Director: Elia Kazan
Starring: James Dean, Raymond Massey, Jo Van Fleet, Julie Harris
East of Eden has the distinction of not only being James Dean's big screen debut but also the only film he made that he lived to see. It is an adaptation of the last hundred, or so, pages of John Steinbeck's epic novel of the same name that explores generational conflict as well as sibling conflicts based on the story of Cain and Abel. For the most part it is a very strong film, particularly in terms of the performances, but it is not without its weak spots.
The story begins with Adam (Raymond Massey) and his two sons, fraternal twins named Cal (James Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos) in the period just before the U.S. entered into World War I. Cal and Aron have been raised to believe that their mother, Kate (Jo Van Fleet), is dead but Cal has recently discovered that she's very much alive and running a brothel in a nearby town. He keeps this information to himself for the time being as he's less interested in forming a relationship with his mother than in mending his fractured relationship with his father. Cal is the black sheep son who can never seem to do right in Adam's eyes while Aron can seemingly do no wrong. When a business plan of Adam's falls under, costing him a great deal of money, Cal goes to Kate in order to ask her for a loan to start a business of his own which he hopes can recoup the money his father has lost and also make him proud.
As Cal is waiting for his own business venture - growing and selling beans, which he knows will become a hot commodity once the U.S. enters the war - to take off, he falls in love with Aron's girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris), who slowly comes to reciprocate his feelings. She treats Cal almost like a wounded animal, a creature that lashes out because of fear rather than out of malice. Her relationship with the sensitive and naive Aron, however, causes them to hold back from each other in order to protect him. It isn't until Cal tries to give his father the money he's earned and is not only rejected but accused of being a war profiteer that Cal takes his anger out on Aron, brutally revealing the truth about Kate to him and setting in motion a series of events that may tear the family apart permanently.
In his film debut, Dean renders a stunning and effective performance, arguably the best of the three films he made. Cal is a deeply psychological character, scarred by his father's rejection, at once protective of and jealous of his brother, possessed of an almost childlike gentleness but also of a child's ability to throw a raging tantrum. Dean is often accused of copying Brando but his style is actually more a merging of Brando and Clift. He has the angry energy of the former but also the sensitivity of the latter and he shifts between them easily. You find yourself at once feeling badly for Cal but also shaking your head at his impulsive willingness to cut off his nose to spite his face and in that way Dean perfectly captures the spirit of the character from the novel. Cal wants to be good but when told that he's bad, he sets out to prove just how bad he can be even if the consequences of his actions will hurt him.
East of Eden is far from a perfect movie, it drags in the middle section and its ending is not as powerful as it might be, but I like it nevertheless. I have to admit that I liked it a lot more before I read the book and discovered how much was cut out. For example, the version of Kate we see onscreen, though masterfully played by Van Fleet, is a really watered down version of the character from the book, easily one of the most evil characters I've ever encountered in literature. A few years ago there was talk of a new adaptation of East of Eden and I would defintely be interested in seeing what a new version would do with that character because it could be a really meaty role. The problem with a new adaptation, of course, would be that you'd have to find an actor who could fill Dean's shoes as Cal, which would be next to impossible. Even Steinbeck remarked that Dean simply is Cal, and his electrifying performance ensures that East of Eden is still worth watching, even if it is one of director Elia Kazan's lesser efforts.