East Side, West Side
The urban romantic drama East Side, West Side (1949), based on a novel by Marcia Davenport, stars Barbara Stanwyck as Jessie Bourne, a perpetually forgiving wife who musters the courage to leave her adulterous socialite husband, Brandon (James Mason). Set primarily on Manhattan’s East Side, the story unfolds over a three-day period: When Brandon conspicuously reignites an affair with a persistent old flame, Isabel Lorison (Ava Gardner), Jessie struggles to maintain her dignity among her gossip-driven high society friends and family. She continues to accept Brandon’s suspicious excuses until she meets a policeman-turned-war hero, Mark Dwyler (Van Helfin), who hails from a West Side (i.e., lower middle class) neighborhood where we briefly glimpse signs of a warmer family life than that of the East Side couple. Jessie confronts the predatory Isabel with the inner strength and self-respect Mark has helped her discover—but shortly thereafter Isabel turns up dead and Brandon is implicated in her murder. In little time, Mark solves the case, pinning the crime on a jealous femme fatale competitor of Isabel’s (played by Beverly Michaels). Brandon begs for forgiveness from Jessie but his peripheral involvement is this embarrassing situation is enough to prompt her to finally leave him—and, it is implied, start anew with Mark.
While the picture is not a film noir, its adult romantic themes, dark storyline and urban setting (not to mention the cast) do suggest elements of that genre. Mervyn LeRoy’s direction manages to keep the focus on Jessie’s struggle for freedom, despite the film’s myriad supporting players and coincidental subplots. Variety’s review observed that screenwriter “Isobel Lennart evidently tried to keep all of the original characters in the novel in her screenplay” and that the film “could have been tightened up considerably to good advantage.” The New York Times was intolerant of the decadent world the film attempted to create, with its reviewer writing, “Incredible elegance has been lavished by Metro on this film, with duplex apartments and night clubs and fancy dress salons galore. The ladies all wear expensive garments and the gentlemen drink expensive booze. But that still doesn’t elevate the effort above the level of hopeful pretense.” The picture’s key performances were well received: a review in The Hollywood Reporter praised “Stanwyck’s clean-cut conception of the wife” as “another fine performance from the gifted actress,” and noted that “James Mason scores resoundingly as the heel of a husband.”
Miklós Rózsa’s dramatic, noir-tinged score centers on a melancholy theme for Jessie, introduced in sweeping fashion during the opening titles. The descending line reflects the troubled wife’s plight, while the theme’s deceptive harmonies and oscillating cadences capture her inability to decide whether or not to leave Brandon. This material gives way to a contrastingly optimistic ascending figure for Jessie’s relationship with Mark and her eventual contentment, an idea that becomes increasingly prominent as she recognizes her need to end her marriage. (Variety noted, “Music of Miklós Rózsa properly matches and catches the spirit of the dramatic action of the picture.”)
Only two cues from Rózsa’s score survive on the film’s music masters (originally 35mm optical negative, later transferred to ¼″ monaural tape), featuring brooding renditions of the main theme for scenes early in the picture of Jessie coping with the lies and broken promises from her husband. (The score is sparsely spotted in the finished film, which features copious source music—not included here—for parties and social settings.)
- 19. Bran’s Story 3M1
- This cue appears approximately 20 minutes into the film: Jessie (Barbara Stanwyck) lays in bed awaiting the return of her husband, Brandon (James Mason), from a business meeting. He is late, and the score reflects her brewing distress with a murky clarinet line over low-register strings that flirt with main theme’s first phrase. When Brandon finally appears, he offers a half-true excuse about a drunken fight outside a club—omitting any mention of his encounter with ex-girlfriend Isabel (Ava Gardner). Rózsa plays through his explanation with melancholic settings of the film’s main theme, as well as pizzicato strings that cautiously pick at the melody’s opening pitches. Jessie accepts his story and solo clarinet presents an optimistic take on the melody, leading to the hopeful material that later becomes associated with Jessie’s romance with Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin). Brandon reassures Jessie that he loves her and they resolve to get some sleep.
- 20. Lonesomeness 5M1
- Jessie walks through her spacious duplex apartment, again awaiting Brandon’s arrival: he is supposed to meet her before they attend a party honoring Mark (Van Heflin), but Brandon is busy carrying on with Isabel. The main theme plays on low-register clarinet and bassoon, giving voice to the pain Jessie refuses to express in words. Mark’s material attempts to offer good will over descending chromaticism when Jessie’s maid questions Brandon’s whereabouts. Jessie makes an excuse for her husband and resolves to go to the party alone, with the main theme returning to close the scene on a note of sorrow. —