John Steinbeck's classic story draws on the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel, the two warring brothers from the Old Testament, and although Cain doesn't slay Abel in this version of the story, he comes close. Dean brings his emotive Method style to the role of Cal Trask, the "bad" son who must compete with his golden boy brother Aron (Richard Davalos) for the love of their cold, Bible-thumping father Adam (Raymond Massey). Together they work a lettuce farm in central California's fertile Salinas Valley. It's 1917, and World War I is raging overseas.
Aron believes dear old Dad's story that Mrs. Trask (Jo Van Fleet) died long ago, but Cal knows better. Hopping the freight train to town whenever he gets the chance, he spies on the madam who runs the local cathouse. He knows she's his mother, and in his simplistic analysis of family dynamics, he reasons that her fall from grace has predestined his fate. When during one of their many fights, Adam tells Cal "You're bad, through and through, bad," Cal replies, "You're right. I am bad. I knew that for a long time... It's true. Aron's the good one. I guess there's just a certain amount of good and bad you get from your parents, and I just got the bad."
Aron, on the other hand, has the good fortune to fall in love with the beautiful Abra (Julie Harris), whose devotion to him quickly becomes ardent, to say the least. Cal, of course, develops his own crush on her, setting up one of the movie's many brutal conflicts.
When Adam's scheme to refrigerate rail cars to ship his lettuce farther east fails (the ice melts too fast), Cal sees an opening to win -- or perhaps buy -- his father's love. He makes a painful visit to his mother's brothel and gets her to loan him $5,000 so he can set up his own business. Investing in bean futures, he rakes it in when wartime price gouging drives prices up. At Adam's birthday party, Aron delivers the joyful news that he and Abra are engaged. All Cal has to offer is a fistful of money that he hopes will help his father rebuild the family business.
In one of those great movie scenes that stays with you for a lifetime, Adam brutally rejects Cal's gesture, saying "Son -- I'd be happy if you'd give me something like, well, like your brother's given me, something honest and human and good... If you want to give me a present, give me a good life. That's something I could value." Here is Dean's moment to shine. Devastated by the rejection, Cal melts down, and, in a move that allegedly deviated from the script, Cal/Dean hurls himself into his father's arms and breaks down, leaving Adam/Massey with a wonderfully bewildered look on his face and nothing to do but ad lib from the heart. The camera grows crooked, and we're all thrown off balance. It's one of Kazan's finest hours. Legend has it that Massey truly disliked Dean and that Dean kept agitating him on purpose to push both their performances to a higher level. It works.
The hysteria goes to an even more feverish pitch when Cal drags the furious Aron to meet the mother he's never known. She's a drunken, slatternly mess when they arrive, and now it's Aron's turn to melt down. "Mother" Cal says, "this is your other son Aron. Aron is everything that's good, Mother. Aron, say hello to your Mother." Cue the meltdown music!
A quick browse around the Net reveals that when East of Eden was released, the New York Times critic dismissed Dean as "a mass of histrionic gingerbread" and derided the movie for leaving most of Steinbeck's novel out of the screenplay. And while it's true that the performances -- Dean's especially -- are a bit much and Kazan really pushes it with the wild camera angles -- both a Ferris wheel scene and a rope swing scene are vertiginous enough to knock you out of your seat -- the movie is as exciting a drama as you're ever likely to see, and ultimately it's the unforgettable Dean that makes it so.
Six months after the film's release, Dean was dead at 24, and a month after that, Rebel Without a Cause, his second great chance to let his Method shine ("You're tearing me aparrrrrrrrt!!!"), was released, enshrining him in the pop culture pantheon forever.
The new DVD includes commentary from Richard Schickel, deleted scenes, a pair of documentaries, and various archival footage.
Run time: 115 mins
In Theaters: Sunday 10th April 1955
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: Warner Bros. Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 28 Rotten: 4
IMDB: 8.0 / 10
Director: Elia Kazan
Producer: Elia Kazan
Screenwriter: Paul Osborn
Starring: James Dean as Caleb Trask, Julie Harris as Abra, Raymond Massey as Adam Trask, Richard Davalos as Aron Trask, Jo Van Fleet as Kate Trask, Burl Ives as Sam the Sheriff, Albert Dekker as Will Hamilton, Lois Smith as Anne, Harold Gordon as Gustav Albrecht, Nick Dennis as Rantani, Timothy Carey as Joe