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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Working with Elia Kazan, one of the greatest directors of 1950s stage
and screen, James Dean was able to fully display his heartbreaking
vulnerability and trademark ambiguity. He adds an element of mystery to
his character, Cal Trask, by carefully choosing which emotions to
reveal to the audience and which ones to keep hidden.
Dean is an extremely physical actor, and some of his most imitated acting flourishes are his mannerisms and movements. Throughout the film, he slouches, fidgets, pulls on his ear, lies down in the dirt with his beans, and throws his head back to highlight his frustration. These attempts at naturalistic acting are among the best ever committed to celluloid.
Dean is the movie. There's no question about that. But, there's some excellent support from Julie Harris, Raymond Massey (as his cold, remote father), and Jo Van Fleet as his long-lost mother. Elia Kazan took advantage of the fact that some of the actors, most notably Massey, did not get along with Dean, and was able to make the bitter exchanges and arguments between the characters all the more believable.
Today, it seems quite amazing that an actor could only appear in three
films and still have such a profound impact on acting over fifty years
later. James Dean, in his first major role in a major picture, sweeps
you into his world as the wild, mysterious and moody Cal Trask, a young
man who is hopelessly trying to gain his father's love and affection
despite the fact he only seems to care for his brother, Aron. In terms
of style, Dean may seem a bit melodramatic and even to the point of
hysteria in some scenes. Nevertheless, he is able to get completely
under the skin of this torn and complex character so richly provided by
John Steinbeck, whose novel was the basis for this film. It is rather
incredible to watch Dean literally throw himself into the role, keeping
you on your toes wondering what he could possibly do next.
As for the supporting cast, it is a good one with Julie Harris absolutely shimmering as Arba, the girl of Cal and Aron's affections, as well as Raymond Massey playing a most unlikable father figure. Jo Van Fleet also gives a rather unique performance that got her and Oscar and will definitely stick with you. At the head of all this talent and stardom is Elia Kazan, the great American director fresh off an Oscar win for On the Waterfront. Here, he attacks Steinbeck's controversial material and creates a moving and startling portrayal of people in a period that was just beginning to creep into modern and the turmoil and sadness that can break a dysfunctional family even further down.
It really is a shame Dean was subjected to such an early death. His talent was monstrous and his potential endless. Even so, this and his other two role show him as the inspiring and incredible young actor he was, forever immortalized in our minds as the symbol of a man searching for what will complete him and his journey to find peace and truth.
"And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land
of Nod, on the east of Eden." (Genesis 4:16)
East of Eden is, for the most part, the biblical story of Cain and Abel, retold for the 20th Century. James Dean plays Cal Trask, a young, rebellious kid who resents his distant, uptight father( Raymond Massey). He's always kept Cal at arms length and disapproved of his every move. Aron (Richard Davalos), on the other hand is the prefect, if a bit vapid, son. Cal learns that his Mother, whom his father has told them was long dead is in fact the Madame of a nearby town. It's also implied that she's a junkie. When Cal pursues some kind of a connection with her, or a relationship of some kind, much disruption and drama ensues.
Photographed in Cinemascope by Ted McCord (The Sound Of Music, The Sand Pebbles), the film is, I think, an amazing thing to watch. Elia Kazan used extensive locations in and around Monterey and Salinas. The Cinemascope frame is used to amazing advantage, with beautiful central coast landscapes captured stunningly. There is an early scene where Dean rides on top of a railroad car at 55 mph. This is no process shot. They actually put Dean up there and let the train speed along, with a camera mounted on the top of the boxcar. I thought that was an amazing shot, and wildly daring. Dean was an unknown at this time, as was Julie Harris. Still, it was an amazing risk to take. Just one of many interesting shots in this film.
