Raw and Rare

What a world we live. We have more than enough of our shares of sequels, remakes, and endless copies of formulaic movies (and I’m not referring to movie piracy). And then there are rare things like a winning lotto ticket and a James Dean movie. Only three of the latter are in existence and I’ve already seen two. As much I liked him in his iconic role in “Rebel Without a Cause,” the movie “East of Eden,” adapted from John Steinbeck’s novel, is better due to its epic scope and more raw quality.

The film’s story, set in 1917 at a time just before the US entry into World War I, starts with Cal Trask (James Dean), a tormented loner who follows (stalks?) a steely woman, who’s strangely wrapped in black apparel under the California sun. When she arrives home, she reports Cal, who, at that point, starts to throw stones at her house. Eventually, he is turned away with a despised message to the woman in black: “You tell her – I hate her.” Cal heads home; rides atop a train car from Monterey Bay to Salinas Valley. There, he joins his well-behaved twin brother Aron (Richard Davalos) and his brother’s sweetheart (Julie Harris). Cal asks Aron if their stern and self-righteous father (Raymond Massey) is mad at him for not coming home from the night before. Indeed, he is, though not entirely shocked. He expects his son, whom he treats as never good enough, to be up to no good.

I can locate three great attractions in “East of Eden:” James Dean, the direction, and the story. Of the three, the main draw is James Dean’s performance, in his first starring role. Dean approaches Brando territory; he has a magnetic screen presence and the courage to express very raw emotions. I’m sure this acting was enhanced in the hands of its director, Elia Kazan (same guy who directed Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront”). Kazan, like Mike Leigh of “Secrets & lies” and ‘Vera Drake,” has a gift of extracting powerful performances from his actors, given the right material. And the material in “East of Eden” is a well-entangled yarn of drama about family, love, and a sense of place in the world. It is so good that I intend to read that thick Steinbeck novel. For me, to read a novel, for which a movie I have seen is based upon, is as rare as a winning lotto ticket and a James Dean movie.

Grade: A

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