Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Hyperbolic Attack on Ordinary American Existence

In A Place in the Sun - the latest and glummest remake of An American Tragedy - there is enough gimmicky, pretentious footage to keep one's eyes glued to the screen while one's common sense and muscles beg for respite. For all its flash, occasional power, and streaks of frighteningly natural acting, this extra-earnest Paramount production is one long, slow, hyperbolic attack on ordinary American existence – an attack whose renewal in one recent film after another is obviously part of Hollywood's strategy to jerk its audience back from the ingenuous attractions of television.

We are given, for instance, the oh-so-languid rich; the pious, magisterial M.D.; billboards that out-Petty Petty; distant sirens playing a counterpoint of doom to ordinary phone calls; the beefy, hysterically shrill D.A.; a thick undergrowth of portable radios everywhere the camera goes; juke-box joints sprawling with drunks. And I am getting very tired of stock shot 32-B, which feeds us the myth that all the windows in depressed urban areas face out on huge, blinking neon symbols of wealth and achievement.

The script by Harry Joe Brown is remarkably faithful to the plot of Dreiser's bleak novel: the complicated love life of a not quite bright social climber (Montgomery Clift) puts him finally in the electric chair. But Brown's dialogue is so stylish and unalive ("You seem so strange, so deep, so far away") that it appears to drift out of the walls and furniture rather than the twisted, jittery, or guppy-like mouths of Clift and his two ladies -- Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters. An even more troubling factor is Brown's determination to modernize a tale that is hopelessly geared to an outdated morality and a vanished social set-up. (An American Tragedy, published in 1925, was based on the Chester Gillette case of 1906. By its contortionist avoidance of the verboten subject of abortion - or less drastic alternatives - and its black-white demarcation of the worlds of luxury and drudgery, this "modern" version cuts the ground from under its own feet).

But Producer-Director George Stevens turned Brown's arty, static nonsense into something almost as visually interesting and emotionally complex as Sunset Boulevard or The Asphalt Jungle – one more key example of Hollywood's recent desperate commitment to misanthropic expression via elegant, controlled, mismated power effects. Ordinarily a soft-hearted poetic realist, Stevens is particularly good at getting natural performances out of his actors and at putting across the gauzy, sentimental gestalt of a popular song, a kiss, an important dance, a ritualized seduction. Here he has blown such elements larger than life -- building them into slow, parabolic choreographies of action and camera movement in which you are more dazzled by the incredible control and purposefulness than repulsed by the schmaltz of the whole thing. The Clift-Taylor kiss – repeated in three double exposures – is a huge, intimate, extended business that practically hammers an erotic nail into your skull. It is preceded by Taylor's curious Tin Pan Alley line: “Tell Mama – tell Mama all.”

Stevens squeezes so much of their "real" personalities out of his actors that the screen is congested with discordances. Most of the honors go to Miss Winters, who at long last gets to show that she can do a Mildred -- just like Bette Davis; but a far more complex one-man show is that of the non-aging late adolescent, Montgomery Clift. To some spectators his performance expresses the entire catalogue of Greenwich Village effeminacy -­ slim, disdainful, active shoulders; the withdrawals, silent hatreds, petty aversions; the aloof, offhand voice strained to the breaking point. To others he is a sensitive personification of all those who knock themselves out against the brick wall of success. Clift can stare at a Packard convertible or slump down on his spine with fatigue and by supply not acting make you aware of every dejected, mumbling success-seeker on a big city street. Finally, for the more he is a childish charade on all the fashionably tough, capable outcasts who clutter up "hard­boiled" fiction: cigarette dangling from mouth, billiard cue carelessly angled behind his back, Clift makes a four-cushion shot look preposterously phony.

The exploitation of a talent like this goes far to prove that ace directors no longer make movies as much as tight­knit, multi-faceted Freud-Marx epics which hold attention but discourage understanding in a way that justifies Winchell's name for their makers – "cine-magicians".

--Manny Farber (April, 1951 / The Nation)

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