I was married to a man other women pursued!
If you look at imdb’s page for 1949’s East Side, West Side you’ll see some comments with almost diametrically opposed views. Many say it’s a bit of a rehash of all that’s come before when it comes to ‘women’s’ pictures. Other comment on the well developed plot, while others wring their hands with angst that the great cast wasn’t given better material. What most seem to agree on, however, is that the picture has an outstanding cast.
At its highest level, yes, the plot of East Side, West Side, had been done countless times even prior to 1949. But there’s so much here that to merely say it’s all old hat diminishes what’s an engaging and at times rather deep plot. At it’s core, there are more moving parts than we’ll have time for.
We’ve got Bran Bourne (James Mason) who is a serial philanderer who can’t seem to resist the urge to stray from his anxious but seemingly understanding wife Jessie (Barbara Stanwyck). That’s how we begin, with Bran skipping out early from he and his wife’s weekly dinner with her mother to attend a sudden business engagement. He ends up at a club, chatting up Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse),a model, to great success until she learns that he’s married.
About the same time, an old mistress returns with a vengeance, clearly looking to get her claws back into the hapless cad Bran. This is Isabel (Ava Gardner), a gal who seems perhaps out only to gather as many men as she can. Even while talking to Bran, she introduces him to her current man, who (perhaps knowing about the couples torrid past) promptly decks Bran, knocking him out cold.
Luckily for Bran, Rosa’s still a decent sort, and takes him home until he comes to. Bran takes pains to explain the evening to Jessie, resulting in Jessie and Rosa becoming friends of a sort. Rosa in turn ultimately takes Jessie to meet her boyfriend Mark (Van Heflin) Mark’s a former highly decorated policeman who know works abroad in law enforcement. He immediately takes a liking to Jessie and then….
We’ll leave it at that, because it get’s very involved and busy and it’s too fun to spoil. We will say that we get a murder mystery, which is thankfully rather quickly resolved so as not to detract overly much from all the melodrama.
But if the four leads have you intrigued, there’s still more in the supporting cast. Gale Sondergaard has a few scenes as Jessie’s mother Nora. William Conrad is (unsurprisingly) head of the murder investigation and comes exactly as advertised, gruff voice and all. Nancy Davis is also here in her first credited role as Helen, a friend of Jessie’s who counsels her to leave Bran. Sadly, it’s only Ms. Davis’ performance (you may know her better as Nancy Reagan) which fails to excel and impress. Though presenting as a dear friend, Helen comes off more as a bit of a condescending shrew.
But the balance are exceptional and if anything, leave one wanting more.
Stanwyck’s perfect for the role as she’d played similar many times before. Strangely though she’s not her usual tough self in the start, as she’s curiously timidly accepting of Mason’s continual dalliances. It’s only later that her backbone appears and she draws the line in the sand with her wayward husband. You can almost feel her temptation to give in to Mark’s not to subtle advances, perhaps not just to get back at Bran, but more importantly because she likes him and the attention he gives her- constantly changing his plans to spend more time with her. The picture revolves around her, even when she’s not in the scene.
James Mason seems wonderfully cast as well, though some find him flat here. He’s snarky yet not sneaky, as he’s pretty open about where he is most of the time, full of explanations and leaving messages with odd phone numbers. You can tell he thinks this time will run the same course as the rest- let’s give a lengthy explanation along with a bit of begging and everything will work out just fine. He’s also got a wonderful nervous clenching with his hands, showing (depending on your perspective) either the stress of trying to resist the urge to cheat or the anxiety of yet another required explanation.
Although she gets a lot of attention for her role in this film (and rightfully so), Ava Gardner is only in a handful of scenes, definitely the fewest of the ‘big four’ here. Yet she does it vexingly so, exuding confidence which you can see; full of knowledge that if she so much as snaps her fingers, James Mason will come running. Her scene with Barbara Stanwyck is wonderful to watch from both perspectives. From Isabel/Gardner’s of playing her cards, letting the tension mount as she knows she has a winning hand. Stanwyck is her polar opposite, starting strong and defiant but subtly crumbling by the end.
Lastly, we have Van Heflin’s role as Mark, who hits a home run as the every-man of the picture. He let’s down his first girl easily without trampling her emotions and easily moves on to Jessie. Yet here again he presents his case and, when it’s politely brushed aside he continues to go about his business without too much drama. He’s even polite to Bran, at least mostly. Van Heflin’s often under rated, but he’s excellent here to the point where you can feel the chemistry between he and Jessie. By the same token, Jessie and Bran seem to have none whatsoever, though perhaps that’s the intentional result of Bran’s philandering.
Bringing this perfect casting stew together is director Mervyn LeRoy, who does a magical job keeping East Side, West Side on pace without getting into the many potential sub-plots which abound. Though some decry the lack of development and quick resolution of the murder, LeRoy (and the plot) realize that the murder isn’t the story, rather it’s the relationship between these characters.
There’s lots to enjoy visually as well- even besides the cast. East Side, West Side is full of just the opulence you’d expect. Every set (with most of the picture set in residential areas) is full of sitting rooms, deeply upholstered chairs, rich leather and the like. Plus, as usual, everyone is constantly smoking.
Like most excellent films, East Side, West Side leaves you wanting more from these characters. It’d be great to see what’s really driving Bran to wander, so much so that he compares it to being a drunk. Can Mark really walk away from it all?