“In northern California, the Santa Lucia Mountains, dark and brooding, stand like a wall between the peaceful agricultural town of Salinas and the rough-and-tumble fishing port of Monterey, fifteen miles away It’s 1917 just outside of Monterey.”
James Dean was somewhat of a brief candle. Very much like Marylin Monroe, he came upon Hollywood so bright and hot only to burn for a short time. And while Norma Jean had a few good years in which to shine, Dean would have less than a handful. In those few years he made three incredible films. His last was Giant, and before that was perhaps his best known, Rebel Without A Cause. East Of Eden was the first of this trilogy of films that would pretty much make up the career of James Dean. All three films were made in the years 1955-1956, and just as suddenly as Dean had come upon the scene, billed as the next Marlon Brando, he was gone. One car ride into eternity and it was all over just as it had begun: Explosive and brief. Through Warner Brothers 100 years of movies restoration and release celebration, we have already seen and reviewed Giant and Rebel Without A Cause. Now the trilogy is complete in the place where it began: Elia Kazan’s masterpiece, East Of Eden.
Based on John Steinbeck’s classic novel, James Dean plays Cal Trask. Cal is the perfect character for Dean. He’s a young man who doesn’t quite know who he is. He loves his father, Adam Trask, played by Raymond Massey, but feels that his father’s love and approval are only for his brother Aaron, played by Richard Davalos. All of his short life he’s been told that his mother has been dead. His father raised the boys on his own as a farmer who was always looking for the next modern innovation that would make farming profitable again. This time it’s refrigeration. He heard tell of a mastodon that was discovered in the ice in Siberia, and after 10,000 years the meat was still edible. He decides that cooling foods down would help them survive the long railroad rides to big cities like New York. He collects enough ice and lettuce to try his idea, but he invests everything he has in the venture. It fails, but Cal is amazed at how well his father took the loss, still believing in the idea. But in a bar a terrible secret had been revealed to Cal. He was told his mother was alive and living in Monterey as a madam. He starts to follow the woman to get her to talk to him, but she doesn’t know who he is or what he wants and becomes emotionally disturbed by his attentions. Finally she relents and talks to learn he is her son. And it turns out, he does want something.
Cal has felt bad for his father’s losses and is determined to earn it back for him. He wants to borrow $5,000 so he can invest with another man in beans. It’s 1917, and it’s widely believed America will soon enter the World War. If they do, beans will be sought after, because they can be shipped without spoilage. He gets the money, and sure enough America enters the war, and he makes a good profit. Along the way he has somewhat befriended his brother’s fiancée, Abra, played by Julie Harris. Their relationship flirts with the edges of propriety, and she feels for Cal because she relates to his desire to know who he is. But it creates conflict between the brothers and more hostility for Cal.
It’s Father’s birthday, and Cal decides to throw him a party. It’s the perfect day to give him the money he earned to make up his father’s losses. Aron’s gift is his engagement announcement, which Adam describes as the best thing he could ever get for a present. When Cal presents him with the money, his reaction is anger. He has been part of the local draft board and has seen many local boys killed that he sent to war. He’s mortified that Cal would profit off the war and that he expects his father to accept what he considers blood money. Cal reacts cruelly and reveals their mother to Aron, who is so devastated that he sets off to enlist in the army, the shock of which gives Adam Trask a stroke. Faced with the consequences of his cruelty, Cal is sorry, and with Abra’s help finds a kind of redemption at his father’s bedside.
James Dean played these lost-youth roles wonderfully. He was born to them, and his ability to sell such complex emotions with his facial expressions and body movements were natural, and it showed on the screen powerfully. James Dean was one of those compelling actors that you really can’t look away from. While this may not be his best of the three, I think it’s the most underrated, and certainly better that Giant. His chemistry with all of these actors is nothing short of brilliant. Underused is Burl Ives as the town sheriff, who also tries to be somewhat of a mentor to the young boy. I would have liked to see more of that relationship, but the film is already a lengthy one, and I don’t think you could squeeze more story into the package.
This was Dean’s first real feature film, and it’s easy to see what the buzz was all about. This was only Julie Harris’s second film, and it’s just as easy to understand the long career she had following the film. Their chemistry was exceptional here, and the two of them truly carried all of the emotional weight of the film’s heavy narrative.
The film centers a lot around Adam Trask’s earnestness with his Bible. Both sons were named from Biblical characters, and the family had regular Bible readings. The story itself is the tale of Cain and Able, with the title tipping us off from the start. According to the Bible, once Cain had killed his brother, he was exiled to the Land of Nod, which was described as being just east of Eden. It’s only the last 600 pages or so of the novel that is depicted in the film, and there are significant changes, to be sure. The most notable is the absence of Lee, a servant in the Trask household.
Kazan cast the film well, and I’m sure he also saw a bit of Brando in the young actor. He should know having directed that master thespian in A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront, both considered some of Brando’s best work. It’s easy to see why he was drawn to Dean.
The music for this film was created somewhat backwards from the way it’s usually done. Kazan had a sharp ear for how music can influence the emotional beats and wanted the film to have a bit of a musical flow, so he instructed composer Leanard Rosenman to compose key sequences before they were shot and then staged and filmed the action to the pre-composed music. It was a novel idea, and there are certainly moments where I can see that that might have been done. Both Rosenman and Kazan were no strangers to innovation, and I suspect they may have caught some heat for the methods, but who can argue with the results? It was rich in Oscar nominations, but that was also the year of Ernest Borgnine’s Marty, which was the darling of that Oscar season.
East Of Eden is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.55:1. The ultra-high-definition image presentation is arrived at with an HEVC codec at an average of 60 mbps. The film was shot on 35mm so is native 4K. There has also been extensive restoration here, and it shows. The aspect ratio was a bit awkward, as Cinemascope hadn’t really been available for very long. It was still in the experimental stages, and you can tell from some of the framing that Kazan and cinematographer McCord weren’t exactly comfortable with the format, but none of this is glaring. But there will be moments that the material looks stretched or just not quite natural-looking. This isn’t a defect in the transfer, the restoration, or the disc. It’s what the film always was. The HDR offers stronger contrast that really shows in the carnival scenes. There are other moody examples where the improved contrast, and blacks offered finer detail and shadow definition. Colors also get a boost, particularly the parade scenes with the colorful costumes. There are moments right before scene changes where I noticed a very quick crude frame or two and then a sudden reset. These might have been reel changes and missed during the restoration.
The Dolby Atmos audio presentation defaults to 7.1, but it’s not really necessary at all. Yes, the film is fuller with a somewhat enhanced sub response, but it’s the dialog and that wonderful Rosenman score that are really served here, and they are served well indeed. Still, I’m not sure I like the surround elements even if they are more for nuance. Fortunately the original 2.0 mono mix is available if you want to return to the film’s original presentation.
There are no extras here, and there is no Blu-ray copy of the film.
I have to say I’m loving this 100 celebration happening over at Warner Brothers. I am a fan of film. As much as I look forward to new releases every year, I am just as thrilled when an old classic comes my way with the improvements of the modern home theatre. Don’t get me wrong. The movies are an experience I hope never goes away, and it would be great to revisit these classics on the big screen, but this is the next best thing. These aren’t films that can be appreciated in restoration on your phone or tablet. Streaming doesn’t deliver the same bitrate that you get here. This release is exactly why so many of us still maintain home theatres and spend time with physical media. There’s room for all of these ways to consume a film, but sometimes it’s nice to still have a choice. “Man has a choice, and it’s a choice that makes him a man.”