East of Eden (1955)


In 1917, 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:

“Man has a choice and it’s a choice that makes him a man.”

This legendary adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic two-generation novel of the same name 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 novel so much that he instructed writer Paul Osborn to focus instead on the second part of the book. In doing so, Kazan and Osborn created one of the best movies about young angst that I’ve seen.

East of Eden is best known as the movie that formally introduced iconic actor James Dean to the public. If Marlon Brando is the father of modern acting, Dean must be its bastard child. There’s just something about Dean that’s genuinely unique and compelling. His acting is poetic, exciting, strange and spellbinding in equal doses.

Frankly, I wasn’t quite sure what Dean was doing. While Brando seems to be in total control of his genius, Dean appears to be bursting at the seams. He gives a highly mannered performance, but all his ticks and 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 — you sense you are watching a genius at work.

Incredibly, every actor in the movie is nearly as good as Dean. Julie Harris (The Haunting), who plays Dean’s brother’s girlfriend, is pretty extraordinary too. Harris seems to understand Dean’s style instinctively, and as a result 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 used the real-life friction between Dean and Massey to the film’s advantage.

Finally, Jo 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 doesn’t operate in a vacuum. The film has an interesting visual texture. Kazan and his cameraman, Ted McCord (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 complemented Dean’s itchy performance. Leonard Rosenman’s (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 looser, less studied. Unfortunately, naturalism has come at a price: no more Valentinos, no more Garbos, and yes, no more Deans. All in all, East of Eden soars high on the strength of Dean’s remarkably strong aura. Highly recommended! Color, 115 minutes, Not Rated.

2 responses to “East of Eden (1955)

  1. The first time I saw Dean walking in the opening sequence I think my jaw probably dropped to the floor. He moves like a cat. Kazan said there was an extraordinary response at an early screening, with kids practically falling off the balcony trying to get closer to him. He has a way of presenting himself that makes you want to be him. This is one of my favourite films and the score is beautiful. I think it’s an amazing combination of artistic sensibilities on every aesthetic level. It never fails to astonish.

    Liked by 2 people

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