Saturday, July 28, 2018

An MGM melodrama

I mentioned many years back when I blogged about Johnny Eager that there's something about the gloss that MGM pictures had that comes with a side effect of making certain pictures look not quite right. Another good example of this is East Side, West Side.

Barbara Stanwyck plays Jessie Bourne, who has lived in New York all her life and tells us in a prologue that the city isn't quite as glamorous as outsiders might think; after all, the people in New York have day-to-day lives, too. In Jessie's case, that means marriage to investment advisor Brandon (James Mason), and weekly trips to her parents' place every Thursday night for dinner. At one of those dinners, Brandon gets a call that his business colleague needs to see him before a board meeting the next day, so he's going to have to leave early while Jessie goes home to wait up for him.

Brandon doesn't get in until 4:00 AM. He's spent some time at a swanky nightclub after the meeting, which involved talking to a woman Rosa (Cyd Charisse). Rosa has other guys pursuing her, and one of them eventually took a slug at Brandon. Since Brandon is well-known in his field, and a playboy, and the fight happened outside, it made it into the paper, which ought to be much to Jessie's consternation. Except that she's seen this sort of thing before. She knows that Brandon has had difficulty staying faithful, especially in the case of a former flame Isabel (Ava Gardner).

Well, formerly former. Isabel has come back to town with the intention of taking Brandon away from Jessie! As for Jessie, she meets Rosa, whose boyfriend Mark (Van Heflin) is about to get back from Italy having done government business in the post-war transition. Except that for Mark, this is really only a relationship of friends; he likes Rosa as a friend but not as a girlfriend. But when he meets Jessie, he could fall in love with her if only she weren't already married to Brandon.

This love quadrangle results in Isabel getting murdered, Jessie and Brandon being considered suspects, and Mark (a policeman before going off to World War II and Italy) solving the crime, all in the space of one reel. Now that Isabel is out of the way, what will happen to Jessie and Brandon's relationship?

The problem I had with East Side, West Side is that it all seems too pat and sterile. There's a long lead-up to the murder which occurs less than a half hour before the end of the movie. And as I said, it's amazing that Mark is able to solve it so quickly. Brandon seems to be almost a cardboard cutout and not a real character, with James Mason practically sleepwalking his way through the role.

And yet, through all this the movie is very pretty to watch. It's photographed in nice black-and-white, with attention paid to the details of the Bournes' luxurious duplex apartment, as well as the nightclub and Brandon's office. Even the poor side of New York, where Mark and Jessie's characters grew up, looks too nice. Compare it to the place on the wrong side of the tracks when Dana Andrews' character returns home to his parents in The Best Years of Our Lives, which seems much more real. All of this sheen is hiding a by-the-numbers, pedestrian film.

East Side, West Side is available from the Warner Archive. But it's really one of those movies that would be better off in a box set.

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