Also used brilliantly is the wide screen potential in interior, intimate scenes. Shot composition is so dynamic. They just don't seem to take the care these days to light and compose images like they did when the medium was still relatively fresh. We've really lost something, I'm afraid. It seems to me that the art of the motion picture is taken for granted or, in the worst cases, never even considered. James Dean was truly amazing, He really was. The veneration and hype of Dean's persona and legend is justified, in my opinion. He had a quality about him that was totally, utterly fresh and new. He approached acting from the weirdest place. Part method, part psychotic, but totally offbeat. Utterly offbeat.If you've never actually seen James Dean act, you'll be really surprised. You'll also understand why he astounded the staid, unsophisticated audiences of 1955. My god, but he must've been a total bolt from the blue. Then he was just dead. Gone. Wiped out. This film was just a few weeks in release, the audience was just turning on to this discovery. "Rebel Without a Cause" was in post production, and Dean was finishing shooting "Giant" when he was instantly killed in a high speed crash on a lonely highway in central California. He was on his way in his Porsche Spyder to a race in Paso Robles when he was creamed.
He'd been famous for about 6 weeks only.
Elia Kazan thinks James Dean was too eccentric to have lasted long. He believes his fame would've been transitory. Perhaps Kazan is right. We'll never know. I think he would have endured, and branched out as a writer. He would've lasted somehow. He never had the chance to grow.
Watching "East of Eden" it is clear that James Dean was soon to be a star. His performance is just so believable and gut wrenching in this film and although he never lived in my lifetime but its clear watching him that a lot of actors today, most notably Brad Pitt was heavily influenced by his films because they're so similar in many respects - and if Brad Pitt wasn't, then the resemblance is uncanny This film is powerful, it's emotional and everything you want out of a drama and again there is James Dean who delivers such a raw, bold and painful performance, he really drags us in to his plight. While many have said it, I'm inclined to agree. He really was that good.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There's something that's almost majestic about Elia Kazan's "East of
Eden". It casts a spell about the audience; the very definition of
"gripping". At the same time, some characters suffer because of the
film's focus on Cal (James Dean), to some extent at the expense of the
other characters, primarily his father Adam (Ray Massey) and brother
Aron (Richard Davalos), and the primary family relationship which the
story deals with in allegorical Biblical terms.
Dean's Cal is a study in the self-doubt and confusion of youth that stands the test of time and even transcends the categories of "cool" and "rebel" that to some extent limit the appeal of his character in Nick Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause". One interesting thing about the structure of the story is that to begin with Cal is an unpredictable and potentially dangerous presence. There's a note of fear in the reaction of his loved ones when he spontaneously begins to hurl giant blocks of ice out of his father's barn the action actually seems random to them but what we see as the audience, thanks to Kazan's inter-cutting between Abra and Aron's Victorian lovemaking and Cal's reactions to their words gives us clues to the psychology of the character. Kazan builds upon this type of device for the rest of the film, until we reach a point in the middle of the film (particularly when Aron seems to become unhinged at the possibility of going to war) where it is hard to decide which of the two brothers is more sympathetic or real to us, and finally by the end of the film the audience's sympathies and understanding have completely shifted from the "normal" son Aron to the "crazy" Cal. What makes all this reach a higher level is the fact that their father Adam still has not made the transition that Cal has made, so there's a shift in the audience's reaction to Adam's behavior and philosophies as well. We see quite a bit of his hypocrisy, but the film's focus and Cal's own sympathies never sway completely to the kind of naked derision that Van Fleet's Kate displays toward Adam with regards to his moral righteousness. Thus we as the audience can empathize with nearly every character in the film, although unfortunately a minor flaw could be pointed out in that Aron's character becomes somewhat less nuanced as the film progresses and as his dramatic function begins to subsume the more subtle aspects of his character that could have been explored. Davalos gives an impressive performance in the early parts of the film but as his character's role is diminished his performance seems to become more frenetic, as if he felt that he needed to make up for the lack of quantity in terms of screen time by playing to the back rows. Probably it fits into Kazan's more general plan of shifting the audience's sympathies from Aron to Cal, but I felt that the uneven quality of Davalos' performance was one of the film's only flaws.
