East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955): USA

Reviewed by Byron Potau. Viewed on DVD.

East of Eden

Elia Kazan’s film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden has remained significant through the years mostly for containing one of James Dean’s three cherished performances. Though the film has more to offer than Dean, time has exposed some faults with the film while other areas still stand up fairly well.

The film concentrates on the Trask family, father Adam (Raymond Massey) and his two sons Aron (Richard Davalos) and Cal (James Dean) living in Salinas, the trio mirroring the bible’s Cain and Abel story. Cal has always been the bad one while Aron has always been, like his father, unerringly good. Cal has recently discovered his mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet), whom his father said had been dead for many years, is still alive and runs a house of prostitution in nearby Monterey. Since Cal feels he is inherently bad he thinks he is like his mother while Aron is like his father. However, Cal still desires his father’s love and tries hard to please him only to disappoint him by not living up to his moral and ethical standards which causes Cal to become jealous toward his brother Aron.

An overly sweet sounding score by Leonard Rosenman, and some trite emotional speeches mar this adaptation which tends to get a bit heavy handed at times. The strict overbearing father Adam also seems unworthy of Cal’s love and translates poorly to modern generations who just might prefer Cal’s brothel owning mother to the overly righteous, bible reading father. In any case, most would probably find them both undesirable.

James Dean is in full method acting mode as he fidgets, twists, and sulks his way through his performance, yet he has such a magnetic presence that he remains the main reason to watch the film. However, this is the least of Dean’s three great performances.

Julie Harris as Aron’s innocent girlfriend, Abra, gives a good performance despite having some of the more difficult speeches in the film, and Jo Van Fleet as Cal’s mother Kate makes excellent use of her brief screen time in a pivotal role, not overplaying her part. Raymond Massey and Richard Davalos as the overly good Adam and Aron fill their respective roles well.

The other reason to see this film is its use of Cinemascope which director Kazan shows a strong command of, making fine use of the widescreen allotted and some effective obtuse angles, as well as excellent use of color cinematography by Ted McCord.

While not a great film it has its qualities and enough reasons to make it worth watching.

DVD extras: Commentary by Richard Schickel, Theatrical Trailer, 50th anniversary documatary “East of Eden: Art in Search of Life,” documentary “Forever James Dean,” screen tests, wardrobe, costume and production design, New York premiere footage.

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