Released: August 14, 1951
Director: George Stevens; Screenplay: Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, based on the play An American Tragedy by Patrick Kearney, which in turn is based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel of the same title; Cinematography: William C. Mellor; Studio: Paramount Pictures; Producer: George Stevens
Cast: Montgomery Clift (George Eastman), Elizabeth Taylor (Angela Vickers), Shelley Winters (Alice Tripp), Herbert Heyes (Charles Eastman), Anne Revere (Hannah Eastman), Keefe Brasselle (Earl Eastman), Shepperd Strudwick (Tony Vickers), Frieda Inescourt (Mrs. Ann Vickers), Raymond Burr (District Attorney R. Frank Marlowe)
If the uninitiated ever wonders why Montgomery Clift is considered so great an actor they need only watch this 1951 film from director George Stevens. He was great in a number of other classic films – From Here to Eternity, Red River, Judgment at Nuremberg – but I do not even hesitate in declaring that this is the finest performance Monty ever made. Clift is perfect as the well-intentioned working class George Eastman. He is unable to keep himself from being drawn into the high society circles of his relatives and eventual love interest Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). The closer George gets to Angela, the further he is pulled from his factory-working girlfriend Alice (Shelley Winters). When Alice becomes pregnant, George finds himself in the middle of a love triangle from which he sees only one escape -- he must find a way to disengage from Alice, while not allowing Angela to find out about it.
I had seen Clift in movies before. I saw him for the first time in 1953’s From Here to Eternity and thought that he was genuine as the detached Prewitt. With the inclusion of Red River in this countdown, I have already made clear that I was shocked to discover how successful Monty was playing a cowboy. But it was upon seeing this acclaimed George Stevens film that I became a full-blown Clift convert. Clift is far from forgotten as a screen legend, but he is oftentimes overshadowed by the large legacies of two of his legendary contemporaries, Marlon Brando and James Dean. I in no way want to diminish the talent of either of those great actors, but I think that Clift is the equal of both of them. According to Hollywood legend, Dean actually cited Monty as one of his idols. Hopefully I’m preaching to the choir in regards to Clift’s greatness as an actor, but I still had to get in my feelings of just how terrific he was.
The central question that comes to haunt George Eastman is how far is he willing to go in order to be with Angela? He clearly still has some feelings for Alice, wanting to end the relationship with her, but he sees that she is not at all interested in being an unmarried mother caring for a small child. It is a plot that most moviegoers are going to be familiar with. The film is based the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, and it is interesting to note that this is not the first film adapted from it. Renowned director Josef von Sternberg directed his own version of the story in 1931. While I have not seen this version, Dreiser himself was evidently not a fan of the film. Regardless, the storyline is one that has been imitated and riffed by a myriad of novels and movies since its publication. While not a direct copy of the story, you can see the plot influence in movies like Woody Allen’s Match Point or even his earlier Crimes and Misdemeanors. Dreiser’s story has truly become a standard, and with so many different movies following variations of the tale, it takes a strong effort to stand out from the pack. All three of the movies mentioned in this paragraph do just that, but as much as I love both of the Allen films, I definitely feel that this is the best adaptation/variation/version of Dreiser’s novel.
It is through Clift's virtuoso performance that the film transcends this traditional plot and that the audience is made to truly feel the doomed outlook that George begins to adopt. The obstacles accumulating in George’s path to happiness are magnified by the fact that he has to somehow secretly end the relationship with Alice. Not only does he have to disengage from her, but he has to do so in a way that will keep her from making their relationship known publicly. The reason is that when George was hired to work at his uncle’s Eastman Company, it was made very clear to him that associating with co-workers, particularly female employees, was unacceptable. Thus, if his relationship with Alice were ever to become common knowledge, his burgeoning career at the company would be ruined. And Alice makes it abundantly clear to George that if he does not do right by her, that she is going to blow the whistle to everyone. George quickly begins to move toward the conclusion that the only solution to his problems is to silence Alice – permanently. The issue becomes, can he really go through with such a job?
While most certainly not a film noir, the movie has a distinctly noir feeling and atmosphere. The audience quickly begins to understand that things are not likely to work out for George Eastman. How hard he is going to fall is the true suspense. I knew very early in my first viewing that things were going to crumble for George, but I had no idea just how drastic the consequences of his fall would be. Would he lose his career? His girlfriend? Maybe even his life? It’s the same sense of doom that I felt toward Steve Thompson in Criss Cross or Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past. Certain key sequences are filmed in the dark style commonly associated with noir – for example when George and Alice are alone together in a canoe and George is internally debating whether to go through with his plan. It is due to how well Clift plays the character that no matter how far George goes in his machinations, there is a heartbreaking quality to the character. I always felt some measure of sympathy for him. This was a man who initially wanted nothing more than to find work and better his life. Instead, he found himself drawn into an exotic lifestyle and was quickly in over his head.
Both Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters are excellent as the two love interests. I don’t want to make it seem as if Taylor turns in an earth-shattering performance, but she is effective in the role because she possesses the most necessary attribute for the character – sex appeal. Taylor is stunningly beautiful, and Angela Vickers needs to be. Without this irresistible charm, the way that she quickly wins over George would seem completely unbelievable. In the end though, as I’ve reiterated time and again, this always remains Clift's film. This is a movie that received much praise upon its initial release, but one that in recent years has been more and more regarded as an overly-dramatic George Stevens production. I suppose I can understand where those that have no stomach for melodrama could see it in this light, but for me it is gripping drama. I'll be very interested to see where everyone else comes down on this film.
Other Contenders for 1951: The runners-up in this year are essentially a roll call of notable Hollywood directors. The closest contender is actually a film that I only recently saw for the first time. I have always found the films of Samuel Fuller to be very hit or miss, really liking movies such as Pickup on South Street yet finding efforts like The Naked Kiss to be terribly overrated. Seeing The Steel Helmet was a revelation. I can understand why it created such uproar upon its release. It is a great war film because it focuses more on the men involved in the journey than being swept up in large-scale battles and strategy. Although I only saw it for the first time last weekend, it has stuck with me and was strongly considered for this year. It has quickly become my favorite from Fuller. The other film nearly taking the honors for this year comes from the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock. Strangers on a Train is a wonderful film and I still take delight in the way that he shot the murder sequence, using the victims eyeglasses.
Some other films from Hollywood heavyweights are also favorites from this year. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole contains a great Kirk Douglas performance and feels unlike any other film dealing with the power of the press. Being a huge Bogart fan also means that I have a soft spot for John Huston’s The African Queen. While not Bogart or Huston’s best, it’s a fun film.
I am guessing that A Streetcar Named Desire will receive support, but this is one that has never clicked for me. I like both director Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando, but think that the two of them would move on to make better films, both together and separately.