Thursday, February 1, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE (1949)

Adapted from the novel by Marcia Davenport, East Side, West Side (1949) is more melodrama than murder mystery, although there always seems to be a noir plot lurking beneath its surface. Surprisingly, star Barbara Stanwyck appears in good girl mode as a wronged wife enduring domestic discord. It's not one of Stanwyck's greatest performances - her heroine is too nice even to reproach her philandering husband for most of the film - but the solid cast makes the movie worth watching, most notably Ava Gardner as the truly ruthless siren who woos James Mason away from Stanwyck. Mervyn Leroy directs a cast that also includes Van Heflin, Cyd Charisse, Gale Sondergaard, and future First Lady Nancy Reagan, as Nancy Davis, making one of her earliest appearances on the big screen.

Stanwyck plays Jessie Bourne, a wealthy socialite who has already forgiven her husband, Brandon (James Mason), for a previous affair as the story begins. Jessie is dismayed, however, when the seductive Isabel (Ava Gardner) returns and immediately pursues Brandon again, refusing to believe his assertion that he has turned over a new leaf. As a result of Brandon's scuffle with Isabel's jealous boyfriend, Jessie begins a friendship with a young model named Rosa (Cyd Charisse) and her childhood crush, Mark (Van Heflin). Soon Mark reveals that his feelings for Jessie are more than platonic, but when Isabel is murdered Mark helps Jessie by working to clear Brandon from blame.

The murder and subsequent investigation occupy only the third act, while the majority of the story focuses on Jessie's misplaced loyalty to Brandon in spite of all the evidence that he's a faithless cad who relies on her presumed forgiveness to keep up his shenanigans. It only takes Rosa two minutes to figure out that Brandon is no good; "If I were your wife, I'd cut your heart out," she says, and the audience agrees with her. Jessie, however, clings to her optimism. "He'll change, you'll see. He'll change," she tells her friend, Helen (Nancy Davis), but even Jessie doesn't sound like she believes it. Jessie's mother (Gale Sondergaard) is polite to Brandon in front of Jessie but fervently hopes that her daughter will leave him. With every other character both overtly and covertly urging Jessie to dump her cheating spouse, it's frustrating to watch the heroine stick by him for so long, especially because we aren't used to seeing Stanwyck play doormats.

The bad characters have more fun, particularly Ava Gardner, whose Isabel prowls the Del Rio like a panther in a backless gown. She's a true femme fatale, and she knows it; she taunts Jessie with her power over Brandon, bragging that she can disrupt any effort to extricate him from her clutches. James Mason, handsome but too cosmopolitan to be trustworthy, has a smoldering, debauched look whenever he's in a scene with Gardner. His Brandon glares at Isabel with equal measures of lust and loathing, and we know she's right that the two of them are more alike than Brandon cares to admit. Isabel's circle includes much rougher characters, too; her boyfriend, Alec (Douglas Kennedy) is a bruiser who resents Isabel's interest in Brandon but has his own jealous side piece, Felice (Beverly Michaels), to amuse him when Isabel isn't around. This dangerous crew threatens to push the story into noir territory, and the audience perhaps hopes that they will, but Jessie and Mark are so resolutely moral that we know they'll never be pulled into anything so shady.

If you want to see Stanwyck and Heflin together in really heated noir, try The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). Catch James Mason in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), A Star is Born (1954), and North by Northwest (1959). Ava Gardner burns up the screen in The Killers (1946), Mogambo (1953), and The Barefoot Contessa (1954). Cyd Charisse also starred in Tension in 1949, but she's best remembered for musicals like Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), and Brigadoon (1954). Mervyn Leroy's other films from the 1940s include Random Harvest (1940), Madame Curie (1943), and Little Women (1949). The Valley of Decision (1945), starring Greer Garson and Gregory Peck, was also adapted from a novel by Marcia Davenport.