A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951) and THE MASTER (2012)

October 11, 2013 § 3 Comments

“On Vikar’s shaved head is tattooed the right and left lobes of his brain. One lobe is occupied by an extreme close-up of Elizabeth Taylor and the other by Montgomery Clift, their faces barely apart, lips barely apart, in each other’s arms on a terrace, the two most beautiful people in the history of the movies, she the female version of him, and he the male version of her.” 

– Steve Erickson, Zeroville

Probably this all stems from wanting to see Joaquin Phoenix in a biopic about Montgomery Clift.  The troubled Clift, plagued by addiction and inability to publicly live according to his sexuality, had a bad run of luck toward the end of his life but at the very least made it out longer than James Dean. Even without a career-defining part so apt as Dean’s debut, Clift frankly towers over him as an actor, a spry pretty boy capable of projecting intense fits of anguish with none of the jarring shifts that Dean’s Method training inflicted on otherwise good films like REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. The power of the mid-film embrace between Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A PLACE IN THE SUN remains probably the picture’s most indelible legacy, yet despite the timely casting of Taylor it’s Clift to whom the moment belongs, the perfect object of George Stevens’ uncanny knack for how to capture these romantic interludes, a blend of silhouette and soft light, of medium shot and closeups that hold tight, never wanting to let go.

By any conventional standard, A PLACE IN THE SUN features some perplexing editing. The opening scenes in which George ascends to the top floor of his uncle’s business play out in a series of short, perfunctory shots of George opening a door, entering an elevator, getting off the elevator, approaching a secretary, and gaining access to the office, all connected by a series of short dissolves that unsettle. What the hell is going on here? Isn’t this a melodrama, some parable about class? Why’s this edited like a Maya Deren short? The scene in which George secures a job with the Eastman business to support his mother contains no unsettling subtext, it’s merely the beginning of a journey which only later will take on a dark undercurrent entirely of George’s own making.

The dissolves do serve, though, to set Stevens’s film apart from other melodramas. Credited with piecing the film together is William Hornbeck, a New Yorker who assembled dozens of two-reel comedies for the Keystone Film Company before the advent of sound, later becoming a favored collaborator of Stevens as well as Frank Capra during his tenure in Hollywood. The dreamy haze with which Hornbeck envelops minor passages such as the first flirtatious glances between George and Alice define the film as surely as the lack of cuts in its sensual nighttime interludes.

After the ambiguous scene of Alice’s drowning, I became gripped by a different sort of tension – whether George would escape the electric chair for his accused crime was one matter, but my primary concern was whether the film would be fully derailed by a tedious third act in the court room, as has been the fate of so many promising classics (in particular, my recent viewing of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN fed this fear, as not even the welcome presence of Vincent Price could salvage the rote rat-a-tat of witness and prosecutor).

What keeps Stevens’s film from falling into this trap is its relative unconcern with whether George lives or dies, as the true inner conflict plays out on Clift’s face. Raymond Burr’s prosecutor, with none of the appeal of a Vincent Price, embodies pure authority, his dominating, hefty frame actualizing the wall that George cannot bring himself to climb in his mind. The climax of the film is verbalized in his cell on death row, when the priest kindly lets the audience into George’s head, having been found unable of telling the crucial lie to himself: that he didn’t want to let Alice drown, that he tried his best to save her, that in his heart he was an innocent undeserving of an early grave.

A PLACE IN THE SUN never won much critical praise and the work of George Stevens seems destined to slip further back in the public consciousness as many other studio helmers are selected for re-evaluation to the neglect of his catalog, highly recognized by the Academy and the AFI but failing to strike a cord among fellow artists. Odd as the awards success of a beguiling oddity like A PLACE IN THE SUN may seem, Stevens’ noted work ethic and grandstanding morality compensated among voters for its tonal schizophrenia.

It still inspires fevered devotion among those who fall under its spell, however, being one of the primary obsessions animated in Steve Erickson’s great novel, the cine-phantasia Zeroville, whose main character sports a tattoo of Taylor and Clift embracing atop his bald head. The tendency of minor characters to mistake Clift for James Dean (and usually Taylor for Natalie Wood) irks him to no end, but the annoyance isn’t nearly so destroying as the scene in which he attends a screening of the film and finds that its young audience jeers as if it were a known camp classic. Erickson’s hero, Vikar, is eventually nominated for an Oscar for his editing work on a film called YOUR PALE BLUE EYES, perhaps a mirror of the Academy Award actually won by Hornbeck for A PLACE IN THE SUN. Though the novel’s obsession with film seeps into all its facets, most of all Erickson’s Biblical and historical concerns relate to editing; as Vikar explains, all shots are actually taking place at the same time, so there can be no true continuity.

