Friday, August 19, 2016

East of Eden (1955)

USA, 115 minutes
Director: Elia Kazan
Writers: John Steinbeck, Paul Osborn
Photography: Ted D. McCord
Music: Leonard Rosenman
Editor: Owen Marks
Cast: James Dean, Raymond Massey, Jo Van Fleet, Julie Harris, Dick Davalos, Burl Ives, Albert Dekker, Barbara Baxley, Harold Gordon

It's probably not possible to overstate the self-importance of East of Eden. It's less than two hours, with no intermission, but somehow merits an overture, pounding away on Leonard Rosenman's swelling theme, which appears throughout the picture, including characters randomly humming it. The story makes heavy-handed and obvious references to the Bible, Freud, and Marx, occasionally juggling all three at once like a circus clown. And the humor is sparing, if it's there at all. It's also the debut of James Dean, pushing method acting front and center in this hothouse Oedipal tale of fraught family relations.

Yet it works—another masterpiece by director Elia Kazan and one of the most powerful movies made about all the very many issues it wants to get to, clutching at them furiously like some beast in a bathrobe bursting into Walmart at 5 a.m. for the sale: sin, redemption, father love, mother love, brother love, capital, labor relations, war and profiteering, immigration tension (against German-Americans, as this is set in World War I times), greed, honor, lust, and other mortal sins, plus the wages of corrosive bitterness. The real miracle is that it does work.

James Dean has a lot to do with it. It's my favorite movie with him (the only one he actually saw released before his death, out of an amazing grand total of three). "Mesmerizing" is a cliché term but it applies. He's so strange and mercurial the way he moves, and the expressions that sweep across his face, it's really hard to watch anything but him any time he's in the frame. He was reportedly hard to work with because he was so unpredictable about how he approached his scenes from take to take, and there's a certain inconsistency to the performance that's probably a function of that restless spirit. But when he catches a moment, and he catches a good many, it's unforgettable, from the way he says the word "pain" in one scene, to his hunched-over closed-in coiled tension, to the way he can loosen suddenly and almost seem to float. It's truly remarkable, a case where for once the reality lives up to the legend.

But there's more. This is a story of oppositions and dualities, pairings and match-ups—endless, nested, recalcitrant head-to-head forces. Between Monterey, California, and Salinas, California, out of the John Steinbeck novel of the same name, which provides the source material (the novel actually has a much bigger story, the movie representing just the last third of it). Between brother and brother—Cal (James Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos), who are obvious analogues for Cain and Abel (indeed, "east of Eden" is from a Bible verse telling their story). Between father Adam (Raymond Massey)—yes, they went there with his name—and mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet with the only performance that matches Dean's). Between father and son, between mother and son, between mother and the other son (Aron). And beyond the claustrophobic world of this family: Between capital and labor. Between progress and profit. Between morality and immorality, here reduced to the barely coherent "good" and "bad."

I don't know the Steinbeck novel, so I'm just guessing that he's responsible for the satisfying complexities of the story. It's possible the credit goes to screenwriter Paul Osborn, who at least has compressed a good many strands of narrative into a swift-moving tale that just gains momentum as it goes. I'll try to give some sense: Aron is the good son. Cal, forever hungry for his father's love, is thus stuck being the bad son. The father Adam is a religious prig. The mother Kate left him years earlier. He thinks she has moved back East and tells his sons she is dead. She is actually living in the next town over, Monterey, operating a brothel, which Cal figures out. Meanwhile, the father loses all his money on a business venture because he wants to contribute to progress. Cal, motivated always to try to win his love, secretly works to make the money back for him by borrowing money from his mother to speculate financially (which incidentally leads to the ruination of a farmer).

At which point Kate continues the plot summary with one of the best speeches in the movie: "You want $5,000 of my money to go into business to pay your father back what he lost. You know, that's funny.... Your father. He's the purest man there is, isn't he? He thought he had me all tied up with his purity. And now I give you $5,000 of the money I make to save him his purity. If you don't think that's funny, you'd better not go to college."

The generational divide between Cal and Adam, in a movie set a hundred years ago, reminded me of the generational divide between baby boomers who talked (and believed) peace and love while taking all the big portions for themselves, and the Reagan-influenced Gen-Xers who followed, who are bitter and cynical true believers in the power and wisdom of the market. Cal is not even 20 and he's already shrewd enough to calculate making windfall profits out of the coming war. To Adam, that's just immoral. I'm closer to Adam than Cal on the value judgments all the way through the picture, but I'm always on Cal's side. This movie works a hundred ways and might be worth seeing as often.

Top 20 of 1955
1. East of Eden
2. Pather Panchali
3. This Island Earth
4. The Night of the Hunter
5. Mister Roberts
6. Lola Montes
7. The Seven Year Itch
8. The Phenix City Story
9. Bad Day at Black Rock
10. Blackboard Jungle
11. Ordet
12. The Man With the Golden Arm
13. Night and Fog (32 min.)
14. It's Always Fair Weather
15. Rififi
16. Diabolique
17. Smiles of a Summer Night
18. Rebel Without a Cause
19. The Big Knife
20. I Live in Fear

1 comment:

  1. I haven't seen this in ages but one thing I'd echo here would be how it struck me when I did see it, somewhere in the '80s, as so much better than a lot of movies from the '50s it's often lumped together w/.