East Side, West Side


Crime has always acted as an effective hook to snare an audience. The reason? I guess it comes down to the challenge of being presented with a puzzle, even when it’s not an especially taxing one, that helps to draw in so many people. Even when the crime is not the principal feature of the movie it still adds a little spice, maybe broadening the overall appeal. East Side, West Side (1949) is at heart a slick melodrama, the kind that MGM was adept at making. Somewhere around the halfway mark it manages to work in a murder mystery, administering a shot in the arm to a plot which had been in danger of growing slightly listless and predictable.

The voice-over narration which introduces the movie has Jessie Bourne (Barbara Stanwyck) maintaining that the New York she inhabits is nothing special really, a place where people’s lives are mapped out in much the same way as they are in less celebrated towns. Yet the New York we are subsequently drawn into is different, it’s stylish and sophisticated and sleek, with well-to-do types very obviously doing well. Jessie Bourne is the daughter is one of the great ladies of Broadway, her husband Brandon (James Mason) is a successful financier with blue blood and all the polish and accomplishment it brings. The conversation appears as bright and dazzling as the crystal and china on her mother’s supper table, and every bit as brittle. That bright glaze that surrounds the Bournes is but a thin veneer, a superficial sheen that is riven with the kind of hairline cracks that are only visible when viewed outside of the honeyed glow of pampered privilege. You see, Brandon Bourne is an incorrigible philanderer and something of a lost soul, a man floundering in a sea of temptation, ostensibly in love with his wife yet powerless to resist the lure of forbidden fruit. The most persistent interloper in the Bournes’ garden is the relentlessly sexy Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner), a supreme huntress in the field of seduction. She had an affair with Brandon in the past before moving away but has now been let loose once again to prowl the streets and clubs of Manhattan. That she is stalking Brandon mercilessly is never in question, and his assertions that he’s a reformed character have a hollow ring, not least to his own ears.

Jessie Bourne’s wronged woman is on a different path though. Frustrated by her husbands serial infidelity while simultaneously paralyzed by her love for him and her inability to envisage a life without him, she appears to have reached an impasse. By a convoluted mix of coincidence and curiosity, she encounters mannequin Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse), who in turn brings her into contact with Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin). Dwyer is a former policeman now working in some ill-defined role as an intelligence operative in post-war Europe. His arrival on the scene has a twofold effect, affording Jessie a glimpse of how her life could be without the constant fear of abandonment by her wayward husband and then later assuming a more professional role as an impromptu investigator when murder gatecrashes this elite atmosphere.

“That’s what you don’t get at home. That’s what you’ve missed isn’t it! It’s so tiresome being restrained and soft-spoken and gentlemanly. What you really want is to be a little rotten, like me!”

Those words, spoken with passion and animation, by Ava Gardner’s character at a decisive moment go some way towards clarifying the hold she has over Brandon Bourne. It’s a superb piece of casting really, Gardner was near her peak at this stage and commands attention whenever she is on screen. It is quite impossible to take your eyes off her and it’s very easy to see how Mason’s playboy is drawn inexorably to this smouldering siren. She is earthy and forthright, candid with regard to what she wants and every bit as frank in her assessment of herself. Essentially, she is the polar opposite of Jessie’s contained refinement. Even though the main focus of the story is on Jessie’s three day trek to self-belief and her realization of her own worth as an individual, it’s not the most compelling feature. The part is well enough defined and Stanwyck’s work is up to her usual standard, but it’s a relatively straightforward one. It would be unfair, I think, to refer to it as bland but there’s a touch of inevitability to the path traced, not to mention a dearth of internal conflict.

James Mason, on the other hand, does get something meatier and more complex to sink his teeth into. This was one of his earliest Hollywood films and his suave ambiguity was well used. His character’s acknowledgment of his flaws and weaknesses invites the viewer to weigh this man up, to consider him rather than merely sit in judgement. It’s the cocktail of arrogance, insecurity and self-awareness that lends a wretched and abject aspect to the final image we have of him, a portrait of vanity bereft.

Van Heflin’s role is a little odd or contrived. It’s almost as though he is parachuted into the picture as some transient righter of wrongs, a bluff and hearty action man, ace investigator and sage with a neat sideline in homespun philosophy and cooking skills. His determination to brush off a deeply smitten Cyd Charisse for, let’s face it, some pretty spurious and unconvincing reasons is difficult to swallow. Then after assuring Stanwyck he is not in the business of wooing other men’s wives he proceeds to do just that before departing the scene again. I can’t fault Heflin’s playing but I have to scratch my head over some of the logic surrounding how his character is written. That said, I’m never displeased to see him in a movie and there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s not every day you have the opportunity to see him involved in a punch up with Beverly Michaels. Married to the producer Voldemar Vetluguin and making her screen debut, Michaels arrives fairly late in the story but is pivotal in bring about the resolution. And finally, there’s some well crafted support offered by Gale Sondergaard, Nancy Reagan (still Nancy Davis at this stage) and William Conrad.

