The below is a segment of an essay I wrote in 2011 on director George Stevens (‘A Place In The Sun’, ‘Shane’, ‘Giant’ etc.) Last week was Stevens 119th birthday. Click here to read part one and here to read part two of the essay.
The other day I discussed the long take of Clift getting two phone calls in his rooming house, shot from the other room and with the actors face (and hence his emotional responses) not visible. That section begins with another daringly long take similarly designed to make you feel the static quality of George Eastman’s shut-down feelings–his overall numbness–when stuck with Shelley Winters woefully unexciting Alice, the girl-who-would-prevent-him-from-having-Liz/Angela. This is the night that Eastman returns to Alice’s shabby room for the pathetic birthday party she’s made him, after meeting sumptuous Angela at the sumptuous party at her family’s sumptuous home. The sad “celebration” is covered in a single static four minute shot which makes no attempt to accommodate itself to the action–spare though it may be (Clift and Winters literally just sit at a tiny table). Winters face isn’t, in fact, visible in the scene at all–Stevens uses no cutaways to her though he doubtless filmed ample coverage. Indeed the camera is curiously located as if spying on the couple from a corner–Clift is so far away that his expressions barely register. And when she confesses to being “in trouble” Clift is off screen next to her, rendering the shot one of a mostly empty room.
Yet how eloquent this drab and empty portrait is and how clearly Stevens is dividing George’s mental state between the two women–the arid static shots of him alone or with Winters are thrown into stark relief when matched with the lush, long focus close ups of the ravishing Angela–which in turn give way to the equally lush shots of the ever more beautiful George, newly awakened and enlivened by Liz/Angela’s rockingly erotic presence.
But its the rush off the dance floor to the patio that always startles me. The bolt of love that strikes them causes Angela to look off (“they’re watching us”) before running away, pursued by George. But note that short interim angle that carries her in profile as she bolts through the party. This is Stevens in his montage-as-story mode, where individual shots make sudden shocking appearances not so much to further the plot or explain the geography but almost as rhythmic snaps, as if he’s finding a cinematic equivalent to the state of mind his characters find themselves in. The famous close ups that follow are unusually shot for their time–on long lenses as opposed to jamming the camera into the actors faces, and from beneath the eyeline which was considered bad form in Hollywood at the time–the theory being that the lower the camera is placed, the heavier the actor looked.
I recall reading that much of the film was rewritten while being shot ( as “Shane” apparently was–a nod to Stevens improvisatory two-reeler days?) and that Clift and Taylor, when presented with the dialogue for this scene, were appalled by the “come to mama” stuff. Still Stevens prevailed–as he apparently always did–and a good thing too. The dialogue–if you bother to listen to it–is ludicrous and if lifted from this scene and read in an acting class would no doubt provoke laughter. But Stevens wasn’t looking for words to do the job. He wasn’t even looking for words that mattered. It’s the hush in their voices, the way the words tumble out and disappear into the couples kisses and mounting passion, that make the scene as unbearably beautiful and strangely life like as it is. If you’ve ever been this close to another person, kissing them for the first time, you will identify totally with the moment–the rush, the fear, the intensity, the suspension of time and consciousness. That’s the paradox in a lot of Stevens work that I find so curious. Somehow he used artificial film effects that often flew in the face of established convention–and in this case meaningless dialogue which he seemed to know the viewer would fill in for themselves– to at once take you out of the “reality” of the scene while simultaneously pushing you deeper into recognizing your own feelings, your own identification with the characters and the moment they’re in.
A note on the lap dissolves that “A Place In the Sun” unapologetically bathed itself in. George Stevens Jr. told me that his father grew to mistrust editing on a moviola–that he felt that cuts that seemed to make sense on a small screen often failed to have the same impact when screened on a full-size screen. So he developed a method of editing that sounds to me unbelievably lethargic (this is Stevens the slow-moving bull at work) and yet strangely forward looking; he arranged to have two projectors in a screening room, each holding a reel of dailies. The reels each contained shots that would presumably be cut together. Stevens would line up proposed combinations of shots and then–via a special device that Stevens Jr. said his father developed himself–would flick back and forth between the projectors, getting an idea of where in the action the cuts would have the most impact. Though I only half-understand how he could have edited whole movies this way, I see its effect in some of the “mismatched” shots in the Taylor/Clift scene. For Stevens, its not a matter of where the actors heads, hands etc. actually were that amounts to continuity; rather an emotional continuity and the power of the cut to bring that forward is what he was looking to achieve. This method of dual-projection editing inadvertently gave birth to the super lap-dissolves that the film contains. Apparently one day one of the projectors jammed and wouldn’t stop running while the other projector began throwing its image. The two images colliding on top of each other so entranced Stevens that he immediately sent the two pieces of film to the Paramount lab and had them marked as lap dissolves that were easily three times the length of anything the lab had previously gotten. Initially the lab thought an error had been made. Stevens assured them it had not.
Finally a biographical note: I can’t help noting that the source for “A Place In the Sun”–Dreiser’s novel–calls the main character Clyde Griffiths and that Stevens renames him George Eastman. Picking his own first name for his protagonist might be explained away as coincidence. But picking the first and last name of one of film’s founding fathers–the real George Eastman invented roll film and founded Eastman Kodak–is simply a flat out case of the sub-conscious mind working a tad too close to the conscious mind for comfort. Stevens might as well have named Clift’s character “George the Film Guy” and with good reason; in choosing to film “A Place In the Sun” (and he had to battle Paramount to allow him to make it), he was embarking upon the story of a young and eager man who starts off with modest ambitions at the bottom of the ladder and soon sees a world filled with beauty and opportunity–and recognizes that he mysteriously has been given the chance to enter it. Stevens began as a silent cameraman and moved into two-reelers which, though we love them now, were the bottom of Hollywood’s barrel. His B features at RKO are unmemorable and its hard now to know how he was chosen to direct his first A movie, the Katherine Hepburn vehicle “Alice Adams”.
But Hepburn provides a clue when she refers to their first meeting (I believe this is in “George Stevens: A Filmmakers Journey”) and becomes goo-goo eyed at age eighty-whatever remembering the then thirty year old Stevens, describing him as “beautiful”. The two began an affair on that movie that continued on and off through 1942’s “Woman Of the Year”. Stevens ex-wife, Yvonne Stevens (George Jr.’s mother) recounted in an interview going to the “Alice Adams” set, seeing Hepburn and her husband and realizing “that was the beginning of the end for George and me”. Though the two remained married for another dozen years,Stevens was openly involved with several of the worlds most famous and desired women, among them Ginger Rogers and Joan Fontaine. With this came his own sense of self-assurance, the blossoming of his talent and career, his ascendancy and eventual predominance in the competitive world in which he dwelt.
So watch ‘A Place In The Sun’ and feel the director’s identification with the lonely young man yearning to burst out of the shell which limits him. And observe his sympathy with the young man–indeed, watch him revel in the passion the young man feels– as he discovers how big a world he’s entered and how powerful his place in it could be. “A Place In The Sun” is Stevens first entirely personal film and–if my reading of the director’s life and how it intersects with the story is of merit– may well be the most personal work of any filmmaker during the years of the studio system.