“EAST OF EDEN” ~ 1955
D- Elia Kazan
W- Paul Osborn from the novel by John Steinbeck
East of Eden is, for the most part, the biblical story of Cain and Abel, retold for the 20th Century. James Dean plays Cal Trask, a young, rebellious kid who resents his distant, uptight father( Raymond Massey). He’s always kept Cal at arms length and disapproved of his every move. Aron (Richard Davalos), on the other hand is the prefect, if a bit vapid, son. Cal learns that his Mother, whom his father has told them was long dead is in fact the Madame of a nearby town. It’s also implied that she’s a junkie. When Cal pursues some kind of a connection with her, or a relationship of some kind, much disruption and drama ensues.
Photographed in Cinemascope by Ted McCord (The Sound Of Music, The Sand Pebbles), the film is, I think, an amazing thing to watch. Elia Kazan used extensive locations in and around Monterey and Salinas. The Cinemascope frame is used to amazing advantage, with beautiful central coast landscapes captured stunningly. There is an early scene where Dean rides on top of a railroad car at 55 mph. This is no process shot. They actually put Dean up there and let the train speed along, with a camera mounted on the top of the boxcar. I thought that was an amazing shot, and wildly daring. Dean was an unknown at this time, as was Julie Harris. Still, it was an amazing risk to take. Just one of many interesting shots in this film.
Also used brilliantly is the wide screen potential in interior, intimate scenes. These two frames below illustrate some of the amazing compositions Kazan devised. Here Cal is confronting his Madame Mother (stunning Jo Van Fleet, in an oscar winning performance) in their first conversation with each other.
Note the spatial dynamics of the characters and the way they are placed in relation to each other. A brilliant use of the mirror image to orchestrate the conversation between the two characters.
Note the imaginitave character placement in the above shot. I just don’t see this kind of composition in mainstream film today. Cinematographers and Directors have , with some exceptions, gotten lazy. Composition and lighting have suffered.The motion picture is suppose to stimulate us and interest us. Too much emphasis is placed of flashy, quick shots and CGI. So we’ve lost a lot.
Like I said before, James Dean and Julie Harris, who plays Aron’s fiance who is drawn to Cal, were complete unknowns at the time.
James Dean was truly amazing, He really was. The veneration and hype of Dean’s persona and legend is justified, in my opinion. He had a quality about him that was totally, utterly fresh and new. He approached acting from the weirdest place. Part method, part psychotic, but totally offbeat. Utterly offbeat.If you’ve never actually seen James Dean act, you’ll be really surprised. You’ll also understand why he astounded the staid, unsophisticated audiences of 1955. My god, but he must’ve been a total bolt from the blue. Then he was just dead. Gone. Wiped out. This film was just a few weeks in release, the audience was just turning on to this discovery. “Rebel Without a Cause” was in post production, and Dean was finishing shooting “Giant” when he was instantly killed in a high speed crash on a lonely highway in central California. He was on his way in his Porsche Spyder to a race in Paso Robles when he was creamed.
He’d been famous for about 6 weeks only.
Elia Kazan thinks James Dean was too eccentric to have lasted long. He believes his fame would’ve been transitory. Perhaps Kazan is right. We’ll never know. I think he would have endured, and branched out as a writer. He would’ve lasted somehow. He never had the chance to grow.