Julie Harris' Abra is perhaps the most believable and stirring performance in the film a pretty hefty accomplishment considering she was going up against heavyweights like the young Dean and elder Massey. Her character moves her affections from Aron to Cal at precisely the same moments that the audience should (if Kazan did his job well, which I think he did), but far more so than that, she also eventually represents the emotional bridge between the father and son. There are moments of great tenderness in her portrayal and also moments where she shows great strength and maturity her character is naive, particularly sexually, but she's brave enough to go after what she wants even if she's not completely sure what it is. By the film's emotionally draining climax, she has gone from being a girl to being a woman just as surely or perhaps more so than Cal has gone from being a boy to a man. You can learn everything you need to know about Cal's and Adam's relationship just by watching her reaction to what they say and do.
I think the film's pivotal moment is the "gift giving" scene, clearly modeled on the passages in Genesis relating to the sacrifices of Cain and Abel. Adam refuses Cal's gift of money because he sees it as war profit, whereas he embraces Aron's gift an announcement of impending marriage to Abra. The scene is exceptionally powerful because our knowledge includes many facts that Adam seems unaware of, perhaps even willfully ignorant of. He tells Cal that only Aron's gift is "honest and true", but the facts as we know them are that Abra does not love Aron, and that Cal's gift truly represents a great sacrifice and a great step forward towards independence. It wasn't easy for Cal to ask Kate for the money to start his farm, and in the extraordinarily photographed scene (special mention for the quality of this film should go to DP Ted McCord) with Cal at the bean field we see that he has truly put the best parts of his heart and soul into the effort. Cal goes off the deep end, but by this point in the film we understand his character and his history particularly the difficulty of living under the crushing burden of his father's expectations that we tend to blame Adam more for the fallout than Cal. For a moment it feels that we may be on the cusp of a serious tragedy, but Abra's understanding and love for Cal provide a bridge between the two men that allows for a powerful and satisfying conclusion devoid of empty sorrow.
As Steinbeck himself admitted, Kazan's film was better than his novel. After having seen the 1981 mini-series I have to agree. The mini-series followed the book almost faithfully and the result was something so long and boring that it was unwatchable. The early years when Adam Trask met and married Kathy/Kate add nothing to the story of Cal and Aron, in fact it takes away from it. Kazan got it right in this 1955 film by making the viewer discover Kate as Cal discovers her, following that mysterious woman down the road. We lose our innocence along with young Cal as he comes to the terrible realization that his mother is evil and his father is a liar. What I love about this film is that there are no melodramatic tearful embraces between mother and son. Instead Cal has to hold back his affections for his hardened mother and his cold father. When the dam finally breaks inside Cal and the emotion comes pouring out of him it is heartbreaking and difficult to watch. James Dean is magnificent in his performance as Cal. Julie Harris was wonderful as Abra, the girl who tries to love and understand him. Raymond Massey and Jo Van Fleet were perfectly cast as the parents. This was one of the rare occasions when the movie far surpasses the book it was based on. People should stop comparing the two and take Steinbeck's word for it.
Elia Kazan is the most accomplished actors director Cinema has ever
known, and East of Eden is possibly the best example of that fact. Not
only it is the most beautifully crafted description of a (young) man's
inner struggle at his own constant longing for his father's love, but
also a character study ideally rendered through the unique performance
of its lead actor. Previously, James Dean had just made some theater
and television stuff that had already gotten him a fair amount of
recognition, mainly due to his signature neurotic style. Dean was a
hard-core Brando fan, which puts in perspective the apotheosis of
Stanislavskian acting East of Eden represents. Kazan knew who he was
dealing with: an Actors Studio dropout with a cause.
