Around the time of the First World War, Cal Trask (James Dean) is an unhappy man and is always competing with his always-perfect brother Aron (Richard Davalos). He is their father’s favourite and Cal desperately wants their father’s love. It’s leading up to America’s entry into the war and after his father loses most of his money, Cal decides to speculate on a crop of beans, making a small fortune. However, he realises he can’t buy his father’s love and discovers that his mother is alive, changing the game. And this final revelation leads to tragic results for the three Trask men. Based on the novel by John Steinbeck, East of Eden is another Elia Kazan Great, raw and unrelenting.
East of Eden is the best James Dean performance but not my favourite; that title belongs to Giant. Nonetheless, his role as Cal is an enigma; a man who is too sensitive for our world, not too dissimilar from Rebel Without a Cause. It’s a striking performance that shows vigour and talent. It’s sad that James Dean is known more for his lifestyle than his films and his skills in his craft. And like Heath Ledger, his posthumous Oscar nomination simply adds to his gravitas as an actor. All that aside, Cal sobbing is etched into my brain, a riveting example from a great actor. Almost biblical in what is not just an adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel but of the story Cain and Abel too.
Have you ever felt lost in the world, ignored by your family or jealous of a sibling? All these things are tropes of the coming-of-age genre. And if you answered yes, you may well resonate with the characters depicted on screen. East of Eden analyses the awful undertones of family relationships, teenage angst, and loneliness which can lead to toxic masculinity and other harmful things, as shown in this film – the need for universal love and to love in return and the consequences of having none. Films like The Graduate (starring Dustin Hoffman) and Rebel Without a Cause (also starring James Dean) deals with similar things. Both are excellent films but however, they do not pack the emotional punch that East of Eden does, leaving whole rooms cold in its wake.
Regardless of his political leanings (see the HUAC Era), Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront) directed lots of brilliant pictures, including A Streetcar Named Desire and Gentleman’s Agreement, and East of Eden is one of the best films to come out of the United States. Though, only adapted from a portion of the book, East of Eden comes together and never lets its foot off the accelerator. Directing and James Dean aside, the supporting cast also excel. Raymond Massey and Julie Harris are impeccable, as is Richard Davalos (Aron) who helps guide the story with the biblical Cain-Abel conflict. And Jo Van Fleet owns every scene she is in as Kate (the boys’ mother).
John Steinbeck, through his novels, was the defender of the working class and Kazan’s adaptation further shows that. As well as being a critique of class, this is a young adult narrative and coming-of-age film, a genre that has been around since the early days of cinema.