In the 1910s, California, a troubled young man, Cal (James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause), discovers that his presumed-dead mother (Jo Van Fleet, Wild River) is alive and runs a brothel in a nearby town. Cal, who feels overshadowed by his brother, Aron (Richard Davalos, Cool Hand Luke), embarks on a business venture with his estranged mother to prove his worth, but the plan has devastating consequences.
Reaction & Thoughts:
This adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic two-generation saga only covers a section of the book. It has been said that director Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire) disliked the first half of the book so much that he instructed writer Paul Osborn to focus instead on the last segment of the book. In doing so, Kazan and Osborn created one of the best movies about young angst that I’ve seen.
Although the Biblical allegory is a bit heavy-handed (an obvious retelling of the Cain & Abel tale), East of Eden still retains much of its original raw power.
Today, East of Eden is best known as the movie that introduced James Dean to the public (I’m ignoring Dean’s bit parts in a handful of movies). If Marlon Brando is the father of modern acting, Dean must be its bastard child. There is just something about Dean that’s genuinely unique, compelling. His acting is strange, poetic, exciting, and spellbinding in equal doses. Most of the time you are not quite sure what he is really doing. Dean gives a highly mannered performance, but all his ticks, odd body movements are fascinating to watch. It’s really hard to describe him, but what really matters is that, within the context of the story, it does work brilliantly.
Julie Harris (The Haunting), who plays Aron’s girlfriend, is pretty extraordinary too. Harris seems to understand Dean’s style instinctively, and as a result the sparks fly. Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois) gives one of his finest performances as the boys’ stern father. Massey was a classically-trained actor who learned to hate Dean’s method acting. Dean tended to improvise his lines, which drove Massey crazy. Kazan allegedly used the real-life friction between Dean and Massey to the film’s advantage.
Finally, Van Fleet, in her screen debut, has only a handful of scenes, but she impressed me greatly. She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and deservedly so. She plays a rotten woman who knows she’s no good, but Van Fleet manages to suggest that there is a heart behind the cold exterior — it’s a cunning, fantastic performance. The cast also includes Burl Ives (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) as the town’s lawman.
The extraordinary acting don’t operate in vacuum. The film has an interesting visual texture. Kazan and his cameraman, Ted McCord (Johnny Belinda and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), experiment with wide angles and unconventional camera positions. Some have suggested that this is nothing but self-indulgence, but I thought that the camera gymnastics complement Dean’s itchy performance. Leonard Rosenman’s (Rebel Without a Cause and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) boisterous music score is also worthy of praise.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
James Dean starred in only three movies before his untimely death on September 30, 1955. Rebel Without a Cause turned Dean into a legend, but East of Eden should be remembered as the film that contains his finest film work. East of Eden is also Dean’s best movie. Over the years, acting has become a bit more loose, less studied. Unfortunately, naturalism has come at a price — no more Valentinos, no more Garbos, etc. And yes, no more Deans. There is nothing in the world less interesting than an actor with no personality, no gravitas. East of Eden soars high on the strength of Dean’s remarkably strong aura. Color, 115 minutes, Not Rated.