An American Tragedy:  The Book and the Adaptations

In 1906, Chester Gillette drowned Grace Brown in a lake because he had gotten her pregnant, a crime for which he was put to death in the electric chair.  An American Tragedy, a 1925 novel by Theodore Dreiser, is based those events.

In the novel, the man is Clyde and the woman is Roberta.  There is another woman, Sondra, whom Clyde wanted to marry, but she may be a completely fictional character.  The first film adaptation of An American Tragedy, released in 1931, has the same title as the novel, and the three principal characters have the same names.  The second adaptation, directed by George Stevens in 1951, has a title that is different from the novel, A Place in the Sun, and the characters have different names.  Don’t ask me why.  To help keep things straight, here are the identities:

George (Montgomery Clift) = Clyde

Alice (Shelley Winters) = Roberta

Angela (Elizabeth Taylor) = Sondra

In A Place in the Sun, George is raised in a poor family that does street missionary work.  But he wants more out of life than that, so he hitchhikes to California where his rich uncle lives, hoping to better himself through that family connection.  He gets a job working in his uncle’s factory, where one of the strict rules is that he is not to date any of the girls that work there, which would include Alice.  But as luck would have it, he runs into Alice at a movie theater and ends up walking her home.  They start seeing each other, and one night he comes into her room at a boarding house, one thing leads to another, and they end up having sex.  They continue seeing each other, and I naturally thought they continued having sex during this period.  I have no doubt that Chester Gillette, the real George, and Grace Brown, the real Alice, did have sex more than once.  But reality is one thing, and a movie is something else.  And so, one night when George comes over to visit Alice, she says, “George, we’re in trouble.  Real trouble, I think.”  He asks her what she means.  She replies, “Remember the first night you came here?”

That’s when I had to laugh.  There it was, the standard formula:  a woman has sex just one time, and sure enough, she gets pregnant.  It’s almost as if a good form of birth control for unmarried couples in a movie is to have lots of sex.  Otherwise, why not let George and Alice have regular sex for two or three months before she ends up getting pregnant?  I understand the dramatic aspect of pregnancy arising from just one moral lapse, but there comes a point where the formula is so overused as to be absurd.

Anyway, during the time between their one act of fornication and Alice’s realization that she is pregnant, George has met and fallen in love with Angela, who is rich and upper class, and to his amazement, she has fallen in love with him and wants to get married.  This is everything he has ever hoped for.  But then he finds out Alice is pregnant.

He tries to get her an abortion, but the doctor he arranges for her to see tells her to go home to her parents.  Eventually, the idea of killing her takes hold of him.  He hears about how sometimes people drown when they are out on the lake, and he recalls that Alice said she did not know how to swim.  And so, he suggests that before they get married, they should have an enjoyable afternoon out on the lake.

Now, in the novel, Clyde doesn’t actually kill Roberta.  He planned to drown her and make it look like an accident.  He gets her out into the middle of the lake in a rowboat, knowing she cannot swim.  But then he thinks he cannot do it.  But then he thinks he will.  He might as well be picking petals off a daisy:  “I kill her, I kill her not, I kill her, I kill her not.”  Anyway, she ends up falling overboard and drowns just as he was thinking, “I kill her not.”  Notwithstanding all the planning he put into this murder that he changed his mind on at the last minute but which had the same result anyway, his identity is discovered, he is tried for murder, convicted, and executed.

This was not the first time Dreiser used the idea of a man being indecisive about committing a crime until the contemplated criminal act accidentally happens just as he was thinking he would not commit the crime.  In Carrie (1952), the movie based on Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie, Lawrence Olivier’s character is tempted to steal money from his boss when he is closing up one night and finds that the safe has been left open.  He takes the money out of the safe, puts it back, takes it out, and so on, until just as he decides he won’t steal the money, the safe accidentally closes and locks while he still has the money in his hands, leading to his downfall.

In a couple of respects, the first adaptation of An American Tragedy is better.  For one thing, it is more faithful to the true story on which it is based.  What I regard as more important than that, however, is the actress that plays the part of Roberta is Silvia Sidney.  We readily believe in her naïve innocence.  She seems like the Roberta of the novel, a woman we like and feel sorry for.  As noted above, however, in A Place in the Sun, Alice is played by Shelley Winters.  I don’t know what Shelley Winters was like as a person, but her screen persona simply is not the sweet, innocent virgin for whom we are supposed to have sympathy because she was taken advantage of by a man.  In fact, the hostess for a showing of this film on Turner Classic Movies, Alicia Malone, said that this movie was a turning point in Winters’ career.  Before that, she was typically cast as a blonde bombshell or as a sexpot, and it was for that reason that George Stevens, the director, refused at first even to consider her for this part, saying she was “completely wrong for this plain, meek, little factory girl.”  I don’t know why he relented.  Someone like Betsy Blair would have been far more suitable for the part.  In any event, it was not much of a turning point for Shelley Winters, for afterwards she still seemed suited for roles in which she is a hard-boiled broad, as in Alfie (1966) or Bloody Mama (1970).  As a result, when she is taken advantage of by a man in a movie, we are more likely to think she is dumb than naïve.

