Monday, December 10, 2007

East of the River (USA, 1940)

A surprisingly bland film considering the amount of talent involved, East of the River can only be enjoyed if viewed on a camp level. Perhaps the only truly enjoyable aspect of East of the River is that of Marjorie Rambeau as Mama Teresa Lerenzo, if only because her acting so extremely over-the-top that it takes on a life of its own, becoming the camp anchor that carries the entire film. She plays the thickly accented, spaghetti-cooking Mama of young, swaggering Joe (Joe Conti) who, when he and his friend Nick almost kill a railway guard, convinces the local judge not only to not send her boy to juvenile hall, but to let his young orphaned friend come live with them as well. Years later as adults, Nick (William Lundigan) has become a graduating honor student with a bright future ahead of him while Joe (John Garfield) is a cheap if personable hoodlum. Fresh out of prison, Joe comes back to town with his check-bouncing gal Laurie (Brenda Marshall) for the graduation, telling everyone he runs some orange plantations back West. Before long, Joe has to lam off to Mexico after his attempt to get revenge on some gangsters who he believes sent him up is only half successful. Gone for months, Nick and Laurie slowly fall in love and, finally, get engaged to Mama’s blessing. Joe doesn’t like that at all, and comes back to a town full of revenge-thirsty gangsters to get his girl back, no matter what.....
A variation of W. S. Van Dyke’s film Manhattan Melodrama (1934), but not much more interesting, the part of Joe Lorenzo was supposedly first offered to and turned down by James Cagney before John Garfield took it. The less than top-notch script was cobbled together by Fred Niblo, Jr., who wrote many a B-film back then, before retiring from the industry in the early 1950s. Both John Fante and Ross Wills are credited for the original story, but one gets the feeling that Wills might have had more to do with it: it is simply hard to believe that this story could stem from Fante, the man who eventually wrote the screenplay for Walk on the Wild Side (1962) or the novels Ask the Dusk and Dreams from Bunker Hill (thus influencing the writings of Charles Bukowski). Take out the gangster aspects, the milieu in which this trite tales takes place is reminiscent of that featured in the short stories of Fante (as collected in The Wine of Youth), but any and all of his talent, realism, insight and dry humor is missing. Fante must have been pretty hungry to have put his name to this thing.
Director Alfred E. Green, a forgotten Hollywood stalwart with over a 100 films to his name and who even directed Betty Davis’ Oscar-winning performance five years previously in Dangerous, shows little flare for his material, aside from a rather pleasant opening sequence that has nothing really to do with the film but nicely manages introduce both the town and the environment of the main characters. The acting is uniformly weak, with those who come off best—like William Lundigan as Nick Lorenzi—doing so primarily because they were cast to type.
Brenda Marshall (born with decidedly non-Hollywood name Ardis Anderson Gaines) does a particularly bad turn as Laurie Romayne, the bad girl with a heart of gold who suddenly finds happiness in dish washing, bed making and housework....she is much more convincing a year later in her much smaller role as Errol Flynn’s wife in Footsteps in the Dark. (In 1941 she also became the real-life wife of William Holden, but, as one can imagine, they had long since divorced by the time he did his famous drunken and deadly dive against his living-room table.) John Garfield plays John Garfield, which means you either like him or you don’t, but as Joe Lorenzo he is indeed a rather an exceptional asshole, especially in terms of how far he is willing to go to make sure his gal doesn’t marry. In fact, he is such a heel, that it is impossible to imagine him having ever sent money home to Mama—even if was Laurie’s money—or that he would ever suddenly become so self-sacrificing as he suddenly does in the improbably resolution. East of the River is no masterpiece, in fact, it isn’t even good. Go rent the original The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) instead.

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