East of Eden (1955)

There’s no doubt that East of Eden is James Dean’s film. He almost bursts out the screen, his presence is so intense. It’s a breathtaking debut. But it’s to director Elia Kazan’s credit that Dean doesn’t entirely unbalance the movie. Instead, the tension between Dean’s emotionally overwrought teenager and the more measured performances from the rest of the cast makes the film still very watchable today.

It’s based, of course, on John Steinbeck’s magnum opus, published only three years earlier in 1952. Steinbeck knew Kazan and that year won an Oscar for the screenplay of the director’s Viva Zapata!.

East of Eden is the story of brothers Cal (Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos), of Cal’s conflict with his father Adam (Raymond Massey) and his pained relationship with his estranged mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet). On top of this, Aron’s girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris) is increasingly torn by her growing empathy with – and attraction to – Cal.

James Dean, Richard Davalos and Julie Harris as the three leads

An experimental melodrama

This is the stuff of melodrama of course and East of Eden with its heartthrob lead and its adolescent preoccupations with rebellious teenage angst and conflicting morality it was tailor-made for a youth audience. It was a hit and launched its star. However, it’s more than just popcorn fair.

Steinbeck was a most rare breed: a popular experimental novelist. His books were accessible, down-to-earth and immediate but they often contained bold, formalistic ideas. ‘Of Mice And Men’ is written entirely in dialogue so it could be read equally as a novel or a play. ‘The Wayward Bus’ is a collection of internal monologues where nothing much happens. ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ offers a vivid and unflinching voice to migrant dirt farmers, in an ironic echo of America’s trailblazing creation myth.

‘East of Eden’ similarly has an experimental streak; it’s a 20th century retelling of the biblical Cain and Abel; for Cain read Cal, for Abel read Aron.

I expect most of Steinbeck’s readers and the contemporary cinema audience would be familiar with the tale, though perhaps fewer are today. Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve; Cain a farmer, Abel a shepherd. Both brothers brought God an offering, but God only saw worth in Abel’s gift, proclaiming Cain to be sinful. Cain, presumably feeling rejected and resentful, murders Abel. God asks Cain where Abel is; Abel says he doesn’t know (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”). But God knows the truth and curses Cain so the soil he tils will always be barren. Cain is exiled, destined to wander nomadically. “And Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and dwelled in the land of Nod east of Eden.”

In the film, the references are generally well integrated with only a couple of heavy-handed pointers for those who missed the allusions.

It’s a tale with rich potential, with its filial insecurities and fraternal enmity. In the novel the story repeats through generations like a curse, the ‘mark of Cain’. The film loses some of its depth by adapting only the second half of the book so we only get one version of the biblical tale, but in truth it probably would have been impossible to compress this long book in its entirety into a 115-minute movie. Elements are softened. In the novel Cal’s act of retribution compels the formerly pacifist Aron to sign up to the army and he is swiftly killed in battle; in this way Cal indirectly causes Aron’s death. The film doesn’t go quite this far, making Cal more sympathetic, less contemptible.

There’s Method in his madness

Although the film greatly simplifies the novel, it nevertheless carries out its own experiment: the juxtaposition acting styles, traditional versus ‘The Method’. The Method, of course, is a set of techniques pioneered by Stanislavsky; it calls on the actors to put themselves in the place of the character, to inhabit their emotions, and it was probably at its zenith in the fifties. Kazan was proud of his involvement in the theatrical technique and in the movies it was famously embodied by two actors most associated with Kazan: Marlon Brando and James Dean.

James Dean and Richard Davalos’s contrasting acting styles threaten to imbalance the film

In East of Eden, Dean is a nervous ball of angst. Intense and restless, his heightened physical movements express his emotional turmoil far more than any of his dialogue. His slurred vocal delivery would have felt modern and real. It’s an impressive physical performance. Dean never sits still, always darting around, running, climbing. Restless. He races up a ramp to a barn loft, lithely climbs to Abra’s bedroom window, urgently clamours down from a Ferris wheel. The boy’s definitely unsettled.

Dean’s acting is intense, veering from one strong emotion to another, his inner turmoil seems ready to burst out at any moment. Dean was so devoted to The Method that he would frequently break down in tears on set, overcome by the emotional intensity of inhabiting the role. Mostly Kazan would just pause filming until Dean recovered, but we see one such moment on screen when Cal’s gift is rejected by his father. Dean’s performance is captivating and although it seems slightly overwrought for today’s audience it never becomes ridiculous.

