Located 15 miles inland from one of the most beautiful spots along the Pacific shore, Salinas, California is best known as John Steinbeck's birthplace. It also serves as the setting for Steinbeck's East of Eden, a re-telling of the Biblical Cain and Abel story and a thinly disguised narrative of Steinbeck's own youth. Subtlety isn't his gig, but the legendary writer creates memorable characters that translate well to the screen—this time with Elia Kazan directing brooding icon James Dean in his film debut. On the film's fiftieth anniversary Warner Home Video has finally released the film on DVD (along with Dean's other two films), making this uneven film one of the year's "must sees."
Dean remains the main reason to watch Kazan's dated film; he fills the screen with his mysterious persona far more than the simplistic plot. The film opens with troubled Cal Trask (Dean as the "Cain" character) following an enigmatic Monterrey businesswoman through the streets before he inexplicably heaves a rock through her window. Before long we learn that she is "Eve" (Jo Van Fleet) and has fallen from grace—her location and occupation unknown to her husband Adam (Raymond Massey) and to her oldest son Aron (Richard Davalos as "Abel") back in Salinas.
Kazan takes full advantage of the mutual hatred that Massey and Dean developed for each other off the set to create on screen tension and capture their animosity. A "paint-by-the numbers" actor who prided himself on knowing his lines and hitting his spots, Massey became infuriated by Dean's method acting and his predilection for following his instincts and improvising unpredictably. Watch Massey's inner rage develop when Dean improbably pauses—an especially notable scene spontaneously erupts where Dean's script instructions were to simply walk off, but he lingers ... pauses ... approaches Massey ... and grabs him around the neck as the older actor then struggles to extract himself from his unwanted son's embrace. While that presented a few minutes of discomfort for Massey, it's now a scene that stands out—for good reason.
Extracting the essence of Steinbeck's novel by focusing only on the final chapters, Kazan creates a simple morality tale that reflects the fifties era. Although intending to illustrate how all characters are a blend of good and evil, Kazan is no Hitchcock in this vein. The actions are as blatant as the dialog, like Cal's initial face to face encounter with his mother:
"You're right. I am bad. I knew that for a long time...It's true. Aron's the good one. I guess there's just a certain amount of good and bad you get from your parents and I just got the bad."
Bible thumping Adam unwittingly has driven his wife from his lettuce farm by his stubborn righteousness and has estranged himself from Cal by continually praising and showing favoritism to his "perfect" son Aron. Nevertheless, Cal remains determined gain acceptance and fight for fatherly love—but on his own terms. Cal also worships his brother's fiancée Abra (Julie Harris), who performs the necessary bridge between the three men in the household—another standard trapping in Steinbeck's literary work. Combine this with a requisite reconciliation and Kazan's overly staged directorial hand, and you have a rather ordinary 1950's melodrama.
Saving cinematic graces include a few experimental Dutch angles, and some fine scenes with Van Fleet, who garnered a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. But the real reason that this film has any legs at all (and the ONLY reason that Warner Brothers has released the DVD) rests with James Dean. Although the least polished of his film acting work, the Academy did nominate Dean for his lead work in East of Eden, but that is likely due to the impact that Dean with his meteoric rise to stardom and the shocking conclusion to his life. This first film offers glimpses into his sexual appeal and far subtler rebellious nature that make Rebel Without a Cause and Giant into the landmark films that they have become, making Kazan's unremarkable project worth a look. The promotional special features on the DVD attempt to elevate the film's status, but they parallel the nature of the film itself—of interest primarily for historical purposes.