East Side, West Side was released on DVD years ago as part of a Barbara Stanwyck box set by Warner Brothers so it shouldn’t be that hard to locate. There are undoubtedly better melodramas around but it has that MGM sheen that is certainly attractive, boosted by Mervyn LeRoy’s tight direction and a Miklos Rozsa score. The crime element lifts it in the latter stages and there’s a lot to be said for any chance to spend an hour and three quarters in the company of a cast as classy and accomplished as this picture boasts.

57 thoughts on “East Side, West Side

  1. Well I gotta get this now. Interesting what you say about Heflin felling grafted on as I feel that about a lot of films from that era, to provide a moral barometer under the Breen Office so to speak. The cast really is fab and the MGM production values were so enticing!

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    • I hope you get to see it, and I’d be interested to know what you make of the characterization if or when you do. It’s an odd piece of writing in some respects, which is no reflection on the way Heflin plays it – he’s as good and reliable as ever.

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  2. It’s always fun to find commentary on a film you think nobody else would be interested in. As a Miklos Rozsa fan, I’ve naturally ranged far afield trying to catch all of the 95+ movies he scored in his long career. This one recently figured in our Rozsa Society discussion forum — in a thread, I’m afraid, devoted to the worst movies our composer ever worked on. I did discover some interesting facts in my background reading. Allow me to recycle some things here.

    A recent viewing of EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE made me consider inserting this one [in the ten worst list]. The story really belongs to the Stanwyck character: how she finally comes to accept that her husband is a hopeless weakling. But the plot hinges on the overnight relationship with Heflin’s Mr. Right and his instant solution of an improbable murder mystery. This is a movie that Rozsa was unable to help. He might have emphasized Stanwyck’s anguish, but he never got a decent opportunity. As Doug pointed out elsewhere, there is but a single scene of Stanwyck’s awakening to her husband’s absence that offered scope for music.

    Incidentally, the source novel by Marcia Davenport had been a successful best seller. If the name seems familiar, it is because she wrote a widely praised biography of Mozart (the first in English) in 1932 and later commented frequently on Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. Davenport had her musical bona fides: Her mother was the opera singer Alma Gluck and her stepfather was the violinist Efrem Zimbalist. It’s hard to imagine that her novel’s plotting was as lame as as the movie makes it seem. Her editor at Scribner’s was the famous Maxwell Perkins.

    . . .
    Aha! The NY Times review of Davenport’s novel reveals the movie version as a typical Hollywood sabotage. The novel contrasts Jessie’s staunch ethnic roots (Jewish and Irish) with the effete Knickerbocker culture of her husband’s world. Mark Dwyer (the Heflin character) is a general with background in the Czech underground whose family has been decimated in the Holocaust. Ava Gardner’s character and the absurd murder plot appear to be entirely missing from the book. One is reluctant to blame the mess on the respected screenwriter Isobel Lennart (The Sundowners, Funny Girl [original book and movie adaptation]). Perhaps Hollywood’s disinclination to address the Holocaust was the deciding factor. Too bad. Barbara Stanwyck (Ruby Stevens from Brooklyn) could have done something with Davenport’s character. So could Rozsa.

    https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesm … =true&ip=0

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    • Personally, I think it’s harsh on the movie. There’s quite a lot here to enjoy and while the mystery aspect is tacked on in a sense, it does revive a story which would otherwise have been essentially done and dusted in very short order.

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      • Agree there are things to enjoy. One might mention Gale Sondergaard, who has a couple of early scenes as Stanwyck’s mother. She sees through Brandon, and yet she genuinely likes him. It’s an interestingly nuanced characterization.

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    • I too have read the novel during a brief Marcia Davenport period inspired by Valey of Decision, a great novel, which if anything is a love song to Pittsburgh. A tricky read, an interesting but truncated and loused up film, that could have been another Gone With The Wind. As for this thing, I disliked Davenport’s novel and shut down reading her work after that. The film, thumbs down, and contrary to popular thinking, I thought Barbara Stanwyck a bore. But so were they all.

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  3. This seems to have been Sondergaard’s last film before running into blacklist trouble — largely on account of her husband, Herbert Bieberman’s, Communist affiliation. He was one of the Hollywood Ten.

