***½/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras C
starring Julie Harris, James Dean, Raymond Massey, Burl Ives
screenplay by Paul Osborn, based on the novel by John Steinbeck
directed by Elia Kazan
by Walter Chaw There's a moment--well, there are dozens of moments, but there's a moment in particular--in Elia Kazan's follow-up to On the Waterfront, East of Eden, where James Dean (in the only film of his released during his lifetime), as the troubled Cal, asks his estranged mother (Jo Van Fleet) for a loan, all anxious tics and frightened eyes, seemingly uncomfortable in his own skin. It at once defines Dean's appeal to a generation of young folks, who saw reflected in him something of their own fear and trembling, and crystallizes the revolution in screen acting brought about by Dean and The Actors Studio brats Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Julie Harris, and Montgomery Clift. It's comparable to the emergence of Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands--reactions, both, to Eisenhower eras defined by cultural repression and the indoctrinated magnification of the mythology of the American male. (Dean and Depp are similarly feminized--almost asexual--in these signature roles.) A later moment, Cal's offer of a gift to stern father Adam (Raymond Massey, playing the literal dry run to Melvyn Douglas's patriarch in Hud) of a cool grand won through a little harmless WWI-profiteering, is unavoidably linked to what we know of Kazan's friendly testimony before HUAC. It's knowledge that makes it impossible for a Union-busting dockworker's martyrdom to be just what it is--and impossible to see Adam's rejection of Cal as anything other than another cry for righteous forgiveness for an odious act done in good faith. East of Eden, of course, could also be a rejection of consumerism in the midst of the nascence of our consumerist wonderland--a reaction to our plutocracy's values and a further case for Dean as the sainted figure of rebellion that would fuel the generational schism of the '60s.