Director Mervyn LeRoy has a stable full of thoroughbreds and he lets them run.
Let’s get this straight right off the top: I love this film.
We’ll start with James Mason, who plays Brandon Bourne, a rich man who knows all the right people, goes to all the posh places, wears tailored suits but beneath that thin veneer is nothing but a weak, worthless cad. He cheats on his devoted wife as a matter of course, safe in the knowledge that she will accept—if not believe—his flimsy excuses about where he’s been and his empty promises that each time is the last time.
Though Brand will take up with any beautiful woman who will have him, Isabel Lorrison has her claws in particularly deep. Ava Gardner is never better as the woman who knows she can snap her fingers and make another woman’s husband come running. Her part in the film is smaller than the others, but she makes her mark, stealing every scene she’s in.
You’ve got Van Heflin, an excellent actor who isn’t as remembered as he should be playing Mark Dwyer, the man who is everything Brandon Bourne is not, and who longs to show Brandon’s wife what real love and devotion look like.
And at the center of it all, you’ve got Barbara Stanwyck as the stoically long-suffering wife, Jessie Bourne. Through all the subplots about Mark Dwyer and his childhood friend, Brand and Isabel, a murder mystery, and an exploration of the different neighborhoods in New York, this is a film about how Jessie Bourne comes to leave her long marriage. You watch her suffer the small indignities of having to pretend everything is fine with her friends while they all know the truth of her husband’s infidelity.
The film is filled with scene after scene you can feast on: Brand coming home after staying up all night and groveling to Jessie, who keeps forgiving but not managing to forget. A reticent Jessie squirms with discomfort when her friend (in one of Nancy Reagan’s first roles) questions her about Brand’s philandering. Isabel taunting Brand, knowing he won’t be able to give up their trysts. Mark Dwyer and Jessie falling in love while he makes eggs and mushrooms in her kitchen. The icy showdown between Jessie and Isabel.
It’s all leading to Jessie finally calling it quits. When Brand comes home to face the music for the final time, I couldn’t wait for Jessie to let him have it. I wanted this shy, stoic woman to finally let it rip—to scream, list his myriad indiscretions, throw things at him.
But this is not Jessie Bourne’s way.
In one of the best acted scenes of Stanwyck’s long career, her Jessie Bourne listens carefully while Brand lists all the reasons she should take him back one more time. He’s scared because he knows how far he’s pushed her this time, but he believes—he always believes—that he can find a way to get her back.
When he’s finally finished, Jessie looks at him with dry eyes. You can hear the tears in her throat, but she’s done all the crying she’s ever going to do for Brandon Bourne. No screaming, no throwing things—Brandon has finally killed all Jessie’s love for him and there’s nothing either of them can do to change it.
Stanwyck kills the delivery, and it’s a damn shame I couldn’t find a YouTube clip of it. This tumbler gif from duchesscloverly will have to do:
East Side, West Side is a well directed, excellently acted melodrama. It’s the life and love of New York City’s upper crust in the 1940’s. It’s got everything—love, drama, murder, infidelity.
It’s a fine film that should be more celebrated and remembered.
Give it a shot.