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First I'll throw in my two cents on an issue I wish I didn't have to
comment on. Almost everyone knows that East of Eden is based on the
novel by John Steinbeck. Although I'm more of a fan of fantastic and
surreal literature, Steinbeck and Hemingway are probably my two
favorite realist authors. East of Eden is an epic masterpiece, well
worth reading. It's also close to 200,000 words long, so obviously,
some details and plot points are going to be left out or changed in a
two-hour movie, and that shouldn't make a difference. The film is a
separate artwork in a completely different medium that should be judged
on its own merits, not compared to the book. (For more on this, see my
"novel to film mini-rant" in my user profile.)
Director Elia Kazan's East of Eden presents itself as a disarmingly simple film. Many might feel that it's slow or uneventful. But the superficial appearance is intentionally misleading, a filmic representation of the elegant austerity of Steinbeck's literary style; the plot, subtexts and filmic artistry are all really quite complex, and this is the rare example of a film that grows on you more and more after you've seen it.
The plot is a rough "modern" (circa the 1910s) retelling of the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, set in and between Salinas and Monterey, California, as an allegory of good versus evil. But both Steinbeck and screenwriter Paul Osborn weave a dense allegorical tapestry, with those polar ethical opposites becoming less clear-cut as the film progresses.
Cain is Cal Trask (James Dean) here, Abel his brother Aron (Richard Davalos). Their father, Adam (Raymond Massey), owns a "ranch" upon which he grows lettuce. He sees the attainment of excessive profit as negative, and instead focuses his intelligence and skills on trying to better mankind somehow, the practical upshot of which is that Adam is trying to conquer the problem of the preservation of (transported, especially) food via refrigeration or freezing. Adam is sternly frugal and religious, and favors Aron. Thus Cal is something of a hoodlum when the film begins. He's irreverent and tends to wander off. We see him being belligerent and somewhat (self) destructive. Aron, in contrast, seems decorous and easy-going, as does his girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris). In other words, Cal and Aron are basically presented as Goofus and Gallant at the start of the film.
Cal and Aron were told by Adam that their mother was dead. But Cal has suspicions about this, and the first part of East of Eden is concerned with Cal's attempt to discover the truth about his mother. He learns the truth, and the second half covers a number of parallel, somewhat unexpected transformations in the Trask family and their close friends. This is also paralleled with the burgeoning of World War I, which has a complex impact on these (then) small California towns.
The first thing that you're likely to notice with the recent Warner Home Video DVD of East of Eden, after the novelty of the 3-minute "Overture" (which doesn't add much at home, but is interesting historically and doesn't negatively affect anything), is the beautiful cinematography. This was one of the earlier "Cinemascope" (anamorphic 35mm widescreen, with up to a 2.66:1 aspect ratio) films, shot also with a new "Warner Color" process. The results, employing gorgeous California landscapes artfully shot by cinematographer Ted D. McCord under Kazan's direction, are breathtaking. Everything looks scrumptious--from old downtown streets to the rocky ocean shores, distant mountains over sprawling fields, romantically shot freight trains--even the sugar factory standing in for Adam's "barn" and the Monterey whorehouse are beautifully photographed. One of the more famous scenes features Cal and Abra in a dense, colorful, flower-filled field. The Warner Color manages to look both intense and subdued at the same time, which fits the atmosphere of the film perfectly. Kazan employs a lot of subtle camera motions and angles to emphasize the drama, including marvelously skewed angles during confrontations between Cal and Adam.
The score, by Leonard Rosenman, is also worth mentioning, as the mood of the film hinges on it so much. It's lush and sophisticated, with a slight Aaron Copland flavor to my ears. This was Rosenman's first scoring gig. He had been James Dean's piano teacher and had actually studied with famed 12-tone ("serial") music proponent Arnold Schoenberg. Ironically, he felt himself an odd choice and initially suggested that Kazan ask Copland to score the film instead. That probably led to some of the Coplandish tonalities, although to many ears, Rosenman tends to sound more like Alban Berg, another, more famous, Schoenberg protégé.
Of course as a realist drama, the performances in the film are crucial. Dean is outstanding, as one would expect, but so is Harris and the rest of the cast. Part of this must be due to Kazan, as Harris, for example, doesn't come across nearly as well to me in some of her other films, such as Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963).
If East of Eden has a flaw, it's that its relatively short (compared to the material available) running time makes for some unexplained or shallow turnabouts of character in the complex of good/evil interplay. Aron seems particularly distant to the viewer, for example, which is appropriate to the final state of his character, but which could have been explained better in transformation.
