East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955)

11Aug11

James Dean (Cal), Julie Harris (Abra), Burl Ives (Sam). Screenplay by Paul Osborn. Directed by Elia Kazan. Rating: 15. Running time: 115 minutes.

Steinbeck, Kazan and James Dean. A pretty frightening combination if reputations are anything to go by, and it turns out justifiably so. I was already aware of the power of Steinbeck, having read the Grapes of Wrath and being overwhelmed and moved like everyone else. To Kazan, too, I am no stranger. The fusion of those two alone behind a film was enough to raise my expectations sky high, especially given in their mediums of literature and film respectively there are few with a stronger social conscience. But then add in James Dean, that forever-young star of staggering fame that few have actually seen on screen, and that potential materialises before our eyes. He’s like Brando’s brother, and would surely have been known as that if he’d lived past the tragic age of 24. He’s the center of East of Eden; his performance is what we leave the film thinking and talking about.

By the brother of Brando, I don’t mean to invoke the connotations of masculinity surrounding that maestro’s performance in that other Kazan adaptation, A Streetcar. On the contrary, Dean here bursts with unmanly emotion in a way few male actors of that time would have dared to. I mean by the comparison for you to think of Brando’s Terry Malloy of On the Waterfront‘s softer, more reflective moments (yet again, a Kazan film!). I also mean, of course, that they both learnt their method in Strasberg’s school, and the same approach to raw, unrestrained acting shines through.

Dean plays Cal, a confusing and frustrated young man that I read isn’t too far from his lead character in Rebel Without A Cause. The source of his angst is as clear to us as it is to Cal himself: growing up without a mother he believed to be dead and living with a father only showing affection, and blatant favouritism, towards his other son, left Cal sitting troubled in the shadows, desirous of the healthy relationships he sees around him without ever experiencing them himself.

Good job, then, that Kazan is on hand to oversee his trouble, progress and trouble again. East of Eden is all about relationships, and nobody films them more realistically than Kazan, nor does anyone oversee character development and convey it quite this well. A scene towards the end involves Cal finally attempting to seek acceptance from his father, revealing to him the work he has done to help out financially. That backfires, his father cynically assuming Cal has stolen it. It’s a tragic moment, perhaps the hardest to watch in Kazan’s oeuvre. But it’s the culmination of a long time spent observing and growing to understand this mysterious young man. It’s that groundwork which gets the empathy to flow naturally, but the development is equally gripping too. I’m starting to understand what Scorsese means when he says that he has a long term love affair with Kazan’s films. They produce the type of emotion that no human would want to be without.

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