Montgomery Clift’s face was pure anguish, even before his tragic life took a dark and disfiguring turn. That sad face was, in 1956, smashed horribly in a car crash after a party. He’d been filming Raintree County with Elizabeth Taylor, his friend and fellow icon, and Taylor arrived at the accident and, the story goes, cradled Clift in her arms and pulled his teeth from his throat. Life as a closeted homosexual and tortured method actor was difficult before his face was reconstructed; after, it was essentially over. Clift died ten years later, succumbing to years of alcohol abuse. His acting teacher called it “the longest suicide in Hollywood history.”
This context matters when watching a Clift movie. A Place in the Sun came out in 1951, and it wrenches the guts to watch Clift’s character, George Eastman, be pulled apart by his conscience.
The plot’s not complicated. A guy with no money goes to work for his rich uncle, boxing swimsuits on an assembly line. He meets a nice girl and gets her pregnant. Then – complication of complications – he meets Elizabeth Taylor. She’s rich and beyond beautiful. He falls in love… and she loves him back!
What’s he to do with the pregnant girlfriend?
The class dynamics are fascinating. (Charlie Chaplin called it “The greatest movie ever made about America.”) George is torn between two lives that can’t mix; and there’s a heartbreaking scene where his poor paramour practically begs for an abortion. Of course the doctor says no. When she demands George marry her, he agrees. But he wants Liz.
Clift’s performance is the soul of this movie. George is decent but having bad thoughts, and on that intense face he wears the agony of his predicament like the most sensitive person imaginable.
Ambiguity can be powerful. A Place in the Sun ends with a trial. Is George a murderer? He doesn’t know, and neither do we. All we know is we’re watching a wrecked man, and a great movie. There may be no better emblem of our capacity for neuroses, depression, and confliction than Montgomery Clift’s doomed face.