Saturday 20 October 2012

Movie Review: East Of Eden (1955)

Smouldering sibling rivalry and clandestine family secrets collide to rearrange destinies in the loose adaptation of John Steinbeck's East Of Eden. James Dean's first major screen role establishes his persona as the troubled but thoughtful outsider influencing others while trying to define his place in the world.

With the Great War raging in Europe, innovative California farmer Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) is dabbling with inventions including refrigeration to try and expand the market for his vegetables. His two sons are Aron (Richard Davalos), who seems to have everything going for him including dedicated girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris), and the outcast Cal (Dean), who doesn't seem to fit anywhere and regularly gets himself into trouble. Aron is the apple of his father's eye, while Cal and Adam can hardly have a civilized conversation.

The mother of the two boys is supposed to have died a long time ago, but Cal suspects something different: he regularly travels on top of the train to the nearby coastal town of Monterey, where the popular local brothel is owned by Kate (Jo Van Fleet). Cal has figured out that Kate is his mother, having walked out on the family. Ironically, once Cal's suspicions about his mother are confirmed, his relationship with his Dad improves. He takes on more responsibility running the farm and starts a side business profiting from the rising price of beans. Cal and Abra also find themselves attracted to each other, and the changing dynamics start to tear the family apart.

A story of tense undercurrents threatening tenuous family ties, East of Eden cleverly upends traditional narrative arcs and sizzles with taut anticipation posed by emotional dangers lurking in Adam Trask's household. Although Cal is going to cause damage one way or another, the fraying starts with his unexpected transformation to relative conformity. Once he sorts through the issue of his mother and finds an internal peace, the real turmoil starts.

James Dean introduces the movie world to the misfit post-war teenager persona, caught between dependence and adulthood, clumsily questioning his surroundings and causing discomfort wherever he goes. Dean dominates the screen whenever he is on it, an assertive presence despite a relative scarcity of words. His scenes opposite Massey, the young and the old clashing despite themselves, serve up luscious unease.

Julie Harris as Abra is Dean's counterpoint, and in a demonstration of cool teen magnetism she detaches from the strait-laced Aron and finds common ground with Cal, the rough edges of enigma irresistible compared to bland predictability. Harris teases out the quiet mischief in Abra with a fine performance.

Director Elia Kazan and cinematographer Ted D. McCord add plenty of visual grandeur with California's landscapes, farmland, and scenes of train transportation allowed to flourish in CinemaScope. The openness of the land is held in contrast to the fragile threads holding the characters together.

Familial relationships never stop evolving, and East Of Eden revelatory emotions accompany the unexpected rewiring of ties that bind.

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