East of Eden (1955)

Directed by Elia Kazan


Elia Kazan’s East of Eden has a lot of powerful people behind it.  The film is the first one following Kazan’s Best Picture-winning On the Waterfront, and it is based on a novel written three years prior by famed writer John Steinbeck.  The film is Kazan’s first in color, and it was filmed proudly (according to the opening credits) in CINEMASCOPE, something akin to today’s use of 70 mm or of IMAX cameras.  The idea of shooting in cinemascope is to emphasize the spectacle of the film, something usually reserved for Westerns or historical epics.  It’s funny, then, that East of Eden is a small melodrama set in the quiet farming town of Salinas, California.

It’s not just the visual aesthetic of the film that makes it feel much more grand than the literal narrative.  The story of Cal and his brother Aron is a slightly more modern retelling of the biblical story of Cain and Abel.  It’s right there in the title (Garden of Eden), and the biblical connections are peppered throughout the film, often stated plainly by the boys’ religious father and by the boys themselves.  At one point Cal even says, “I’m not my brother’s keeper” as Cain said to the Lord in regards to Abel.

In that biblical story (which I just reacquainted myself with through a quick google search), Cain becomes jealous of Abel due to what he perceives as God’s preference for Abel.  This compels Cain to kill his brother.  He’s at first concerned that he will be caught, then relieved that he’s not, and finally he expresses remorse for his actions.

And that’s the plot of East of Eden in a nutshell.

Cal (James Dean in a role which would garner him a posthumous Oscar nomination) knows that his father, Adam (Raymond Massey) prefers his older brother Aron (Richard Davalos).  While Aron is the model son, Cal is sullen, prone to violent outbursts, and he’s extremely moody.  In one of two notable roles which helped makes James Dean an icon of the 1950s teenager (in addition to Rebel Without a Cause), Cal is at once alluring and off-putting.

He’s a weird kid, to put it simply.  Cal hides behind bushes and trees or even his father’s large blocks of ice which the older man uses to keep lettuce chilled, a method of food storage he anticipates will help make him some money.  Cal spies on Aron and Abra (Julie Harris), his brother’s girlfriend, and he’s just a general troublemaker.

The film opens with Cal following a woman who turns out to be his mother to her home in nearby Monterey.  He watches her from a distance, reluctant to approach her, and it’s clear from the start that he’s in search of something within himself.  Knowing that his father prefers his brother, the put upon Cal is drawn to his mother, believing that he must surely be more like her.  And he does seem to be.

He learns that his father cast his mother aside when she wasn’t the image of the perfect wife he had dreamt about, much as Cal isn’t the perfect son.  But rather than run away, Cal is intent on doing his best to impress his father.

As World War I breaks out, Cal knows he can make a good deal of money planting beans which will be sent to the soldiers in Europe.  His hope is to make enough money to give his father back everything he lost when his own money-making venture failed spectacularly.  When Cal finally offers his dad the money, he refuses when he learns it’s ‘dirty,’ having benefited from the war.

Cal breaks down in front of his father, wanting only his affection.  When his brother, himself offended by Cal’s money, confronts him, Cal responds in anger and reveals that their mother isn’t dead, as Aron believed, and is instead living in nearby.  This shakes Aron so deeply that he immediately enlists in the army and ships out, thus dying metaphorically.

Their father becomes so grief-stricken that he suffers a paralyzing stroke, and the film ends with Cal sobbing over his barely-responsive body, begging for forgiveness.

Kazan has said that much of his own relationship with his father is in this film.  It’s a tragic tale, built on that father-son bond or lack thereof, and James Dean’s Cal is eerily similar to the guilt-ridden, emotional Terry Malloy (Marlon Brandon) of On the Waterfront.  Both characters are created from a blend of script and improvisation, and both wear their emotions on their sleeves.

The film has a lasting impact, but it doesn’t seem so much to be because of its connection to Kazan or Steinbeck.  Kazan’s most well-known films are probably On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, while Steinbeck’s novel, at the time of the film’s release, wasn’t particularly well-received.  Instead, the “lasting legacy is as one of three major James Dean films. Like its source material, the film was a financial success but received a mixed critical reception. Dean’s performance was particularly polarizing. While he received a posthumous Oscar nomination for the film, his performance was often criticized as overly affected. Even Kazan said Dean lacked technique… East of Eden was a hit largely due to the public’s reception of Dean. The 1950s was the age of the teenager and Dean was an icon of their rebellion. While some considered his act corny, it seemed authentic to many youths.”

The James Dean we see in this film is nothing like the cool and collected figure I’d anticipated upon my initial viewing.  He’s handsome, sure, but he’s so sad and submissive and occasionally a little too humored by his own wit.  He’s like a golden retriever puppy.

This makes his character easy to root for, but if anything you probably just feel bad for him.  He doesn’t inspire us to admire or love him, just to hope the people around him aren’t too mean.  He’s sensitive yet oddly capable considering he does make a good amount of money off a smart bet, and this dichotomy presents him as both a child (like at the parade for the soldiers marching off to war) and as a shrewd old man with enough foresight to benefit financially off of the coming war.

East of Eden really is quite the melodrama.  It’s a movie with a few heartwarming and heart-wrenching scenes (if Dean’s “overly affected” performance doesn’t bother you), but it’s also a movie that mike make your eyes roll.  In some ways it feels a little full of itself.  The film opens, after a lengthy overture, with text that announces the separation between Salinas and Monterey, as if setting up the warring families of the Capulets and Montagues.  Salines, we’re told, is a meager farming town in contrast to Monterey’s lavish, seaside wealth.

This is important when we learn that Cal’s mother lives in Monterey while he lives in Salines, but otherwise it seems unimportant.  The film insists on establishing this in the way of a Greek tragedy and, later, as a biblical tragedy.  This is important, we’re told, and the rest of the film doesn’t try to convince us to empathize with its characters, it assumes we already will.

I suppose this is very subjective, but I found On the Waterfront‘s Terry Malloy much more compelling.  We watch his entire journey, starting with the event that will fill him with guilt until he finally atones for his behavior.  In East of Eden, Cal is already shoved aside.  His transgressions, we come to learn, have accumulated over years before the film begins.  The film tells us about Cal’s maligned position within the family as opposed to showing it to us.

Maybe Kazan had too much free reign with this film, or maybe it’s better than I give it credit for.  It’s full of a few amazing moments, but the story insists we catch up to Cal and Aron at the end of their story.  It’s like if you sprinted a mile to catch up to a few friends who are in the middle of a passionate fight.  Then one punches the other who leaves, and the first one starts crying.  Between breaths you ask, “what the hell happened?”

East of Eden is more important symbolically than as a literal story about these characters.  Cal represents Cain and Aron represents Abel while their father, Adam is Adam of Adam & Eve fame.  It’s a story that I guess is considered so important (possibly because Kazan revered his friend Steinbeck’s work so much) that it skips a lot of the leg work.  We’re not encouraged to follow along with these characters, we’re just told to.

Or maybe I’m not giving the film enough credit.  Up until about ten minutes ago I thought East of Eden was a good film, but writing about it I realize how uninterested I was in the story, at least compared to On the Waterfront.  It’s an admirable picture, it’s beautifully-shot, and the acting is at least passionate, but what I like most is the story behind the making of the film.

Actually, I will say that Dean truly embodies the spirit of Cal’s character.  Every shot of the young actor makes him as though he’s carrying the weight of the world.  So East of Eden is worth seeing just for Dean’s performance.

Up Next: Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Wings of Desire (1987), Sideways (2004)

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