Partly as a result of this difference, we are sad when Silvia Sidney’s Roberta drowns.  As for Shelley Winters’ Alice, however, I know I am supposed to feel sorry for her, and I do a little bit, but the fact is that I never really mind when Shelley Winters dies in a movie.  I find her to be a little irritating, and so whenever she dies in a movie, I experience her death more with a feeling of relief than with a sense of loss.  For example, the fact that she drowns in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) does not spoil my sense that the movie has a happy ending.  A third movie in which Shelley Winters drowns is The Night of the Hunter (1955), murdered by her newlywed, psychopathic husband, played by Robert Mitchum.  Now, Robert Mitchum’s character, Harry Powell, is supposed to be as bad as they come, so you would think they would have allowed him to kill a more likeable actress, like Debbie Reynolds, for instance, so that we would really think Harry is evil.  But I believe they picked Shelley Winters to be his victim so that we would not spend the rest of the movie feeling sorry for her.  In other words, the movie has a happy ending, in part, because the earlier death of Shelley Winters’ character does not strike a sour note that resonates through the rest of the movie.

If A Place in the Sun had starred an actress to play Alice who would have been more believably innocent and whose death would have been more disturbing, then we would have been appropriately outraged that George would have even thought about abandoning her, let alone make elaborate plans to murder her, just as we are when we read the novel or watch the first adaptation.  But with Shelley Winters playing the part, her death really seems to be just a plot point, and we almost end up feeling sorrier for George, played by the likeable Montgomery Clift, than we do for Alice.

Within the novel and the two adaptations, Clyde (George) is punished for a murder that he did not commit, even though things accidentally happened as he had planned.  But when we step outside the novel and the adaptations, we may ask why the story was written this way.  After all, murders take place every day, but how often does someone plan a murder, change his mind at the last minute, only to have the person he was planning to murder accidentally die in a manner similar to what he had planned?  I submit that the answer to that question is, “Never!”  This is strictly a figment of Dreiser’s imagination.  As for the true story this was based on, Chester Gillette deliberately killed Grace Brown with a blow from his tennis racket, knocking her into the lake, where she drowned.

Furthermore, there are doubts as to whether there was another woman, nor need there have been one.  Gillette may have murdered Brown simply because he didn’t want to marry her.  It would have at least been realistic had there been another woman, but she too may have been dreamed up by Dreiser.  As far as the novel goes, Sondra is not just another woman.  She is upper-class.  And throughout the early part of the story, we are made aware that Clyde is ambitious, for it is the theme of ambition that accounts for the word “American” in the title.  As a result, we doubt that he ever loved either woman.  Or rather, he loved Sondra, but only because she was rich and upper-class.

There are many movies in which women try to rise socially by marrying into the upper class, and often as not, they succeed.  But while we are sympathetic to a woman’s attempt to marry up, we do not extend the same attitude toward men.  Men are allowed to marry down for the sake of love, but when they try to marry up, we just don’t like it.  In fact, it may even be that this is the real reason Clyde is punished, for not being content with his lot in life, since the novel goes to great lengths to make it clear that he did not commit the crime for which he was charged.

The other day, I happened to watch Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005).  It readily calls to mind an earlier movie of his, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), in which someone also gets away with murder and lives happily ever after.  Also, we see the protagonist reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which is also about a man that commits a murder.  Finally, music from various operas is heard throughout the movie.  Operas often involve lust and murder, or so I’ve been told.

About halfway through this movie, however, I began to notice similarities between this movie and An American Tragedy.  But there were also many differences, and I figured that including a discussion of Match Point in this review would be a stretch.  But then it occurred to me that whenever I fancy that I’ve had an original thought, it usually turns out that lots of other people have already had that thought.  So, I Googled it.  Lots of other people have already had that thought.  One critic suggested that since the story is set in England, the movie’s title should have been A British Tragedy.  The identities are now as follows:

Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) = George = Clyde

Nola (Scarlett Johansson) = Alice = Roberta

Chloe (Emily Mortimer) = Angela = Sondra

Chris, like Clyde, is ambitious.  He is a tennis player.  I don’t know if that has anything to do with the fact that a tennis racket was the murder weapon used by Chester Gillette, but I suspect the main reason is to supply us with a simile.  In the opening scene of the movie, we see a tennis ball being hit back and forth between two unseen players.  Suddenly, the ball hits the top of the net and bounces straight up.  The match will be determined by which way the ball falls, on which side of the net, a matter of sheer luck.  We hear Chris saying that as in tennis, so much of life is a matter of luck.

