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East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden (1955)

Movie review

Based on the novel by John Steinbeck and directed by Elia Kazan, East of Eden still packs a powerful punch more than 50 years after its release. I personally rank it among the 10 greatest American movies ever made. The film draws from the biblical story of Cain and Abel. The setting is Salinas, an agricultural town in northern California and takes place in 1917 shortly before the US enters WWI.

Cal (Caleb) and Aron Trask are the twin sons of lettuce farmer, Adam Trask. This was James Dean’s first film and to my mind his most powerful performance. It’s also the only one of his 3 films to have been released before his untimely death.

Cal (James Dean) is presented as Cain, the “bad” son desperate for his father’s elusive approval while Aron (Richard Davalos) as Abel is the priggish, favored one. Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) is the bible quoting, self-righteous father who regularly finds fault with Cal. It’s not that Adam is an abusive parent or a cold, hypocritical bible thumper. On the contrary, he is actually a very kind, and decent human being who loves and cares for both his sons. But his personal code of morality and scruples is so rigid that there’s no room for human foibles and imperfections. Likewise, Cal isn’t bad but rather an emotionally bruised, and confused young man craving the affection and approval his brother Aron receives from both their father as well as his girlfriend, Abra (Julie Harris) on whom Cal also has a crush. Ironically, it’s Abra who recognizes the source of much of Cal’s inexplicable (to Adam and Aron) behavior.

As the film opens we see Cal in Monterey, a rough fishing town adjacent to Salinas. He’s following at a distance a mysterious woman dressed in black who’s wearing a veil as she goes to the bank and makes a large deposit. He then follows her back to her house. We see she is a brothel madam and later learn she is Cal and Aron’s mother (Jo Van Fleet in an Oscar winning performance). A mother they had always believed to be dead as told to them by their father. Cal confronts his father informing him that he knows his mother is not dead but doesn’t tell him she runs a bordello in the next town upon realizing his father has no idea what became of her after she left them. He doesn’t tell Aron either upon his father’s request.

When the lettuce that Adam has placed in ice (to preserve fresh) on an east bound train to New York spoils as a result of the ice melting before it’s even left California, he is practically ruined. Cal then decides to recover his father’s lost money by investing in beans knowing that prices will go up if the US enters the war. Cal, however, first needs $5000 to invest in this venture, which he doesn’t have of course. He borrows the money from his mother.

The US soon enters the war and Cal’s profits more than recover his investment. Adam and Aron, however, are strongly against US involvement in the war.

At Adam’s birthday party Aron’s present to his father is announcing his engagement to Abra, news which the father joyously receives. Cal’s gift or rather his painful attempt to buy his father’s approval is the proceeds from his bean investment. Adam refuses it as war profiteering. This scene is perhaps James Dean’s most harrowing and raw performance. To this day that scene can still make my eyes well up with tears. It is rumored that Dean went off script here when he throws himself upon a bewildered Massey trying to hug him with the money splayed out in his hands. The scene is just heartbreaking.

After this rejection something finally breaks inside Cal and now he really will do something bad. No, he won’t kill his favored brother, Aron, with the jawbone of an ass. He will kill him with the truth.

Cal takes Aron to the cathouse run by their mother, who on this particular night is looking rather drunk and slatternly. He pushes Aron onto their mother while saying “Mother, this is your other son Aron. Aron is everything that’s good, Mother. Aron, say hello to your Mother.”

When we next see Aron he is drunk and onboard a train for enlisted soldiers going to the war. This is the other scene that is also painful to watch. Adam suffers a paralyzing stroke. Cal has destroyed his family, the people he loves most. He will now leave town a broken man. It’s Abra who asks a bedridden Adam to forgive Cal and not let him leave trying to explain to the old man “It’s awful not to be loved ….makes you mean and violent and cruel.”

Again, I cannot stress enough what a masterful movie East of Eden is. Watching James Dean’s performance alone helped me understand in some part why so many young American males could identify so strongly with him in that post war decade.
To view East of Eden from Amazon Instant Video click the link below

To purchase East of Eden on DVD from either Amazon USA, or Amazon UK click on one of the corresponding links below.


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