But this is a fabulous film, with grand, biblical and universal subtexts and an unusually developed but extremely charming romance. Unless you're completely averse to realist drama, you must see East of Eden at least once.
I recently purchased this film, having never seen it before, and feeling
somewhat peeved at the fact that it is never shown on TCM. Immediately, I
recognized it as one of the best films ever made. The adaptation from the
very dense and wonderful Steinbeck novel obviously required much of the
relationship between Adam and Charles to be deleted, however I felt the
did not suffer from this at all.
James Dean is a completely different animal than the other actors of his time, and from start to finish in this film, he is spellbinding. The emotional intensity and reality he brings to the film is so convincing it is almost painful to watch at times, especially when he goes to see his mother for the first time and he desperately tries to speak to her as he is being wrenched away. The tone of his voice, his subtle gestures, his utter desperation for love is amazing and completely his own. I once read that Dean did not consider East of Eden to be his best film, but I disagree with him there. I have never seen a film (or an actor) that even came close to matching this one, particularly when viewed from its position in time and the nature of cinema in the 1950s. James Dean put himself 'out there' emotionally in such a raw way that the power of that brave acting yet holds the ability to touch the audience with every viewing. I think the film makes a hugely important statement about the human condition that is still valid a half a century later.
Ever felt lost? have trouble finding your place in the world? feel
jealous of, or ignored by, a family member? If you answered yes to any
of these questions, beware--the resonance you may feel toward the
characters of this film may be so intense, the emotional pull of its
story so overwhelming, that at its end you will find yourself
exhausted, spent, trembling in its cathartic wake. I find it so every
time I see it. As an examination of the terrible undercurrents in
family relationships, of adolescent angst and loneliness, of the
universal need for love and the awful consequences of its being
withheld, it is nearly peerless. Movies that toyed with similar themes,
like "The Graduate" or "Rebel Without a Cause," though great films, do
not come close to packing the emotional wallop this film delivers.
To a large part, the intensity of the affective response generated by watching "East of Eden" must be attributed to the strength of the performances. No false notes here. Raymond Massey, a truly superb actor who has largely, and undeservedly, been forgotten, gives one of his best performance as the father with a secret, a man with the best intentions in the world, who has nonetheless unwittingly crippled his son Cal with his sometimes harsh criticisms and his favoritism of his brother Aron. Julie Harris is simply wonderful as Abra, a young woman who gradually becomes disenchanted with the "perfect" brother, Aron, finding herself becoming more and more interested in the vaguely frightening, yet vulnerable Cal. Her "speech" near the end of the film to Cal's father is heartrending. Everyone else is fine, from the always dependable Burl Ives to Albert Decker, and Jo van Fleet deserves special mention as the supposedly dead mother. The vehicle which propels the film, however, is James Dean who not only gives the best performance in his all too short career, but one of the best in cinematic history. It is truly amazing to watch him work here. The viewer becomes like putty in his hands, bending and rending our emotions at will. It's a performance not to be missed.
The movie has received criticism because it does not follow the book, and leaves out at least the first two thirds of the novel. "East of Eden" is one of my favorite books, yet I have no trouble accepting this film on its own merits--which are considerable. A movie CANNOT be a book, though there have been several directors who seem blithely unaware of this giving us plodding movies straight-jacketed by their literary source. One cannot judge this movie solely by comparing it to the book, and with each deviation from the source, give it a demerit. I believe this movie is every bit as great as the book--but it is NOT the book. And John Steinbeck himself loved this movie, reportedly saying that the movie was a greater achievement than his book had been. That's a recommendation good enough for me, and should be enough for the lovers of the book. You CAN love both. I do.
Elia Kazan deserved his recent honorary Oscar, no matter what political
mistakes he may have made. He deserved it because he is one of the supreme
artists of the cinema. His ability to draw superb performances from his
actors, is coupled with an astonishing ability to depict these emotional
states visually, through the use of camera angles, lighting and symbols.
"East of Eden" must be seen in the widescreen format to truly appreciate its
visual style. It is arresting, sometimes beautiful and always
Then there are the performances. James Dean's heartbreaking realization of Cal, consumed by jealousy; Jo Van Fleet's magnificent portrayal of his mother; Richard Davalos (why didn't we see more of him on the screen after this film?) innocent, virginal, doomed; Raymond Massey who has never been better in a multi-layered performance; Burl Ives' commanding police chief - and, as usual in a Kazan film, even the smallest part is played to perfection (who'll forget the girl in the brothel or the nurse at the end?). After seeing the film a few times I really appreciate the performance of Julie Harris too. I once thought her a little too mature for the role - but now I see how her reactions to the events really enhance the emotional impact of those events. Kazan allows her to be in frame during some of the most crucial encounters between Cal and his father - and her face tells a million stories. This is a true "supporting" performance - her performance helping Dean realize Cal. Brava Julie!