The relationship between Stevens’s film and Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER are not nearly so direct as to suggest a sort of unconscious remake. I do not think it is even relevant, for the purposes of this kind of essay, whether or not Anderson has seen A PLACE IN THE SUN (however likely). The thematic concerns of the two films lack an apparent symbiosis. Early in the film, it seems that the relationship between George Eastman and his uncle could blossom into the sort of central push-pull that Phoenix’s Freddie Quell and the titular ‘master’, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, share. But the characters share only a couple of minutes onscreen together and the elder Eastman largely embodies the screenplay’s minor points about the differences between classes, as in a first act scene where Eastman seems appalled to find his flesh and blood plugging away at the basement assembly line, and gives him a promotion that seems motivated by reasons of family pride rather than George’s painstaking memos on how to improve workplace efficiency.

THE MASTER has, nonetheless, absorbed the cadence and mannerisms of A PLACE IN THE SUN, strangely enough reflected in a filmmaking style that Anderson has built toward his entire career. The pattern of dissolves and strange ellipses that makes its way from Stevens to Anderson makes sense, in keeping with the realities of filming with the cumbersome 65mm camera that complicates the sort of moving shots that previously earned accolades in BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA, Altman-influenced tapestries of characters often best connected by virtuoso Steadicam work. Yet among the gorgeously composed still shots are instances, as early as two standout scenes during Freddie’s time as a department store photographer, in which the camera glides serenely after the characters, allowing the performances to dictate the direction of the scene.

Anderson’s script, a toxic brew of historical fascinations and expertly observed character actions, often works as a loose sketch within which his collaborators can direct the material, not least of all his prodigy director of photography, Mihai Malaimare, Jr. Malaimare, Jr. made three stunningly photographed films with Francis Ford Coppola beginning with TETRO, and has worked on a strange variety of projects in America including a series of shorts for the VMAs. Alongside Anderson’s direction his first, and likely only foray into 65mm feature filmmaking probes the scenery, moving in short, deft motions and allowing each actor just enough space to call their own. A PLACE IN THE SUN boasts no more ostentatious a camera style, the work by master of the Academy ratio William Mellor (who orchestrated in THE NAKED SPUR’s climax one of old Hollywood’s great dollies in) honing in on the moment carefully in each long take.

I think it is in these romantic interludes, captured with the film’s particular rhythm, that PLACE ripples forward most clearly to its descendant in the twenty-first century. Among other flaws, THE MASTER peaks early, with the processing scene that pits Hoffman’s impenetrable baritone and soft, beady gaze against Phoenix’s bug-eye performance, Dodd summoning from Freddie for the first time something understandable out of an otherwise unfathomable character. “Recall a word…a smell…a sound,” he urges, as silence envelops them and the editing transports us back to Freddie’s past. Here his masters are best intertwined, the verbal exercise of processing allowing him to confront memories of his abandoned love.

This is George’s struggle too, even without a guiding system like the Cause to bring him some temporary understanding. In meeting Angela he realizes an impossible hope, love and status, but to grasp it remains at odds with the promises he has made to Alice. Structurally, it is the plot of many crime novels and Scope melodramas. As directed by Stevens, photographed by Mellor, and assembled by Hornbeck, it emanates as a ghostly psychodrama, its world of mortal sin and capital punishment every frame a projection of George’s interior clangor, every bit as treacherous and tantalizing in all directions as Freddie Quell’s own mind.

The line that tethers these films together quivers perilously, but continues to hold. THE MASTER plays in a minor key, without the heavy chords of PLACE’s climactic moments. Anderson has pointed out that his script does not contain moments of revelation, or dramatic scenes of violence. Compared to the opera of MAGNOLIA, perhaps not. But the expected moments of import do arrive in his oddly structured narrative, just fashioned out of stranger, subtler stuff than Stevens’ melodrama. Instead, the weight of each narrative turn rests squarely on the shoulders of his collaborators, who draw the arc of a love story from quiet drinks, shared cigarettes, and Dodd’s disapproving clucks at Freddie’s behavior even as he tries to remember where they’ve met. It is an epic of the twentieth century’s great war for the mind, comprised in whole of the sort of incidental moments that give PLACE its sensuous majesty, and Phoenix and Hoffman are up to the task. They are able to turn a superficially inconclusive meeting between Freddie and Dodd in his European base into modern cinema’s most damaging breakup scene, a sweet serenade that, by cutting between two tight close-ups, reimagines the tether broken by Freddie in his desert escape. It is a romance of unconsummated passions, yes, but in a film of entirely unresolved themes.

