Note: The review that follows was written more than two years ago and featured by Amazon US. At that time, it was available only in a VHS format. Fortunately, this superb film is now available in a DVD format. Thank you to those resposible for an overdue but nonethrless most appreciated provision. That said, as for the review itsdelf, I still have the same opinions it expresses.
It has been (hard to believe) 52 years since this film first appeared, in the same year during which Rebel Without a Cause was also released. Both feature James Dean. I have often wondered to what extent his unique and abundant talents as an actor would have developed, had he not perished in a car accident immediately after the filming of Giant had been completed. Of course, we will never know. His was a compelling presence in each of only three films and especially so in East of Eden in the role of Cal Trask.
The basic story is derived from the Biblical account of Cain and Abel. Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) has two sons, both of whom he presumably loves. However, he favors Aron (Dick Davalos) because he (unlike Cal) never says or does anything to irritate him. Aron is "the good son," complete with a girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris) whom his father obviously adores. Of course, Cal feels resentment toward both his father and brother. He desperately wants his father's love. (Later in the film, he even tries to buy it with profits he earns from investments enriched by World War One.) Under Elia Kazan's brilliant direction, tensions build relentlessly to what seems certain to be a tragic conclusion. Feeling rejected by his father, Cal seeks out his mother who left her husband and sons years ago. Kate Trask (Jo Van Fleet) now owns and manages a brothel in another town nearby and has become wealthy. Cal climbs aboard a freight train so that he can visit her frequently. Over time, they develop mutual respect and affection. Finally the climatic moment occurs and then....
The acting throughout the cast (with one exception) is outstanding. Van Fleet received an Academy Award for best actress in a supporting role and Dean was also nominated for the award as best actor in a leading role. Burl Ives and Albert Dekker are noteworthy in their supporting roles. However, Julie Harris (age 30 at that time) seems to me miscast as the teenage Abra. As for Massey, he does the best he can with the role of Adam Trask, recycling elements of his earlier portrayal of John Brown in Sante Fe Trail. Most of Steinbeck's fiction is set in the Monterey area, as is East of Eden. Kazan and his cinematographer, Ted D. McCord, took full advantage of that uncommonly lovely area when shooting various exteriors.
I welcome the DVD version of East of Eden.