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  4. William Conrad seems to turn up in so many movies in various minor roles. Its rather fun seeing him suddenly turn up in a scene if I haven’t noticed his name during the credits (“oh, look- its Cannon!” I’ll usually say, betraying my age).

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    • I tend to have a similar response, and I have to say it pleases me no end whenever I do see Conrad. I guess we’re of a similar vintage as I’m in the habit of automatically associating him with the role of Frank Cannon too.

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      • Showing MY vintage, Conrad will forever be the voice of Matt Dillon on radio’s “GUNSMOKE”!
        By a real coincidence, Colin, I had just ordered a copy of “EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE” yesterday when I opened up your review. Because of this I have avoided much of the discussion as it is a film I have never seen. The cast is a strong attraction for me.
        Once viewed I will return to your review and resulting discussion.

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  5. Interestingly, it was the MGM sheen that made gave me problems with East Side West Side. It really needed to be the sort of hard-hitting melodrama that Warner Bros. was generally better at making.

    I’ve always found that the programmers MGM was making in this era, as opposed to prestige movies like this one, are the much more interesting films — also from MGM in 1949 is Border Incident, which doesn’t look like something you’d expect from them at all. I’ve always wondered how much Dory Schary had to do with that.

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    • Sorry, Ted, your comment got siphoned off into the the spam for some reason and I only just noticed it and fished it out.

      Interesting point. I agree that Warner Brothers was a studio more typically associated with, and perhaps better at handling, social dramas. That said, I felt the upper crust milieu depicted in this movie was a good fit for MGM, that smooth studio gloss feeling right for the wealthy Manhattan world we see. Had the focus been centered more on, say, Charisse or Heflin’s background, then it might have felt less satisfactory.

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    • Dore Schary had a lot to do with it. Wholesome MGM was struggling to adapt to a different post-war environment. Dore Schary, who would later replace Louis B. Mayer as studio head, was brought on. He was a man with a different vision and wanted to bring realism to the studio. He and Mayer clashed almost right away. Schary favored pictures that entertained as well as having a message.

      To me, the MGM post-war “message pictures” are very interesting, but that famous MGM gloss is hard to beat. There has to be room for both.

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  6. I very much enjoyed this melodrama. Back in 2013 I reviewed it and you commented you’d like to see it. Well, it may be 9 years later but I’m glad you got to view it – even though you aren’t as enthusiastic as I am. I don’t agree Van Heflin’s role is contrived. His character provided a nice contrast to James Mason. I’d have liked Gale Sondergaard and Nancy Davis to have more scenes. I love that scene where Gale tells Mason the truth – “My happiness and piece of mind depends on her leaving you. You’re vain, self centred and ruthless.”
    Ava was wonderful, one of her best roles.

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    • It slipped my mind that you had featured this movie – your post can be found here.

      I took me a while to get round to actually viewing it, didn’t it! Anyway, I do like it. Sure there are points where I feel it could be tightened up or elements which work better than others for me, but there are certainly a lot more positives I took away from it than negatives and it is a movie I’ll enjoy revisiting.

      Am I being too harsh by referring to Heflin’s part as contrived? Perhaps but that’s how it struck me at the time, but maybe inconsistent would be a more appropriate choice. His entry into the drama is well realized and the character is set up as a bluff contrast to the cultivated dissembling and dishonesty we’ve grown accustomed to with the other characters. Yet he doesn’t really live up to that, or follow through on it anyway. And I still struggle to see how he could brush off Cyd Charisse with such apparent nonchalance, or for the kind of reasons he offered. I think the point you made in your own piece about Charisse’s role being in a sense disposable makes sense, although I don’t think I’d ever want to see her removed from a film.

      Generally, a number of parts might have benefited from being expanded a bit, but what we get is good enough too. I guess, as ever, it’s probably best to enjoy these things for what they offer rather than kick them too hard for what they don’t.

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    • Vain and self-centered for sure. But is he “ruthless”? More of a weakling, I would think. Perhaps ruthlessness characterizes his apparently successful career as an investment manager. We don’t see any of that in the film. In the novel it would appear that his success depends on connections and “old money.” That would be in contrast to Jessie’s and Mark’s ethnic authenticity.

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  7. Heflin’s character may not be contrived, but the plotting certainly is. He meets Stanwyck by chance in a shared taxi. He promptly ditches the sweetheart who’s been awaiting him for years. Learning of a murder, he instantly takes over from the NYPD — he’s some kind of international police official returning from Europe — and solves the crime in a couple of hours, after punching out the tall dame who’s been hovering around the edge of the plot.
    Agree about Sondergaard. Ava can certainly play a seductress, but is the sheer malicious spite of her character believable?

