Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

A Place in the Sun


Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy was required reading my senior year in high school, and like most of what I was forced to read (Silas Marner, Jane Eyre, The Scarlet Letter) I didn’t care for it much. It is such a sad and sordid story. I’m not tempted to re-visit the book, but I must acknowledge its broad appeal, as it has been filmed twice in America (in addition to a stage play in 1932 and an opera in 2005) and also in Brazil, the Philippines, Czechoslovakia, and Japan. And this 1951 version proves something of the magic of Hollywood, in that George Stevens has managed to take a story I didn’t like and make a movie I like a lot. Some of it has to do with the acting, of course: spooky Montgomery Clift, sweet-faced Elizabeth Taylor in one of her best roles, and whining Shelley Winters. But most of it is the directing, the camera angles, the shadows, the very slow dolly shots and lap dissolves. It takes on an hypnotic rhythm of its own. The awful scene in the rowboat is something I’ll always remember. Even Hitchcock seldom racked up the tension as well as it was done there.