East of Eden is a 1955 film directed by Elia Kazan and is the first of the three films James Dean starred in during his short career. The film is based on the John Steinbeck novel of the same name, focusing on just one portion of the epic story: a family in the California town of Salinas in 1917, right on the cusp of American involvement in World War I.
Cal Trask (James Dean), is the troubled son of a successful farmer who believes his father only cares for his brother, Aron (Richard Davalos). Cal’s rebellious actions are only furthered by the discovery that his mother, who he previously believed to be dead, runs a brothel in the next town over. After a failed business venture by his father that costs him most of his money, Cal sets up his own venture in an attempt to win his father’s affection. Cal’s life becomes even more complicated when he begins to take a liking to Aron’s girlfriend, Abra (Julie Harris).
East of Eden is a fantastic film. It has an impeccably crafted story by Steinbeck and pristine directing by Elia Kazan, the masterful filmmaker of A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. The film is photographed beautifully, the writing and dialogue are exceptional, and the themes are important, including an especially interesting one of racial tensions and anti-German discrimination. But the main element that elevates this movie to another level is the peerless performance by the masterful James Dean. Cal Trask is a character of incredible depth and complexity, with a lot of emotional vulnerability required. Coming out of the wave of method actors of the 50s that included Marlon Brando, Dean plays this character expertly. He captures the young, teenage angst of Cal perfectly and communicates it with such skill with his odd, physical and fluid way of displaying anger, sadness or any other emotions he has in his impressive arsenal.
Considering East of Eden is James Dean’s first major film role, his performance is doubly impressive. This is truly one of the films where no other actor can be imagined playing the role. The power of a masterful performance cannot be understated, and could be the key to turning a good movie into a great movie. By no means would this movie be bad without Dean, but it would definitely not be as iconic. East of Eden is worth watching solely for Dean’s performance, which is really something to behold, but the other aspects should not be forgotten.