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East Of Eden
USA 1955
Directed by Elia Kazan
Running time 115 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Elia Kazan’s follow-up to On The Waterfront isn’t in quite the same league although most people are justly going to watch it for James Dean in his first starring role and an Oscar nominated one at that (he lost to Ernest Borgnine for Marty).

Based on John Steinbeck's nove,l East of Eden is a reworking of the Cain and Abel story and is set on the California coast around Salinas and Monterey at the time of WW1.  Dean plays Caleb, the troubled and troublesome son of a piously religious farmer, Adam Trask (Raymond Massey), who dotes on Cal’s goody-two-shoes brother, Aron (Richard Davalos, an actor who largely disappeared into a long television after this film) and whose wife (Jo Van Fleet, who did win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar) left him when the boys were young and now runs a whorehouse 15 miles away in Monterey. Cal is profoundly jealous of his brother and craves his father's love, and when the latter loses all his money in a business venture Cal thinks he sees a way to win it. Of course, this is not what happens.

Dean had been making a name for himself in theatre by this time and no doubt this is where Kazan, a prominent theatre director of the day found him and also knew of the much older Van Fleet who also made her film debut her.). Perhaps he recognised star quality but arguably he makes too much of Dean whose strongly mannered performance, evidently stemming from the same Method school tradition as those of Brando and Newman, is very much like that in Rebel Without A Cause, released later that same year, where it feels much more appropriate to the material. Here it often comes across as overwrought whilst Kazan exploits his boyish good looks and, more problematically, particularly in the latter stages, once the self-righteous Adam refuses Cal’s generosity, lays on the melodrama mercilessly allowing Cal a transfigured state of redemption as his dorky brother goes off to die at the hands of the Boche.

If not Kazan's most compelling directorial effort he still makes his mark, in particular with the use of tilted camera angles, Dean was a charismatic screen star and no-one has ever done tormented youth with quite as much emotionality as he does here. Although Julie Harris is too old to fit as Aron's teenage girlfriend, Abra, it is a well-written part as with natural wisdom she tries to mediate the various antagonisms between the three males and Harris, who was a 30 at the time, compensates for her years well.

 

 

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