For my blog 1955 seems to be a chaotic year filled with highs and lows. I praised Bad Day at Black Rock heartily a few days again, and I’m probably going to crush one of the years darlings in today’s review. East of Eden is the only film James Dean lived to see completed, and is based on a beloved novel by John Steinbeck (which I haven’t read so please be kind with your comments). I just didn’t understand all the love for it. It’s an okay movie (remember I said be kind), and Dean is good, but I wasn’t jumping out of my seat for it. I much preferred the stark reality of Bad Day at Black Rock as opposed to this lush parable about the balance of good and evil.
Cal Trask (Dean) is a young man growing up in the sleepy Salinas Valley. Cal feels he isn’t as good as his twin brother Aron (Richard Davalos), and that’s why his father Adam (Raymond Massey) doesn’t love him. The only solace Cal finds is in his budding relationship with Abra (Julie Harris) who happens to be Aron’s girlfriend.
Regardless of the quality of the film, there’s an immense amount of themes embedded within this Elia Kazan film. The strongest connections are biblical, with the core of the story being the retelling of Cain and Abel (Cal and Aron), and the idea of a paradise lost. The two brothers fight for the love of their father, and eventually the love of the same woman, but which brother is truly the bad one? Cal feels that he’s bad as he has so much of his mother in him, “she’s no good and I’m no good.” To him the sins of the mother pass down to the child, and it makes sense that Cal would strive to find his mother and question why she left the family. Kate (Jo Van Fleet), Cal’s mother, is the local madame and therefore invested in her own devilish profession; yet she refuses to be tied down, citing it as the reason why she left Adam in the first place. She’s the Eve of this story, partaking in forbidden fruit and ruining the paradise of the Trask home forever. Cal and Kate both seem to lack something; for Cal it is paternal affection.
I found myself fascinated by the Freudian-esque relationships of East of Eden. Mr. Trask admits he doesn’t understand Cal. To him, parenting is on par with refrigeration “You can keep anything good, so long as you keep it cold enough.” It’s why his relationship with Aron is so strong, the two don’t need to exhibit affection for each other and that’s normal. Cal doesn’t want to live his life without love, both romantic and familial, so Adam’s coldness comes off as neglect. At the same time the whole family appears to walk on eggshells with regards to Aron. I love the simpering way Cal says they “mustn’t do anything to hurt Aron.” Later on, Cal exhibits a devilish glee as he reads passages from the Bible, annoying his father by including the passage numbers. It’s a testament to Dean’s acting that this feels like a child intentionally annoying his parent. By the end, it’s apparent that neither brother is good nor evil, simply human. When Cal takes Aron to meet his mother, it can be easily explained as an act of menace or of honesty for Aron. The disturbing, surrealistic way Aron responds to meeting his mother pays off in a frightening scene, as if he’s entered into a house of horrors. I almost wondered if a type of madness permeated Aron’s character. He does become manipulative and controlling, especially of Abra, making one wonder how much his personality has been inherent, or has come from the situation he’s in.
The various Oedipal/Electra-like relationships are also highlighted. Cal and his mother, Aron and Abra are the obvious examples. The dialogue exchange between Abra and Cal with regards to her father was probably my favorite example of the complexities of the relationships in this film. She explains that she doesn’t love him like she did as a child, and hates her stepmother because “she’s a woman.” The competition for parental affection reaches a fever pitch on so many levels you explain an explosion by the end. It explains Aron’s madness, and Cal’s thrusting of a hug onto his father (one of the defining scenes of the film).
Massy, Van Fleet, and Davalos are good in their roles. Dean is obviously the stand-out, presented a conflicted man controlled by emotions. It’s said that Cal is director Elia Kazan personified, but I can’t state whether that comes off or not. I can say that Kazan includes a fantastic shot of a swing moving in time with the camera that’s haunting, disorienting, and damn cool. Cal is a character who appreciates love and hard work. The scene of Cal laying next to his tiny bean sprouts is such an evocative image not just of a world on the brink of war, but on a world set to change through the youth of the 1950s. The only one I just can’t connect with is Julie Harris as Abra. Harris was a decade older than the girl she’s playing, and she feels like she doesn’t know anything about being a teenager. When she’s with Cal/Dean, the two have a natural chemistry and relationship. Cal is comfortable laughing in front of her, and possibly finds the mother that’s eluded him all these years. The issue is you spend all your time focusing on Cal because Abra is a bland character. Harris in the part feels stiff and distanced from the vitality of Dean, or the intensity of Davalos. It just comes off as a poor casting choice.
As a conversation piece, evidenced by my review, one can find a lot to analyze and discuss about East of Eden. The film has some inspired shots, and a fantastic performance by Dean, but I just found myself disengaged from the plot. It’s a movie you really have to pay attention to, and the meandering quality of the plot makes it easy for audiences to zone out. I know this film is considered a classic, so maybe I missed something?
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.