***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.
Cal is weird. He's twitchy and shifty, and as East of Eden opens, the unconditional love Cal's simpleton brother Aron (Richard Davalos) has for him does nothing to convince Aron's girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris) that Cal isn't some kind of sulky creep. She's not far off, but, especially after she witnesses Cal's heroism in the face of sleepy Salinas, CA's racial intolerance of a German business owner, Abra finds herself beginning to prefer Cal's individualism to Aron's (and Adam's) embrace of tradition. Her choice is at the heart of a piece oft dismissed as a facile Cain & Abel intrigue, despite that it only provides a surface glance off the brother's relationship to one another and their father. The better parallel, if you insist, is Abra's Eve serving as the downfall to the film's Adam. The title is, after all, East of Eden. Sheesh. Abra's decision is made from knowledge of good and evil, natch: the good of Cal's pragmatism versus the evil of Aron's/Adam's nostalgia. When Cal ultimately reveals to Aron that long-dead mother Kate is actually a successful Madam at a prosperous cathouse, it sets the stage for what is essentially the "good" collapse of Adam's closely-held sense of antiquated values and morality. It's an entire cultural epoch ahead of its time--the cynicism of Hud's "rightness" held in the trembling hands of creepy Cal, who, though he elicits the audience's sympathy, is as destructive a figure to our romantic image of the hero as Paul Newman's solipsistic cowboy. Eden is a lie in East of Eden; Cal's the forbidden fruit of our emancipation from a stentorian, divorced Father.
Not Kazan's best film, East of Eden is too schizophrenic for that, with too much time spent in the company of lettuce. Still, it showcases Kazan's sympathy for the African-American in one scene of a cackling chorus (done better in his next movie, Baby Doll) and another where Cal escorts a black child tenderly across a parade route. It has more Dutch angles than any other Kazan, while in one sequence--Cal's fight with Aron--Kazan intrudes as a presence in a way that has no real equal in his oeuvre. It's testament to Kazan's connection to the piece (it offers commentary of a sort on his contentious relationship with his father), the idea that (again, like Edward Scissorhands--how odd), following a sterling success and with the ability to write his own ticket, this artist chooses to tackle imposing material, only sometimes succeeding yet creating something that coheres due to a remarkably vulnerable central performance from its unexpected star. Most of all, East of Eden shows Kazan in a rare, regretful posture post-testimony, striking an even rarer, perhaps, sympathetic figure. The picture is about the inevitability of corruption (to quote the aforementioned Hud: "This world is so full of crap, a man's gonna get into it sooner or later whether he's careful or not") and the Romanticism of experience as they murder infant innocence in its cradle. It's a statement that the world is hurtling towards the sixties, dumb as it is to say, and then the seventies, and then into the aughts, when nihilism and the equation of morality with a coin flip rules the day. East of Eden is bleak, brilliant, and, along with Kazan's "lost" Wild River, probably the most misunderstood--and, by extension, underestimated--film in a storied career.
East of Eden comes to DVD in a lovely 2.55:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer faithful to the wider aspect ratio of early CinemaScope titles. Colour definition is somewhat soft and the Warnercolor palette is typically mercurial, but shadow detail is excellent and the nicely-filmic image betrays little in the way of digital enhancements or artifacts. Impressive in itself, an early sequence set among picket fences contains not a hint of moiré defect. The DD 5.1 configuration of the original four-track stereo mix presents Leonard Rosenman's weak, distracting score to good, orchestral effect, for what it's worth. The rear soundstage occasionally lights up with ambient effects, such as crowd din in the lobby of the whorehouse, or chirping crickets during a lazy Salinas night. Giant dickhead Richard Schickel contributes the expected feature-length yakker on the first platter of this Two-Disc Special Edition, offering up bits of production information that are what they are before submarining himself with attempts at cogent analysis of a difficult film and its difficult adaptation. Echoes of his late-career admission that he never really loved movies shine through his undisguised boredom and superiority to the subject matter here as well as in every other commentary he's been asked to record. East of Eden's handsomely-preserved theatrical trailer rounds out Disc One.
The second DVD contains the 2005 retrospective "East of Eden: Art in Search of Life" (20 mins.), which intersperses clips from an archival interview with Kazan with interview nuggets from Steinbeck's son and a Steinbeck scholar, each of whom is actively engaged in shallow hagiography of the man without deviating much from the standard read of Kazan's adaptation. The film, as the author himself acknowledged, is a Kazan, not a Steinbeck. Cue the sad trombone. Julie Harris saves the day, however, with a heartfelt, tearful recollection of the last day of shooting. Bravo. "Forever James Dean" (60 mins.) is a deeply embarrassing, deeply amateurish documentary about Dean that demonstrates no understanding, nor much intelligence, in slavishly blowing the ghost of Dean into a Chantilly lather. Sixteen-year old teenyboppers will wet themselves; all others will have turned it off after the awful opening montage. Three deleted scenes (20 mins.)--chiefly one in which Dean and Davalos expand on their relationship--deserve to be gone but are fascinating anyway for extending footage of a guy we didn't get that much time with, all told. The same could be said of screen tests (22 mins.) that are repetitive but hold their own fascination. A drawn-out newsreel chronicling the 1955 premiere (14 mins.) is only what it is. Originally published: May 12, 2011.