I'm a lot older now than when I first saw this film - but I still relate so strongly to the communication breakdown and the need for love between father and son. The improvement of my own relationship with my father makes me see the film differently but with no less emotion. Like all masterpieces this film does not date, we just see it differently as we age. This is undoubtedly one of my top five films. How about a theatrical revival? I have never seen it in a cinema. Remember see it in widescreen - not pan and scan.
If you have ever come out on the short end of a sibling rivalry and/or
felt seriously wronged by a parent(s), you will probably connect nicely
with "East of Eden" (1955). Since the majority of viewers meet these
criteria it is easy to see why the film finds a new audience with each
generation. And it is easy to understand the tears that are often shed
by both first-time and repeat viewers.
Although set at the start of World War I, the generational issues portrayed really had came to a head by the mid-1950's. Which is why the film was so timely and contemporary when it was released. It was Elia Kazan's troubled relationship with his own father that first attracted him to Steinbeck's novel and caused him to focus the film on the portion of the story that addressed this issue.
Originally I ranked it a distant third in the James Dean film pecking order but over the years it has somehow passed "Giant" and "Rebel Without a Cause" IMHO, and I now find it to be clearly his best and more enduring work. It is a real actors/director's film, with just six significant characters and with especially good performances from Dean and from Julie Harris. Both were a bit old for their parts but Dean's boyish manner allowed him to sell the character and Harris (who had convincingly played a twelve year old just a few years earlier in "Member of the Wedding") looks the proper age in every scene except one (an outdoor scene shot in the bright sun). She struggles sometimes with reining in her sophistication but that could just be the subjective perception of this viewer.
Here are some random points to appreciate in this great film:
Don't misinterpret Cal's (Dean) motivation, he is not doing things to win his father's love but because he loves his father (communicated by the early scene where he watches his father working in the kitchen). The former motivation would be simplistic; the latter opens up a host of interesting and ironic interpretations as you realize the seemingly bad son Cal actually understands his father and admires his goodness more than "good" son Aron (Richard Davalos).
Aron is not really the innocent figure he appears to be, he does not like Cal and throughout the film betrays him.
Abra (Harris) is caught between the two brothers, moving steadily from Aron to Cal as the film progresses. Aron represents everything she understands that she should be and Cal represents everything she has been denying herself. The story is largely seen from her point of view, and her growth parallels her (and the audiences) slow realization that Cal is not bad but misunderstood. The two are slowly falling in love but do not kiss until she gets up in the ferris wheel, a place where (symbolically) she is no longer standing on solid practical ground.
It is really a coming of age story for both of them, with Abra slowly embracing new areas of human experience and Cal moving from adolescence to manhood; thanks largely to her timely interventions. Watch for subtle details that Kazan has included, like Cal's inability to make extended eye contact with his father, brother, and mother; something that he has no problem doing with Abra. And Cal's unsteady progress as he moves forward momentarily and then retreats by looking away.
Note Kazan's use of a raked camera angle for the scenes inside the Trask home, unfortunately this device is a little too extreme and calls attention to itself. Also used in "The Third Man", it was done here to reinforce the off-kilter nature of this family's dynamic. It goes away after the scene in which Cal finally confronts his lifelong jealousy of his brother and accuses his father of rejecting him because he is so much like his mother, telling Adam (Raymond Massey) that he cannot forgive himself for having married Kate. This is the point at which Cal moves forward into permanent manhood, prior to this he had stepped forward briefly and then retreated back into childhood.
Watch for the method-acting device of an actor playing with an object as a means to introduce naturalism into the scene (Abra first flirts with Cal with a flower, Jo Van Fleet makes a show of taking out and lighting a cigarette, Cal repeatedly dips his finger into a wine glass). "East of Eden" would be nothing but an overwrought melodrama without a host of little things like this that humanize the story.
Watch for the awkward tension in all the scenes between Cal and Adam, Kazan cultivated the off-screen friction between Dean and Massey; reasoning that it would translate into more realistic on-screen sequences between the two actors.
