Released during the postwar economic boom years, George Stevens’ 1951 A Place in the Sun, an unapologetic moralist tale, deals with the usually problematic issue of love between people of different social classes, and has an anti-hero that is as Shakespearean as he is modern.
If, as Heraclitus has said, a man’s character is his fate, then at the end of A Place in the Sun, George deservedly gets his comeuppance. Though he did not commit the crime which condemns him to die, his selfishness and callous mindset make him morally responsible for Alice’s death. We know that he is innocent of her death but also suspect that somehow he feels guilty of far graver crimes in his conscience.
George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) is offered a menial job in his wealthy uncle’s factory. Despite the company’s rule against romance between co-workers, he starts dating Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), who becomes pregnant. One night, at a party in his uncle’s house, George meets Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) and they immediately fall in love. Increasingly distant from the insecure Alice, George spends a week with Angela’s family in their country retreat. Sensing that she is losing him, Alice gives George an ultimatum: marry her or she will speak out about their involvement. Fearing of losing Angela and his job, George plans to have Alice drown, but ultimately does not follow with his plan. She accidentally falls in the water and dies.
Is George Eastman responsible in any way, either from a moral and/or legal point of view, for the death of Alice Tripp? Is it right for anyone to condemn him for her fate? And most importantly, is George’s guilty verdict at the end of the film, a victory for justice or a mismanagement of it? The story poses these and other relevant questions and let viewers decide for themselves what to think. However, as if the whole situation wasn’t complicated enough, another layer of difficulty is created by the fact that we (the audience) are aware of details concerning the event that are denied to the judicial system inside the story. In the film, no other person alive knows exactly what happened to Alice, but George himself.
..Will all the Ocean Wash this Blood Clean from his Hand?
Now, one can argue that George’s got what he deserved – death for a death. Sure, he did not physically pushed Alice into the water, but she only died because he took her on that boat. She was on that boat because he initially planned to have her killed. And ultimately, concerning the most serious of his actions, which eventually led to Alice’s death, when she was in the water and he had a chance to save her, he decided against it. Effectively, it is probably this last act that leads many people to condemn him. Through his actions and inactions Alice Tripp has died. He is damned because of his intentions. So, the electric chair is exactly what George Eastman deserves.
And here is where Heraclitus seems to help people condemn George in this manner. For the quote from the Greek philosopher is usually understood as that good things happen to good people, and obviously vice-versa. Or in other words, a man’s personality will determine his destiny. Narcissist George will obviously meet a bad end. But anyone sophisticated enough would know that this idealistic view of mankind does not square with the facts. Experience shows us time and again scores of good and honest people who struggle all their lives and bad people getting away with all sorts of misdeeds.
Furthermore, there is also a different way of reading Heraclitus’ saying. It could well be interpreted that a man’s destiny must surely be the result of his personality. And if the quote is read in this way, then it is easy to see how George’s punishment, i.e., his fate, is far too harsh to match his deeds. He did not kill Alice – it was an unfortunate accident. Sure, he did not save her, but that crime (if that is indeed one) does not belong to the same category of murder. Thus, he does not deserve to die. Especially, as the court, unaware of the details of the incident, condemns him for the murder of Alice Tripp, when we all know that he is not guilty of such charge. From this standpoint, it is not Alice’s death, but George’s story, that is a real tragedy.
Moreover, it must be said that a part of George’s character (a tiny one?) is made of his decision not to kill Alice. Indeed, how do we determine who the real George Eastman is? What personality traits are more important for the make-up of this human being? Are his narcissism, selfishness and insecurity more relevant than his hard work ethics, kindness and sense of guilty? At the end of A Place in the Sun, the ambiguity of George’s mind and the film itself is sum up neatly. After George reacts to the verdict with a mix of shock and resignation, a priest visits him in jail. The priest refers to the moment when he probably could have saved Alice but did not and says: ‘Then… in your heart was murder, George’.
When the image of George lost in thought is superimposed by his kiss with Angela, at the outset of this riveting and thought-provoking masterpiece, we then realise that he’s been condemned not only by the court but also by himself.