Before I begin discussing the film itself, I wanted to comment on the "East Side" setting. One of my favorite places in the world is Gramercy Park. For those of you not from NYC, Gramercy Park is a small region in Manhattan; it encompasses an area from 19th Street to 21st Street, and from Third Avenue to Park Avenue South. In its center is the actual Park, a private garden available only to residents. Centered in the Park is a statue to Edwin Booth; across the street is The Players' Club, which Mr. Booth founded in 1888. Among the inhabitants of the area were James Cagney (who lived at #34), Gregory Peck (you can see him walking in the Park in A Conversation with Gregory Peck), and Margaret Hamilton; John Garfield died in #3. The home in which the Bournes reside is #36 (right next door to James Cagney!) and was my personal dream apartment. Now, there is no way that Jessica can see the river, even from the top floor of the east face of the building (Stuyvesant Town would be in the way), but it's still an impressive residence.
It goes without saying that Ms. Stanwyck is impressive as Jessica. Though Jessie is quiet, Ms. Stanwyck makes sure she is not passive. Jessie is determined that her marriage will survive (her parents' marriage was tumultuous, and it had a toll on their daughter), but neither is she a doormat. She has made it clear to her husband that she won't tolerate his philandering any longer. Though she has suspicions at times, she is willing to trust to a point that he is keeping his word. Ms. Stanwyck makes her pain evident, but also shows us Jessica's strengths - especially when she finally confronts her chief nemesis, Isabel (for an interesting discussion of the scene, please visit this review by Jeanine Basinger in The New York Review of Books. It includes a review of Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner in which Ms. Gardner alleges an affair with Ms. Stanwyck's husband, Robert Taylor).
None of us are huge James Mason fans; though he is at his best when there is something a bit shady about the character. This film is no exception. Mr. Mason has no problem with making Bran distasteful and weak; the result however is that you know pretty quickly that he is not a fit husband for anyone, much less the caring Jessica. His interactions with Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse, in a rare dramatic role) cut immediately to the chase. He flirts, she puts him down, saying "If I were your wife, I'd cut your heart out!" The audience totally understands her reaction; we don't even need to know that Isabel can summon him with a flick of her little finger to understand that he is spineless.
Conversely, Van Heflin as Mark Dwyer is excellent and immediately likeable. Sure, he falls for Jessica a bit too fast (but it is only an 108 minute film!) and he doesn't appreciate Rosa's affection for him, but he's a good man who has little use for Bran, and is upfront in his relations with the women in his life. Mr. Heflin, in his third appearance with Ms. Stanwyck (they had already appeared together in B.F.'s Daughter and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers) , shows an easy relationship with his co-star. There is an equality and regard in their relationship that (appropriately) is not present with Mr. Mason.
Part of the reason that Mr. Heflin's character is so attractive is the regard with which he is held by Rosa Senta. She's loved him since childhood, but she is also a woman with a regard for herself. She won't accept him as a second choice. His honesty towards her; her response to their conversations make both characters attractive.
Let's also acknowledge that the women in this film are remarkable for their solidarity. Sure, Isabel and Felice Backett (aka "The Amazon", played by Beverly Michaels) are heinous people, but the interactions that Jessie has with Helen Lee (Nancy Davis) and Rosa, and the love that Nora has for her daughter demonstrate that not every female discussion results in a catfight. These women are protective of Jessie. Ms. Davis, (in her first screen role; she was on the set of this film when she met her future husband, Ronald Reagan), says it best, when she decries the belief "that [women] aren't capable of affection for one another and honest friendship." Rosa, Nora, and Helen show the depth of female friendships. (TCM article)
Beverly Michaels was also appearing on the big screen for the first time. She was married to the film's producer Voldemar Vetluguin at the time (the marriage would end in 1952). She only appeared in 11 films (3 of them uncredited), but she's quite good in this small but memorable role. After her divorce, she married again, to screenwriter/director Russell Rouse. They were married for over 30 years, until his death, and had two children (their son Christopher is an editor). She died in 2007, at the age of 78, by which time she had become something of a cult figure as a noir-ish bad girl.
As is often the case, Mr. Mason and Ms. Stanwyck were not the first choices for the Bournes - Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert were the considered first. This would also be Gale Sondergaard's final film for 20 years - she and her husband Herbert Biberman were blacklisted; they moved to New York City where she was able to get work on Broadway. Finally, in 1969, she returned to the big and small screen (AFI catalog) with the film Slaves (directed by her husband) and the TV show It Takes a Thief.
We'll leave you with the trailer to this excellent film.