A Place in the Sun (1951) directed by George Stevens and based on the book An American Tragedy, tells the story of outsider George Eastman. He travels to New York to work at his rich uncle’s factory and get away from his oppressively religious mother. George aspires to claim the American Dream as his own, to climb the ranks of society and meet his relatives at the top. Images of that dream surround George all throughout the film, he is framed behind advertisements and billboards depicting beautiful women in opulent fashions.
At the factory, he becomes distracted by the poor and plain Alice Tripp, played by Shelley Winters. Although workers are forbidden to have relationships, George plunges ahead and dates Alice. Meanwhile, his high society family extends an invitation into their circle. There, he meets and falls for the beautiful and rich Angela Vickers. However, Alice soon discovers she is pregnant and George’s dreams of riches and Angela’s love are shattered. One shot particularly (seen below) juxtaposes the dreary reality of Alice vs. the dreams of the Vickers’ products that George aspires to.
George Stevens employs many directorial techniques for the viewer to side with both George and Angela and vilify Alice, the story’s true victim, and situate her as an obstacle for their happiness. First off, Elizabeth Taylor is, well, Elizabeth Taylor. Automatically, it’s really going to be no contest. The soft-focus lighting and close-ups gives an ethereal quality to Taylor, she is no longer an atypical woman but a fantastical object and walking dream. Angela is the American Dream personified for George. A gorgeous, rich woman who will provide George with all the bounties the good life has to offer, a mansion, cars, good clothes, and she will be the prize on his arm.
Adversely, Shelley Winters’ character is homely, her plain clothes pale in contrast to Taylor’s gorgeous dresses. In the most pivotal scene of the film, Stevens’ framing and Winters’ performance work to align the viewer with George, allowing the murder to feel absolutely justified. Winters’ whining voice rises higher and higher, her endless talking, which sounds like a petulant child, grates the ears. Combined with the unflattering low angles, we feel Alice’s oppressiveness and want to shout, as George does, for her to stop. Thus, it is a relief when Alice is finally under the water.
Angela and George are constantly idyllically framed in close-ups or in very close proximity. These romanticized images allow the viewer to hold this couple up to the idealized fantasy they project. We could not bear to see this gorgeous couple be ripped apart. Conversely, Alice and George are often framed with distinct separations. The couple are rarely framed in close-ups, one of them is usually standing above the other, or there is an object between them. They are rarely on the same level. This separation is representational of what truly divides them, Alice’s pregnancy does not draw them closer as Alice would hope, but drives George further and further away. Alice as a whole is what is standing between the perfect couple, George and Angela.
Although Angela and Alice’s names both start with “A”, they could not be portrayed any different. Director George Stevens does this purposefully, to align the viewer with George’s glamorized gaze of Angela. Angela is a beacon of light, as it shines from behind her in the film, the American Dream’s holy grail. Alice is homely, dark and dreary. “I’m not afraid to be poor” she says. That is the last thing that George wants. Stevens successfully pits you against Alice, who is the tragedy’s real victim, to fit his narrative. That narrative sympathizes with George and thus condones his actions against Alice. After all, if he’s got someone like Elizabeth Taylor on the line, can you really blame him?