James Dean and Richard Massey in the one scene in the film when Kazan used one of Dean’s on-set tearful breakdowns. The hug was not scripted, and Massey grew to deeply resent Dean’s improvisatory style.

The film’s masterstroke is to contrast acting styles for thematic effect and for tension. Cal, and indeed his mother Cathy, are the sinners, the rebels, bearing the mark of Cain. Both Dean and Van Fleet are very physical actors, their body language defensive, slouching, discomfited. By contrast, the upstanding and religious Adam and Aron are played by Massey and Davalos respectively using a more traditional acting style. Sharing the characteristics of biblically conformist Abel, they are restrained, relying more on dramatic delivery rather than emotionally inhabiting their role.

An emotional centre

Julia Harris in her debut role as Abra, the girl romantically torn between the two brothers, is somewhere in between. In Harris, Kazan find balance, both in acting style and in character. She’s maternal and innocent, yet drawn to the rebellious Cal. She is entirely lacking the sexuality we see in Cathy. Amusingly, she repeatedly observes how girls always follow Cal around, seemingly coyly naive to what Cal really gets up to. Her coming-of-age character is on the cusp of sexual awakening.

It seems Harris herself was extremely modest; the crew was requested to avert their eyes when filming the fairground kiss. Yet she’s also passionate, intense and immediate, with an innocent kind of sensuality that Cal seems to long for. Harris’s portrayal is the glue that bonds the stylistic extremes of this film, and without her the film would probably be an incoherent mess.

Emotional confusion after a fairground kiss

A conflicting style

The theme of contrasting righteousness and waywardness is also expressed in the film’s dual locations. As the opening titles state: “In northern California, the Santa Lucia Mountains, dark and brooding, stand like a wall between the peaceful agricultural town of Salinas and the rough and tumble fishing port of Monterey, fifteen miles away”. The film flits between the two locations. The Salinas valley standing in for the Garden of Eden; Monterey, with its brothels and sin, is a place of banishment and exile. We first encounter Cal, wandering the shoreline town’s unfamiliar streets like a lost boy searching for his mother. And by contrast when Cathy first visits Salinas, she emerges from the mist like some kind of mysterious apparition.

The visuals are similarly varied. Mostly, this is classically shot, with balanced compositions, establishing-shot, mid-shot, close-up and craftsman-like appeal. It makes great use of the extra-wide Cinemascope aspect ratio. But sometimes the camera takes a wayward turn, reflecting Cal’s angst, with skewed angles and unexpected jolting movements. When Cal’s father rejects his son’s gift, the camera becomes increasingly slanted as Cal breaks down into tears. And at a later dramatic peak, the camera literally tilts from side to side as Cal sways on a childhood swing.

Cal and Cathy are darker, more internally anguished characters than the others

The final judgement

But does the film work today? Mostly, I’d suggest, although not without its faults. Dean’s acting style is central to the film and for me was just a little too dominant, grabbing all the attention and unbalancing the film. It doesn’t help that Richard Davalos’s portrayal of Aron is a little dull, which only makes the disparity between the two brothers more pronounced. John Steinbeck, on meeting Dean famously remarked “He is Cal”, and indeed he has a jittery, physical insecurity. But even though he was ‘just a kid’, the actor already seems a little too old for the character to be entirely believable. As, by the way, does Harris. I’m still not entirely convinced that a full-blown method acting style transfers well from stage to screen, where it can appear overblown under the intimate gaze of the movie camera.

That’s not to say the performances aren’t very good; they are, despite Kazan’s often suspect methods. Kazan was not above manipulating his actors for an on-screen response, in a way that would be highly disapproved of today. I’ve already mentioned Dean’s real tears. Also, Massey playing Cal’s father was provoked when shooting a scene in which Cal sullenly reads from the Bible. Kazan plotted with Dean to intersperse the Bible verses with obscenities to Massey’s outrage; the obscenities were edited out, but Massey’s reaction made the final cut. Massey and Dean grew to hate one another on set, and Kazan exploited this to the full.

Dean and Massey squaring up over the Bible

Even in its much-simplified film version, Steinbeck’s story transfers very well to the screen. We are continually engaged. The acting enlivens this, of course, but the story, structure and direction are solid and always interesting, even if the psychological elements feel a little naive once the theatrical effect wears off.

East of Eden still holds a particular power, particularly when seen on the big screen, and although Kazan has fallen out of fashion lately it’s definitely worth a watch.

James Dean was just a kid

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