Watch for the stunning sequence late in the film when Cal slowly moves out from under the tree branches (his menace reinforced nicely by the score).
Finally note the contrast between the restrained closing scene (which is also the climax) and the melodramatic style of the almost everything that has preceded it in the film.
Then again, what do I know? I'm only a child.
James Dean plays Cal, a son of Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) who feels
unloved and unwanted by his stern father, a situation not helped by
Adam's apparent acceptance of Cal's brother... Cal suspects that his
mother, long believed dead, is the madame of a local brothel, and when
this is confirmed, the young man is convinced that he has found the
reason why he is bad...
His awkward, unhelpful attempts to find himself and come to terms with his situation led young audiences to identify with him immediately, an identification that was compounded by his role in 'Rebel Without a Cause' where again, only with more violence, he rebelled against his middle class family...
The impact he had made on the anxious, unhappy youth of that time was confirmed as much by his death as by the style and abandon of his life..
Dean was a youth who rebelled against the riches of the American Dream, though he finally denounced it all in a reckless moment... Dean therefore embodied the confused attitudes of a generation who had never suffered through the Depression and rejected the acquisitive attitudes of their parents, while at the same time they hankered after the American Dream... Dean gave physical form to the perplexing confusion of ideals, that haunted the majority of postwar American youth...
Wow, what an impressive screen debut for a 24-year-old. That was the
famous James Dean, here in his first of three starring roles before
death took him at a tragically young age. Just as impressive, however,
is the overall performance of the rest of the cast, including
lesser-known Richard Davalos, who also was making his movie debut.
The most impressive person connected to this movie, however, was director Elia Kazan who not only excelled directing this film but - in the same year - directed "On The Waterfront." Now, that's not a bad year of work!
"East Of Eden" is billed as a modern-day story of "Cain and Abel," between good and bad brothers with one of them feeling rejected by his father. The small Biblical account of the two brothers only mentions an offering they both gave God and then saying the brother whose offering wasn't accepted went out in a fit of jealousy and killed the other.
True, the "offering" by "Cal" (Dean) and its rejection by his dad "Adam" (Raymond Massey) leads to a climactic scene near the end of the film, but - this is just an assumption - most people viewed this simply as a story between "good" and "evil" pertaining to Dean and Davalos' characters.
I didn't see either of those guys as either the "good" or "bad" brothers. In fact, this film story is unusual in that every main character's personality begins in one direction and, as the film progresses, ends in almost the opposite. Nobody is as they first seem.
"Cale Trask" is shown early on to be a totally rebellious and immature loser who commits a few stupid acts of vandalism and has a desire to be a loner. As the film goes on, we see a softhearted guy who needs and desires love and companionship like everyone else. The fact he only had one parent, and that one didn't seem to love him, has messed his mind up a great deal.
Meanwhile, his older brother "Aron" (Davalos) is pictured as the kind, dependable, levelheaded guy who has a nice sweetheart who he plans to marry very soon. "Aron" has always made his dad proud which makes Cale jealous and bitter (hence, the Cain/Abel analogy.) In the last third of the film, however, Aron's personality reveals some dark, selfish traits and he isn't so "good" anymore.
Julie Harris plays "Abra," who begins as a sweet, likable and trustworthy person but in the end proves insincere in her "ready to marry" and "I'm in love with Aron" remarks as her feelings develop for the younger brother. She does a nice job at the end, however, helping Cale reconcile with his ailing dad.
The fourth major player, the father of the two boys, is portrayed - at least by Cale - as man who has played favorites with his sons and is more of a businessman than a loving father. However, we see later that he is not a bad guy at all. He is happy to praise his younger son when merited, is quick to forgive but, like a lot of fathers in "the old days," I believe, had a hard time outwardly expressing love for his children despite, in his heart wanting the best for them.
The fifth major character in the film, "Kate," has the least amount of lines but is the most powerful figure in the movie. She's the mother who abandoned her kids when they were babies and left her husband because she "didn't want to be tied down to a ranch." Wow, Thank God our mothers didn't have that selfish attitude! She's pictured as a very hard, bitter woman who has made a success of herself and to hell with everyone else. However, once again, as the story unfolds, we see an opposite side. Cale, checking rumors she was in the area, sought her out and discovered she, indeed, was his mom. (Nobody in the Trask family knew she lived nearby, with the dad telling the kids she was dead rather than risk hurting their feelings.). Anyway, later she surprises us by softening up and loaning Cal $5,000 for a business venture to help him and help bail out his dad. That amount of money is equal to at least $100,000 today, so it's a generous, kind person who would say "okay" to that monetary request. The more she speaks, the softer she sounds, even if she wouldn't want to admit it.