His obvious artistry in communicating an issue as personal as any from the Cinemascope canvas (still during its early years) is astonishing. Such an inventive use of the frame in scenes like the opening of the film, the lettuce train scene and the birthday party scene, certainly would have been out of reach for any man just a bit less adequate to the medium. And his use of music -- a poignant work by Leonard Rosenman, who following East of Eden would score the Kazanesque Rebel Without a Cause in 1955 -- is superb as always, matching the heights he had already arrived at himself in On the Waterfront (1954) and Viva Zapata! (1952).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Having read the book and knowing the movie dwelled on the rivalry
between Cal and Aron, I was still very disappointed to find out that
Elia Kazan had chosen to edit out one of the most congenial character
in Steinbeck's novel (not to mention Samuel Hamilton), Lee. What I
found even more dismaying was that John Steinbeck apparently approved
of Kazan's cinematographic adaptation. (Please, correct me if I am
If you were captivated by Lee's interpretation of the Cain and Abel story, and how it plays out in the story (the last word uttered by Adam Trask is Timshel: Thou mayest), then you'll certainly find this movie to be wanting; I don't think James Dean's performance can redeem this major flaw.
Based on a John Steinbeck novel, Elia Kazan's "East of Eden" stars
James Dean as Cal, the son of entrepreneur Adam Trask. Cal feuds with
his younger brother and father, both of whom perceive Cal to be "bad".
Also deemed "bad" is Cal's mother, the owner of a local brothel.
As Kazan has truncated Steinbeck's novel, each character's actions and motivations become slightly cartoonish. Adam himself is portrayed as a religious fundamentalist, so scarred by his now absent wife that he deems everything unsavoury to be a "mark of wickedness". Psychologically abused by his judgemental father, Cal embarks on an unhealthy quest to both find his mother and earn daddy's favour.
"East of Eden" is filled with artificial, exaggerated oppositions, trite melodrama and strained allusions to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. On the flip-side, it's beautifully shot, boasts amazing wide-screen photography and contains a number of interesting passages. Elevating things further is Dean's performance. Dean would act in only three films before dying at the age of 24 ("Giant", "East of Eden", "Rebel Without a Cause"). In each of these films, he played sensitive, troubled young men. These characters are outsiders, idealists, confused, ashamed and filled with a burning desire to belong. More than this, their on-screen suffering seemed to echo Dean's own off-screen troubles.
Dean's performance in "East of Eden" has been called "groundbreaking", but it wasn't really. Brando and Montgomery Clift were already making waves as Method Acting Mega Stars, and Paul Newman and others would soon do so as well. What Dean did well was popularise a certain turn-of-the-century teenage archetype; all adolescent ache and emotional turbulence. And as Dean was immortalised as an adolescent and never allowed to grow up, his characters only seemed more doomed. As the years went by, his three performances would accumulate almost mythological proportions. This sentimental necrophilia would blind fans to Dean's flaws his obvious attempts to mimic Brando, his overly mopey scenery-chewing etc but in a way is also wholly deserved. "East of Eden" boasts gorgeous colour cinematography by Ted McCord, a lush score by Leonard Rosenman, and fine performances by Julie Harris and Jo Van Fleet.
7.5/10 See "Marjorie Morningstar", "Some Came Running" and "Rebel Without a Cause".
In 1917, Monterey is a rough and tumble place. Cal Trask (James
Dean)lives in the quiet neighboring farming community in the Salinas
Valley. He doesn't get along with his father Adam (Raymond Massey). His
brother Aron is the more liked especially by their father. He found out
that his mother isn't dead but just left their family. He finds out
that his mother is Kate (Jo Van Fleet) who runs a brothel in Monterey.
He's a tortured soul who hates both his mother and his father but he's
constantly trying to impress his father. Aron's girlfriend Abra (Julie
Harris) grows more and more attracted to him. His father loses a lot of
money when he tried to ship lettuce with ice on the train. He aims to
recover the lost by growing beans for the war but he needs $5k which he
borrows from a reluctant Kate.
It's a massive performance from James Dean. He's all emotions and no reservation. He's throwing everything into his character. There is an undirected energy about him as he flail away for his father's approval. I try and can only envision a bland unremakeable film without James Dean. He makes this movie unique and he's not overpowered by the scale of this Steinbeck novel.
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