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East Of EdenUSA 1955
Directed by Elia Kazan
Running time 115 minutes
Elia Kazan’s follow-up to On The Waterfront isn’t as good as one would hope it would be 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 a John Steinbeck novel East of Eden is a reworking of the Cain and Abel story set on the California coast around Salinas and Monterey at the time of WW1. Dean plays Caleb, the troublesome son of a sternly religious rancher, Adam Trask (Raymond Massey), who dotes in 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 in Monterey. Cal is 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.
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 here). 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 endowing Cal a transfigured state of redemption as his dorky brother goes off to die at the hands of the Bosch.
If not Kazan's most compelling directorial effort, Dean was a charismatic screen star and no-one has ever done tormented youth with quite as much emotionality as he does here.