The only character I wish had a bigger role was "Anne," played by Lois Smith, who was beautiful and had an intriguing role that I thought would amount to more. I'm glad to see that she is still acting on a regular basis today.
Overall, it's a solid drama with complex characters who make you reflect about them long after you view this. I don't know why it took so long for me to finally see this movie, but I was impressed. (May I recommend the two-disc, special-edition DVD?). This movie is wonderfully directed, acted and photographed. I've only seen it once (last night) and I am not in love with the film (yet), but I am surprised it only garnered one Academy Award. I think it deserved more.
The early, violent death of someone so famous was a tragedy; but for
someone who's never seen a Dean performance ("East of Eden" is his only
movie I've seen to date; it has since been joined by "Rebel Without a
Cause" as of Nov. 2007, and "Giant", in Jan. 2010) it's easy to get
suckered by these details into believing that this is the only thing
that adds substance to the man. Not so.
In "East of Eden" he delivers an intense performance as, unsurprisingly, an enigma; an individual too sensitive for life in his own world. It sounds from this as if it could well be similar territory to "Rebel Without a Cause", and given the events it's also perhaps not too far away from the real person - but nevertheless it's a striking portrayal that shows unmistakable 'fire' and talent.
James Dean is not one of those people who've come to be mythologised due to outside circumstances entirely beyond their control; for the consummate skill in his craft and the posthumous Oscar recognition brings something just as weighty to the table. About as far removed from the Orlando Bloom poster boy of his generation as it's possible to be, my expectations were completely trumped. There was real depth present, too.
All else is at least good, but it's the memory of a sobbing Cal all at once being transformed into a creature of hidden menace that I will take away with me. A riveting display from a fine actor, and undoubtedly a lasting testament to a lamentably short career. 9/10.
I've seen this movie several times, most recently on DVD with an additional DVD that includes the premier and a documentary about James Dean. Each time I see this movie I see it from a new perspective. I learned from the DVD and from reading Elia Kazan's comments that the character Cal (played by Dean) is really Steinbeck in many ways in his youth and Kazan also identified with him. I learned that there was real friction between Dean and the man who played his father, Raymond Massey and that Dean deliberately provoked Massey to get angry with him to bring out the moment in the film of the father's feelings towards his son. I also marvel each time i see this movie at the outstanding performance of Jo Van Fleet. She deserved her best supporting actress academy award. This movie resonates on many levels as do most of Kazan's films. It is modern retelling of the garden of eden story and it is the story of the troubled youth of the fifties fighting against the conservatism of the Eisenhower years. It is a story of the confusion and conflicts in a family with a war approaching and it's a story about a woman (Van Fleet's character) who doesn't like being bottled up in a controlled religious setting. Many things to enjoy here and one wonders where the artists of Kazans stature are in this day and age. I only wish that all of Kazan's films were on DVD, such as Baby Doll and Wild River. I wonder if anyone but me notices that on the extra DVD where there is an interview with John Steinbeck that he shifts and contorts his mouth in a manner very like Dean in the movie. It was said that neither Steinbeck nor Kazan originally liked Dean but both agreed that he was perfect for the part and both identified with him very much.
Elia Kazan, no matter what one thinks of his political indiscretions, did direct some brilliant motion pictures, but EAST OF EDEN is not only his best but, certainly, one of the finest movies ever produced out of Hollywood. One can sense the worth of the film immediately in the scene where James Dean stealthily follows his 'mother' Jo Van Fleet down a dusy street. One can actually see the heat rising from the street, and the cinematography makes one feel lost in the hot temperature. From that moment on, EAST OF EDEN, though only a portion of the book, stands as one of those rare films in which everything comes together with an emotional explosion that never lets up, building to a climax of greatness. James Dean gives one of the screen's finest performances, and his scenes with Raymond Massey detonate with the power of emotions unchecked and real. Julie Harris is equally remarkable, as is Richard Davalos as Dean's brother who helps to lead the story directly into a parallel with the Cain-Abel conflict. Jo Van Fleet deserves her Oscar and every other honor, and Lois Smith breaks your heart in her small role as a trapped young girl in VanFleet's 'house'. Rosenman's scoring is likewise stunning and always 'right'. EAST OF EDEN stands with CITIZEN KANE, 2001, THE THIRD MAN, and very few others, as a milestone in helping us to applaud filmmaking as an art form.
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