Tuesday, July 27, 2010

No. 92: A Place In The Sun

A Place In The Sun (1951)

Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters

Director: George Stevens

Awards: 6 wins, including Best Director

My mom and I go to a gym together - and we do some intense working out. Much to her chagrin, there’s something I like to do in addition to working out – read the tabloids people leave on the machines. The other day I was flipping through People, and I read an interview with Elizabeth Taylor. One question asked something like “what was the best movie you’ve ever acted in?” And what does Liz say? She says the first time she ever really acted was in A Place In The Sun – and you can sure tell.

At first glance, A Place In The Sun appears to be just another soap opera – nothing special. But after seeing it, there’s no way you can say that. The characters are vivid and incredibly dramatic, but not in a clich├ęd way. The script is tense, emotional and perfectly suited to the cast of characters. And don’t even get me started on the artistic details, like beautiful cinematography and gorgeous costumes!

Young George Eastman (Clift) is a poor relation to the wealthy Eastman family. He gets a low-ranking job at their company so he can learn the business, and there he meets fellow worker Alice Tripp (Winters), a blue-collar girl. Their relationship is against employee rules, but they begin dating. Everything goes smoothly until he meets and falls head over heels for society girl Angela Vickers (Taylor). With Angela's help he begins climbing the job and society ladders, but there’s a problem – Alice is pregnant. She blackmails him into agreeing to marry her, and he concocts a plan. He takes her boating and plans to kill her - but just when he decides against it, Alice stands up; the boat capsizes, and she drowns. George is arrested on murder charges, and after a brutal cross-examination by the district attorney (played by Raymond Burr – Thorwald from Rear Window!) he is sentenced to death. A tortured Angela visits him one last time in his cell, and I have to say, it’s one of the saddest movie goodbyes you’ll ever see.

There are so many great movie dramas. What makes this one special? Well, one thing that differentiates this film is the passion you feel from all the characters. Under George Stevens' direction, the close-ups of the actors are tense and every angle showcases a different feeling or reaction. The perfectly executed art direction, seen in the many shadows of this black-and-white film, matches perfectly with the acting, and adds depth to every scene.

Still, there’s more than just characters and artsy stuff. A Place In The Sun was based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy (1925). And while I’m sure it’s a very good book, it’s a pretty lengthy tome, and not exactly accessible to most viewers. Most Hollywood studios were rightfully apprehensive about turning it into a movie. But Paramount Studios took the plunge, and took a book that most consider “stuffy” and “old-fashioned” and turned it into a modern romance that spoke to viewers when it opened in 1951, and still holds up today.

My final verdict?
Love it. Really, it’s a great movie, and I’m glad to find it’s still appealing to viewers today.

In short, if you like:

* Gorgeous black-and-white cinematography

* Stories with extremely depressing endings

* Elizabeth Taylor at her jaw-dropping beautiful best

* Amazing period sets and clothing from designer Edith Head (Ladies, this movie is worth checking out just to see Liz Taylor’s dresses, they’re that good.)

* Montgomery Clift at his most tragic

* A memorable and talented supporting cast

…then you’ll love
A Place In The Sun.

Next up on my list; No. 92,
My Fair Lady (1964), starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. Ehh… I’ve seen it before. I like it, but it’s not my favorite, for reasons we'll discuss. My parents aren’t even that nice. They just hate it. So, this should be interesting! Stick around and read about it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

No. 93: The Apartment

The Apartment (1960)

Starring: Jack Lemmon, Fred MacMurray, Shirley MacLaine

Director: Billy Wilder

Awards: 5 Oscars, including Best Picture

I’m a huge Billy Wilder fan - I’ve seen pretty much every film he’s ever made.
Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot…the list goes on and on. I only have one problem with Billy Wilder films: Fred MacMurray.

Well, let me explain that. See, I grew up watching all of MacMurray’s really
nice Disney films, like The Happiest Millionaire, and Follow Me Boys. So when I finally saw Double Indemnity, I was in shock. Nice role model Fred MacMurray playing a bad character – how could it be? I thought that was horrible, and then I saw The Apartment. Thanks, Billy Wilder. You just ruined my happy childhood.

I’m not saying
The Apartment is a bad movie – in fact, I think it’s a very, very good movie. It showcases Billy Wilder’s dark humor, and balances romance and comedy, with a touch of sadness. All three stars (Lemmon, MacLaine, and MacMurray) are perfectly cast, and plunge deep into their characters’ personalities.

C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) works at a huge insurance company and has a little secret – he allows the company’s managers to use his apartment to conduct extra-marital affairs. Baxter’s boss, the callous Jeff Sheldrake, (MacMurray) discovers the scheme, but instead of shutting it down, uses it himself to meet with his latest flame, elevator operator Fran Kubelik (MacLaine). Only one problem – Baxter’s had a crush on her forever. On Christmas Eve, Sheldrake returns to his family, and Fran’s left in the apartment. Depressed, she attempts suicide, but Baxter finds her and in the course of her recovery, realizes he loves Fran, and also realizes that Sheldrake’s only using her. Now, because of “the apartment," Baxter’s about to be promoted – but will he pick his job, or love? He picks love, and Fran picks him. Happy ending!

The movie is great because of the characters. Lemmon as Baxter displays his usual frantic neat-freakness, but brings greater emotional depth to his character then his other comedic roles. MacLaine is tear-wrenching as Kubelik, who can’t get over Sheldrake, no matter how bad he acts. And MacMurray as Sheldrake is equal parts slippery and sly – the perfect modern villain. When Billy Wilder cast the movie, he picked the best.

In short, if you like:

* Billy Wilder films

* Dark, melancholy humor

* Sarcastic and witty dialogue

* Wonderful movie references (
Grand Hotel’s playing on TV, The Music Man is in theaters…it’s fabulous.)

* Jack Lemmon straining spaghetti through a tennis racket

* Life-changing conversations over gin rummy

* A wonderful cast of Yiddish-accented characters living in Lemmon’s apartment building

…then you’ll love
The Apartment. Watch it. Really.

Coming up next, No. 92,
A Place In The Sun (1951). Yessssss! I have to admit, I love this movie, and I can’t wait to write about it. Starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, this film is an unabashed soap-opera – with a good plot and great actors. Stick around and watch it!