Neither does the passion of A PLACE IN THE SUN dissipate in its third act, once the starry nights of George and Angela come to an end. Just as Phoenix’s Freddie relinquishes his sexual appetite without much fuss once he settles into Dodd’s Cause and a kind of unconsummated affair begins between the two men, Clift becomes almost more compelling once he begins his long descent toward execution, even before he sees the inside of a jail cell. The scene in which a ranger matter-of-factly declares George under arrest unfolds rather like a lingering embrace outside Alice’s door, a return to the scene of the crime subsiding from nervous dissolves into the quiet dread of a long take that reveals the older man standing in George’s path. For all that Stevens remains burdened with the reputation of a stodgy, out-of-date studio tool, A PLACE IN THE SUN argues persuasively against the daft tendency of auteurism which maps onto great films the flaws of lesser ones.

Of course the film’s detractors mostly accuse its third act of moralist grandstanding that kills the passion and turns a fine melodrama into a creaky parable. In fact its courtroom scenes unfold with a distance from realistic legal procedure, the prosecution apparently taking as its mission the punishment of original sin, of George’s wish to murder whether or not he forcibly drowned Alice, far from the mission of the American judicial system. Burr’s prosecutor focuses his argument, strikingly, within the realm of reasonable doubt. Whether George intended to capsize the boat seems immaterial to this righteous figure of immoveable wrath. He thought about it, and a girl is dead, and he didn’t stop it. Some sin has been committed here, and the more George protests that he didn’t mean to go through with it, the more impatient the prosecutor seems with his equivocating.

The film’s conclusion – that murder can be committed in the heart even if the body doesn’t follow through, and that execution is a suitable punishment doing George an ultimate kindness – goes beyond mere moralizing toward a melodramatic cruelty worthy of the pre-Code era. It’s not the tiresome evangelism of other ‘50s dramas like the sci-fi RED PLANET MARS, it’s Old Testament morality at its most unflinching, the sort evoked by Erickson in Zeroville’s incorporation of the story of Isaac and Abraham. In the film’s subversion of courtroom tropes, a standard melodrama ascends to the status of religious iconography. Suddenly, the head tattoo makes sense.

Anderson’s film follows no such conventional dramatic through-line, even for the sake of upending it, instead choosing a series of ambiguous passages like that desert scene that refers to Demme’s MELVIN AND HOWARD, and a moment in which Freddie falls asleep in a movie theater and seems to dream away a decade, awoken by a telephone call from Dodd, finally remembering where they’ve met. Their last confrontation and the elliptical final moments exist on a separate plane than the sort of narrative possible in 1950s Hollywood, or at least the sort possible in a prestige adaptation with Clift and Taylor. I love Dodd’s revelation of his and Freddie’s past life together, a heroic male fantasia that strikes a chord with me even as Freddie shrugs: he has no use for it.

This moment of irresolution feels momentous, the summation of the direction that only Anderson could take with the materials he shared with Stevens and his collaborators; the use of transitions to create mood as well as to elide the passage of time; the equivocation of sexual passion with inner torment; the dramatization of an entire film’s moral conflict on the face of one tortured, beautiful man. It is perhaps something like the comfort of George’s final thoughts, out of step with the divine judgment he has incurred, oblivious to any grand design. The ending of A PLACE IN THE SUN once more fades George’s embrace with Angela across his face as he walks to his death, a final image that Anderson echoes in his film as Freddie takes a similar sort of solace: two shots taking place at the same time, each a perfect mirror of the other.  – Brendan

Congratulations if you’ve made it this far. Check back tomorrow for Stuart’s recap of his time abroad at the 27th annual Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna.


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§ 3 Responses to A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951) and THE MASTER (2012)

  • Don says:

    Much to say here, though I don’t know “The Master.” Other points . . .

    Raymond Burr was a wheelchair-bound trial lawyer in a long-running TV show, “Ironside.”
    Clift’s performance in “Judgment at Nuremberg” is usually considered one of his career high points, after he lost his youthful looks.
    Given Natalie Wood’s end, no wonder some people think she was in “A Place in the Sun.”
    Nothing about Dreiser?

  • Don says:

    Actually not that one, but I know “Sister Carrie” (made into a film called simply, “Carrie”–with Laurence Olivier). Query how relevant source material is at all–as relevant as you want it to be, I suppose.

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