Regularly voted one of the greatest American novels of the last century, Theodore Dreiser’s moralising epic An American Tragedy (1925) hasn’t aged well. Adapted for the cinema as A Place in the Sun, however, it paired Montgomery Clift with the 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor and gave us a film that still grips more than 60 years later. Director George Stevens disparaged what he called Technicolor’s ‘Oh, what a beautiful morning’ quality, and monochrome is indeed more suited to the ethical grey area explored by the film: whether a man who plans a murder but can’t go through with it is as guilty as a killer.
Clift and Taylor don’t have conventional Bogart/Bacall screen chemistry, but rather exist on a level of sheer beauty that transcends dialogue and performance. Perhaps recognising that Liz Taylor’s love rival was the very definition of a thankless role, Shelley Winters didn’t even try to compete; nevertheless, mousy and un-made-up, she earned an Oscar nomination for best actress while Taylor was overlooked.
With costumes by Edith Head and score by Franz Waxman, A Place in the Sun is at the BFI Southbank until 14 February as part of the Montgomery Clift season.