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    • That summation is very glib, but did make me smile.

      Re Gardner: I had no trouble buying into her characterization. The role is well played and the way she behaves or reacts at certain points is, I think, explained by the bitterness she feels when her own “school of hard knocks” adolescence is contrasted with the coddled atmosphere Stanwyck was privileged to experience. It’s basically the product of a lifetime of jealousy and resentment.

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  8. Another superb piece of review of a ‘superb piece of casting’ of this melodrama! I was drawn to this some time ago by the cast especially Stanwyck, Gardner and Mason. An entertaining movie no doubt.

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  9. Colin
    I am starting to sound like a broken record here. You keep posting films I know nothing about. This one is another for the must watch list. Nicely done write-up by the way. .

    Gordon

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  10. Well, Colin, got it, watched it and really enjoyed it! I found the film a quality melodrama with a very good cast.
    I seem to be the only one who doesn’t have a problem with Heflin putting Charisse’s young woman straight in that he probably realises that her childhood crush on him has grown and needs her to realise how much older than her he is and that the relationship needs to stay the way it had been left.
    I felt that Mason’s character was indeed vain, self-centred. I also felt that he really did want to reject Ava’s advances and be true to Stanwyck but was just too weak a man to resist.
    In a rather unshowy role I found Stanwyck excellent, able to show her character’s outward lack ot passion honestly but without making her in any way dull.
    Good film. Thanks for making me bump it way up to the top of my now rather large ‘to watch’ pile, Colin!!

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    • I’m very pleased to hear you enjoyed the movie, Jerry. I think it’s also interesting, as well as the mark of a good film, that it’s possible for a lot of viewers to have a range of responses to the plotting and characterization.

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      • Stanwyck’s character isn’t supposed to be a blue blood though, rather she’s married into that world via Mason. She’s clearly very wealthy from her mother’s success on Broadway but retains her connections to a more down to earth world too, hence the way she managed to bond so readily with Heflin’s character.

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        • Yes. As mentioned above, her ethnicity is a mix of Irish and Jewish in the novel — in stark contrast to the old money of her husband’s world. Stanwyck (Ruby Stevens from Brooklyn) could have done something with that, but it’s not brought out in the script. And the Heflin character was originally a Czech whose family had been decimated in the Holocaust.

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          • Back to the novel and Marcia Davenport. She was intimately involved with Jan Masaryk and Czechoslavakia, past and present, plays an essential part in Valley of Decision as well as East Side, West Side. Dumb, her feelings for the Czech people provide the soul of both.

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        • Yes, I was going to refer to Stanwyck’s character’s more ‘ordinary’ beginnings. Her character was a good person.
          Of course James Mason had just arrived in Hollywood from a gradual rise in stardom in English films. He was very good at presenting characterisations of light and dark and clearly he felt a move to Hollywood would allow him involvement in bigger-budgeted films.

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  11. I’ve no complaint about the main characters or the performances. But let’s circle back to plot. The (questionably) decisive action here — I guess we’re avoiding spoilers — is that character X murders character Y. If this event really is central, then we must ask whether it flows organically from what we’ve seen before. But if the murder and subsequent solution are merely a contrivance, . . . Well, that’s a serious problem, is it not?

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    • We’re fairly deep into the comments here so I guess spoilers shouldn’t really be an issue. I’ll make it easy for anyone should they wish to avoid any unwanted information though.

      ______________________________________________________________________________________
      —————————SPOILER ALERT——————————————–
      ______________________________________________________________________________________

      It is set up to look like Mason may have murdered Gardner, which certainly would have been an event that could have flown organically from came before. The fact it ended up being Michaels who was responsible does arrive unexpectedly in comparison, although her presence had been referred to and it more or less makes sense the way everything develops. That said, the whole business does feel tacked on.

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  12. Weekend films include … RAMS 2021 Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Michael Canton. An Aussie comedy that has good reviews.
    WILL PENNY 1968 I meant to get this a few weeks back but did not get a chance. Been a few decades since I caught it. .

    Hockey season here so the rest of the weekend is busy.

    Have a good weekend folks.

    Gord

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  13. Colin
    I was surprised just how enjoyable WILL PENNY was. Nice work up and down the cast list. What a top flight low life Bruce Dern plays. Can’t believe I have been ignoring this one. This is not the film I thought I had seen before so thanks for bringing it up a while back.

    Gordon

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  14. Colin, Scott
    I saw MOUTAIN MEN in the cinema and truly enjoyed it from start to finish.. Like you I wish it would pop up on the tube once in a while.

    Gord

    Liked by 1 person

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