seen in the final montages are in a much less positive light.
Now it’s true that the rich people are essentially seen as enjoying their lives and privilege, but they are also shown as working hard and studying hard to get ahead. The fifties, clearly, were not a good time to pretend the American Dream was a myth.
The antagonists in the film are two: the main character’s own mistakes and moral weakness and the poor girl’s desperation. They both reinforce exactly the opposite of what the novel attempted to convey. In this film, being poor and scared leads to actions that are reprehensible, while being rich apparently creates kind individuals.
Usually, my major problem with this kind of message film is usually that people are not better or worse because of their social or economic positions. There are nice people and assholes in every strata of society, from indigent to billionaire (and if anyone tells you different, they are one of the assholes), so these crude, broad-brush depictions never help anyone but the propaganda minister of your favorite dictatorship.
But that isn’t the main reason I didn’t like this one. This is a film that cried for a happy ending, even if that meant moving away from the source material. The characters were sympathetic enough, especially Taylor’s, to deserve it, and one wishes the filmmakers had risen to the challenge.
Of course, if they had, it would have won fewer Oscars and probably wouldn’t have made it onto the 1001 movies list because we all know what “powerful performances” means…
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His collection Off the Beaten Path is a treat for those who enjoy exploring our common humanity unusual settings far from the Western world. You can check it out here.