Elia Kazan’s movie version of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden is a retelling of the Cain and Abel story. James Dean plays Cal, Richard Davalos is his brother Aron, and Raymond Massey plays their father, Adam. Cal and Aron are twins who live in the farm country of Salinas, California. The boys have been told by Adam that their mother died shortly after they were born, but Cal has discovered their mother is alive and well, a bar owner and town madam just twelve miles away in Monterrey. Added to these problems is Abra (Julie Harris), Aron’s beautiful girlfriend, who slowly becomes hopelessly attracted to Cal.
The movie is gorgeous from beginning to end, with some scenes so perfectly crafted they are almost heartbreaking in their beauty. There is a scene where Cal and Aron discuss important matters in the front yard. Aron can be seen perfectly in the light of the porch while Cal is in the darkness of a tree, his body perfectly split top to bottom by the rope from a swing, symbolizing his inner turmoil. Cal moves toward Aron but stops just at the edge of the light as though his body can’t stand leaving his despair behind him. This is but one example of the beauty of the film. Dark/light, right/left, top/bottom – Kazan and cinematographer Ted McCord paint every frame with master strokes.
A few words must be reserved for the absolutely unbelievable performance by James Dean. Overall, he is balletic and feline. In half the scenes, he finds a way to slink his body into a totally prone position either on the floor, a table, or even half laying down on a chair. He looks relaxed and comfortable while simultaneously trying to slide away.
Dean shares the screen so well that he sometimes turns his back on the speaker during the most important dialogue in the film. The result is that the speaker gets a chance to shine while Dean adds a boiling menace. (Will he suddenly turn around and begin screaming?) At the same time, it is obvious that he is really listening, he really wants to know what other characters have to say and whether or not it will give him any relief from his internal suffering.
Extras: There is an audio commentary by Richard Schickel that is both interesting and comprehensive.
East of Eden is rich with depth and beauty, charming and highly entertaining, and a masterwork of visuals and acting. In no way has this masterpiece diminished over the last 70 years. Highly recommended.