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East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden

The way he looks at you. Sorta like an animal. In 1917 Salinas Cal (James Dean) and Aaron (Richard Davalos) Trask are the sons of decent farmer Adam (Raymond Massey) who is chairman of the local wartime draft board. Both compete for his attention but Cal has discovered that the mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) they were told was long dead is in fact the madam of a whorehouse in Monterey, 15 miles away. He borrows money from her to profit from a rise in the bean farming market intending to repay his father for his failed experiment in freezing food for long-haul shipping.  But his father prefers Aaron’s announcement of his engagement to Abra (Julie Harris) whom Cal starts to desire just as Aaron feels pressure to enlist and Cal decides to surprise him … I’ve been jealous all my life. Jealous, I couldn’t even stand it. Tonight, I even tried to buy your love, but now I don’t want it anymore… I can’t use it anymore. I don’t want any kind of love anymore. It doesn’t pay off. Was there ever a more important or sinuous entrance in the history of cinema than James Dean’s arrival here? The way he moves, coiled like a caged animal set to pounce, slinking along like a cat, then hunched and feral, infiltrating our consciousness and catalysing our puzzlement and desire? I first saw this aged 12 and that’s the perfect age to watch it for the first time, this story of bad parenting, bullying, abandonment, sibling rivalry, envy and first love, all choreographed to the backdrop of the outbreak of WW1 in a masterful adaptation (by Paul Osborn) of the last section of John Steinbeck’s great 1952 novel. Everything about it is right:  the shooting style laying out the gorgeous landscape of Salinas, alternately warm and sunny, chill and foggy; the wide screen that’s barely able to contain the raw emotionality; the marvellous, occasionally strident score by Leonard Rosenman with its soaring, sonorous swoops. And there’s the cast. Jo Van Fleet gives a great performance (in her screen debut) as the wild whoremongering mother  – just look at her strut when we first see her (this is a film of brilliant entrances), providing the angular example of difference to this half-grown boy of hers; Massey is upstanding, a self-righteous, arrogant man, given to sermonising, incapable of leading by empathy; Harris is generous to a fault, allowing Dean to be everything, all at once, boy, man, lover. He burns up the screen with playfulness, confusion and rage. His scenes with Davalos, the Abel to his Cain, bespeak a softness and eroticism rarely equalled and play into the latterday perceptions of his orientation – or perhaps director Elia Kazan just understood how he needed to be in the part, getting into your head by whatever means necessary. Kazan recalled the audience reaction to Dean at the first screening and said that kids were screaming and yelling and practically falling over the balcony to get closer to him, they went wild. That’s how he makes you feel, James Dean. You want to get closer to him. You want to be him. This is really where that sensation began:  of feelings being teased, opened up, acknowledged. Once seen, never forgotten. You’re a likeable kid

About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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