There are a lot of differences here and there between this movie and the ones discussed above.  For one thing, Chris and Nola don’t have sex just one time as did their counterparts in A Place in the Sun.  (As for the novel and the first movie version, I think they had sex just once, but it’s been a long time since I have read the former and seen the latter.)  Moreover, Chris is already married to Chloe when he gets Nola pregnant.  And whereas Clyde (George) lost interest in Roberta (Alice) as soon as Sondra (Angela) became available, in this movie, Chris is indifferent to Chloe, to whom he stays married in order to keep his position in her father’s business, but he is madly passionate about Nola.

Unlike the novel and the movie versions, where having an abortion is attempted but thwarted by the fact that it is illegal, in this movie, regardless of whatever the law is in England at this time, Nola has already had two abortions and could easily have a third when Chris gets her pregnant.  She decides she doesn’t want to have another one, saying that it is high time he left Chloe and married her.

This was a good way for Woody Allen to finesse this situation.  First, he probably wanted to avoid the cliché of a woman getting pregnant after doing it just once.  Second, Scarlett Johansson’s screen persona doesn’t suggest a woman that is pro-life.  So, he makes it clear that she has had sex with other men in the past, and many times with Chris.  Then he has her reject the solution of having an abortion, not as a matter of principle, but because she has already had two abortions, and she just doesn’t want to do that anymore.  So, what is different this time?  A woman’s attitude toward abortion is sometimes determined by her feelings for the man that impregnated her, and Nola is in love with Chris.

Chris decides to get out of this difficulty by killing her.  Having secreted one of his father-in-law’s shotguns out of the gun room, he uses it to kill an elderly lady that lives next door to make it look like a home invasion to steal her jewelry and prescription drugs.  Then he kills Nola just before she enters her apartment, making it look as though she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You would think that his killing Nola because her pregnancy threatens his comfortable life with Chloe would be sufficiently horrible all by itself.  But when he kills the elderly woman next door to cover his crime, that is an even greater evil.  It is not simply that killing two people is twice as bad as killing one.  It’s that the murder of the woman next door is decidedly more cold-blooded.

After the murders are discovered, the police read Nola’s diary and ask Chris to come in for an interview.  Before going there, he throws most of the woman’s jewelry into a river.  As he walks away, he realizes he still has the woman’s wedding ring.  He throws it toward the river, but unbeknownst to him, the ring bounces off the guardrail just like that tennis ball at the beginning of the movie.  It does not go into the river, but falls back on the pavement.  That appears to be bad luck for Chris.

Chris hallucinates one night, seeing himself in a conversation with Nola and the murdered neighbor.  Like a Greek chorus, they tell him he is doomed and will be punished.  He says, “It would be fitting if I were apprehended and punished.  At least there would be some small sign of justice.  Some small measure of hope for the possibility of meaning.”

We find it hard to believe that Chris would engage in this philosophical commentary at this point, even if he does read Dostoevsky and go to the opera.  Instead, we can’t help but regard this as Woody Allen’s statement on the story he is presenting us, delivered through the mouth of Chris.

It turns out that the fall of the ring on the pavement was actually good luck.  Just as one of the detectives figures out what really happened, another detective tells him the ring was found in the pocket of a drug addict with a long rap sheet, acting as confirmation of the original theory that it was a home invasion with Nola as collateral damage.  Now that guy will be punished for those murders he didn’t commit.  The movie ends with everyone in Chloe’s family being happy about the baby that she and Chris finally had.  Chloe’s father says he is sure the baby will be great at whatever he chooses to do, but her brother says he just hopes he will be lucky.

In An American Tragedy and its movie versions, Clyde (George) was not actually guilty of murder.  His decision not to kill Roberta (Alice) just as she accidentally falls into the lake and drowns is a matter of chance, like the tennis ball that might fall on one side of the net or the other.  But in Match Point, it is not the death of Nola that is a matter of chance.  It’s not as though Chris was thinking to himself, “I kill her not,” when he stumbles, causing the shotgun to go off accidentally.  Rather, the murders are an act of free will, not involving any element of chance.  It is only a matter of luck that he got away with it.

And so, the moral of this story is, there ain’t no moral.

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