Saturday, July 11, 2009

Target #277: East of Eden (1955, Elia Kazan)

TSPDT placing: #583
Directed by: Elia Kazan
Written by: John Steinbeck (novel), Paul Osborn (screenplay)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

I haven't read John Steinbeck's novel "East of Eden," but I'm familiar with enough of the author's work to know that he wasn't a "glass half-full" kind of man. Steinbeck's characters appear to persist despite their misery, devoid of hope and comfort, and persevering out of sheer bloody-mindedness. This potentially poses a problem, because Hollywood has traditionally taken the stance that it is optimism, not pessimism, that sells tickets. This clash of sensibilities is seen readily enough in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), in which John Ford's assurance in the hardiness of American families sits at odds with Steinbeck's stark brand of realism. Nevertheless, Elia Kazan was an ideal candidate to adapt the 1952 novel "East of Eden," having already dealt with unflinching dramatic themes of family and societal conflict in the films A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954). The pair had collaborated previously, with Steinbeck writing the screenplay for Kazan's Mexican Revolution biopic Viva Zapata! (1952), starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn.

Whereas A Streetcar Named Desire had been a completely stage-bound film, owing to origins on Broadway, East of Eden (1955) allowed Kazan to spread his cinematic wings, so to speak. Steinbeck had intended his novel, in part, as a tribute to the Salinas Valley in Northern California, and so location is everything. Cinematographer Ted McCord captures the setting in lush WarnerColor, the fertile green fields consciously opposed to the bleak inner conflict raging inside the heart of the film's protagonist. Despite being visually impressive, it is – as in all Kazan pictures – the director's genius for working with actors that really shines through. James Dean, in his major picture debut (and the first of only three lead roles), delivers one of the most heartbreakingly tragic performances I've ever seen. His Cal, the Biblical Cain to Richard Davalos' Abel, has endured a life without love, every misguided bid for his father's (Raymond Massey) approval met with indifference or remonstration, as though only to cement his self-belief that he is inherently "bad."

In adapting "East of Eden," another director might have aimed for sheer scope, winding up with something not unlike Gone with the Wind (1939) or Duel in the Sun (1946). Instead, Kazan plays his strengths, and it's a telling sign that the film's most powerful moments unfold, not in the outside environments that McCord captures so well, but between four walls – inside homes, sheds, and brothels. Dean's character skulks mousily in the corners, fearful about making eye contact, as his articulate, proper brother Aron makes unconsciously-condescending remarks, perpetuating roles that have been drummed into both since childhood. Only Aron's sweetheart Abra (Julie Harris) understands Cal's torment at the hands of his cold, naive family members, but by then it may already be too late to same him. At under two hours, East of Eden perhaps doesn't explore its characters and their motivations as fully as it might have – for example, Aron's metaphorical "slaying" at his brother's hand isn't give enough exposition – but nonetheless stands as a beautiful and astonishingly powerful piece of storytelling.

Currently my #7 film of 1955:
1) Du rififi chez les hommes {Rififi} (Jules Dassin)
2) The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick)
3) Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges)
4) Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich)
5) Mr. Arkadin {Confidential Report} (Orson Welles)
6) The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis)
7) East of Eden (Elia Kazan)
8) Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
9) Nuit et brouillard {Night and Fog} (Alain Resnais)
10) Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)

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