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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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When the majority of people think back on the career of James Dean they
tend to think of Rebel Without A Cause as Dean's masterpiece and for
good reason. Dean's debut, East of Eden on the other hand is an
extremely poor adaptation of a novel of the same name that was written
by John Steinbeck. This is the film that put James Dean on the map and
was the starting point of his rise as a cultural icon. While some may
call this film a milestone, it comes off as a huge misstep for director
The film opens up at around ¾ of the way through the actual book and still manages to be a jumbled and uneven mess. Major characters from the book are cut out and in the process create giant plot holes. New characters are added such as Abra who changes the relationship between a lot of characters and adds different tones and themes to the film that Steinbeck originally never intended. Another problem the film suffers from is it's extremely uneven pacing, there is too much time wasted on things that never play into the actual arch of the film. Kazan seems like he tries to distract his audience rather than engage them.
Elia Kazan who has shown through his previous films that he is clearly a capable director and this is the fact that makes this film so disappointing. Kazan never seems truly grasp the underlying tones of Steinbeck's book and this translates to the screen. Instead of treating his material with care and insight he instead seems to constantly exploit Dean's "to cool for school" attitude to manipulate the audience into empathizing with a character because of his looks and not his motives. Kazan never exposes the core essence of his characters he lets characters tell you what their characters are thinking instead of letting them show what they are feeling, a major weakness from any director.
The films biggest weakness is that it never devotes enough time to character development. Characters constantly make decision's that seem out of place and unnatural. For instance when Aron becomes insane and leaves for war his fiancé Abra is totally indifferent to the entire situation. Yet her heart breaks for Cal when he is faced with the fact that he may have to live his life without the forgiveness of his father, even though he is the cause of Aron's leaving. It seems the more and more Cal destroys the lives of the people around him the more they take him in with open arms.
Aside from poor character development the film fails to give an adequate amount of back- story for certain characters. The dynamics of the relationship between Adam and his two sons is never really explored beyond face value. It is never explained how exactly Cal finds out that his mother is alive nor does the film explain the motives of the relationship between Cal and the person he starts his bean business with, who appears on screen a total of 3 times and than forgotten.
The film while generally disappointing and uninspired does have its moments from time to time. Jo Van Fleet who gives the best performance in the film won the award for best supporting actress at the 1956 Academy Awards. Van Fleet's film debut proved that she could hold her own even among larger that life actors such as James Dean. Another strong point of the film can be attributed to the film's art department who do a stellar job at recreating the Salinas Valley circa the early 1900's.
Cinematographer Ted McCord is the real heart of this film. McCord takes chances and they pay off. His use of lighting is more moody than most studio films of the 50's and he maintains a sense of movement even when the actor's blocking remains mostly static. McCord is responsible for developing characters that many of the unimpressive actor's in this film could not accomplish through acting. During one scene between Cal and his father McCord highlights their distorted relationship by using innovative camera tilts that gives the scene a real sense of drama that the acting lacked. The biggest tragedy resulting from this film is that Ted McCord didn't even get nominated for an Academy Award.
After all these years East of Eden seems aged and uninspired. James Dean proved that he was easy to watch on camera but didn't prove that he was an accomplished actor. Unfairly critically acclaimed and winner of one deserved Academy Award East of Eden really only ever accomplishes two things. It proves that people love "happy" endings even if they aren't really "happy" and that too many people are suckers for a pretty face. It is insane to think that Steinbeck "loved" this film upon seeing it.
OK, there are a million '10' reviews for this movie. After five or six
pages of reviews, I finally found a '3', so I won't give it less than
that to not be thought of as a killjoy.
Steinbeck.... Brilliant! Elia Kazan.... Brilliant! Julie Harris...Brilliant! Raymond Massey...Brilliant! Jo Van Fleet... Very underrated. I even liked Albert Dekker!
But James Dean...... I really don't get it. To me, he was 'incredibly' overrated.
A 'method' actor, Dean seems to have had different 'methods' than Brando, Karl Malden, Dustin Hoffman, and many others. Whenever he's on the screen, I feel like he's shouting, 'Look, Ma... I'm 'Acting'!' This guy was so over the top in everything he did!
I know all the old guys at the studios at the time were trying to be 'hip' and 'with it', showing they knew what 'teen angst' was all about. They were waaaay off the mark.
You want to see 'real' teen angst from that period?.... watch Sal Mineo in anything he did. In 'Rebel Without A Cause', all Sal had to do was play about 8 angst-levels down from Dean, and he was a 'real kid'.
I watched about 15 minutes of 'East of Eden' with a group of twenty-somethings, and their reaction to the movie was, Who's this cornball 'Dean'???
Dean's acting was dated in '1955'.... in 2011, he's a cartoon. He would have been pretty good in silent movies.
The only other Kazan movie I can't watch is his 'other' movie of the same genre, 'Splendor in The Grass', 'another' film that everyone else thinks is brilliant, but to me is off the graph.
Everything else Kazan did, I can't get enough of!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Of all three films featured in Warner's new James Dean box set, Elia
Kazan's "East Of Eden" (1955) is probably the most anticipated, and for
good reason. For in its brilliant pacing, its strong characterizations
and its intensity and honesty, it remains one of a handful of 50s films
that consistently holds up under even the most hardened scrutiny of
today's cynical film critic. Long precluded from general release,
because of a rights issue, this film based on John Steinbeck's classic
literary masterwork of paradise lost, takes place in Salinas Valley, in
and around World War I. James Dean is ideally cast as Cal Trask, a
brash young man of conviction who feels he is being forced to compete
for fatherly nepotism against his brother Aron (Richard Davalos). The
boy's father, lettuce farmer, Adam (Raymond Massey) to be sure, favors
Aron. Hence, around every corner, in every venture or endeavor that Cal
undertakes, he is frustrated and ultimately defeated.
Eventually the two brothers grow in conflict over Abra (Julie Harris) a fine young flower of a girl who at first takes a shine to Aron but slowly begins to appreciate the finer character in Cal. This Cain and Abel-ish tale slowly unravels to its tragic end, but in such a swell of emotion and longing, that the viewer is quite suddenly astonished to recognize the long absence in our own character driven dramas that current cinema culture seems to have completely forgotten about. In their cameos as kept women of a brothel Anne and Kate the latter being Cal's mother - Jo Van Fleet and Lois Smith absolutely tear one's heart out with their subtle and poignant performances. Kazan, who was soon to be labeled a communist by HUAC then exonerated for naming names, but blacklisted by his own kind in Hollywood, very clearly has a handle on what makes Steinbeck's novel tick. He fills the vast expanses of Cinemascope with subtle nuances that make the fish-eye process seem intimate and sleek, and he imbues the overriding narrative with a particularly touching sense of lost love and looming tragedy that works so well, one almost forgets this is a movie.
Of all three films included in the James Dean box set, this is the one that looks the worst on DVD. Having said that, the results are not all together terrible. Though the palette of color is rather faded in comparison to the other two films reviewed (Rebel Without A Cause, and , Giant) alone it is quite adequate for a film of this vintage. Flesh tones are slightly pasty. Blacks are generally more deep brown or gray than black. Whites are rarely clean. There is a considerable amount of film grain during scene transitions, as is in keeping with early Cinemascope productions. The anamorphically enhanced DVD is otherwise par for the course. The audio is 5.1 and exhibits a dated, but accurate characteristic. Extras include a biography and an intense making of documentary, as well as audio commentary and theatrical trailer. Overall, nicely put together from the good people over at Warner and so right to have this film back where it belongs amongst the all time great works of art in American cinema.
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