EAST OF EDEN
Director: Elia Kazan
Production: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. and First National; Technicolor (Warnercolor), 35mm, CinemaScope; running time: 115 minutes; length: 3415 meters. Released 9 April 1955, New York.
Producer: Elia Kazan; screenplay: Paul Osborn; dialogue: Guy Tomajean, from the novel by John Steinbeck; photography: Ted McCord; editor: Owen Marks; sound engineer: Stanley Jones; art directors: James Basevi and Malcolm Bert; music: Leonard Rosenman; costume designer: Anna Hill Johnstone.
Cast: James Dean ( Cal Trask ); Julie Harris ( Abra ); Raymond Massey ( Adam Trask ); Richard Davalos ( Aron Trask ); Jo Van Fleet ( Kate ); Burl Ives ( Sam Cooper, the Sheriff ); Albert Dekker ( Will Hamilton ); Lois Smith ( Ann ); Harold Gordon ( Mr. Albrecht ); Timothy Carey ( Joe ); Mario Siletti ( Piscora ); Roy Turner ( Lonny Chapman ); Nick Dennis ( Rantany ).
Awards: Cannes Film Festival, Prix du Film Dramatique, 1955; Oscar, Best Supporting Actress (Van Fleet), 1955.
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* * *
If East of Eden were remembered only for introducing to the screen its legendary star, James Dean, its place in film history would be assured. As it is, however, the techniques developed by the director to capture and translate the actor's performance most effectively within a widescreen format also lend the film the artistic distinction of being one of the first serious attempts at a creative use of CinemaScope. Elia Kazan's bag of stylistic tricks, regarded by many critics as technical abnormalities, consisted of such devices as canting the camera to distort angles, use of swinging pans to sustain a sense of movement in stagy scenes, unusually moody lighting effects, horizontal pans, and experiments with soft focus lenses. Through these techniques, the director used his camera to accompany his actors' performances, effectively and imaginatively enhancing their work. At the same time, he effected a visual impression of continuous movement while constantly redirecting the viewer's attention to the appropriate area of the screen, maximizing the dramatic advantages of its vast expanse. The resulting effect is an amplification of the film's symbolic motifs through their placement in shifting but visually highlighted contexts.
In a sense, the effective translation of East of Eden to the large screen required a visual equivalent to the acting method pioneered by the Actors Studio, of which Kazan was a co-founder. Drawing on his own "emotional memory," the actor recalls feelings comparable to those experienced by a fictional character. A number of Kazan's actors, particularly Dean and Marlon Brando (in A Streetcar Named Desire ), were practitioners of "the Method," which required a considerable degree of adaptation in terms of the cinematography. Through Kazan's visual style in East of Eden , the camera, in a manner similar to that used in the German Expressionist films of the 1920s, reflects the psychological aspects of the characters under its scrutiny. For example, the story, a modern version of the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel, centers on the relationship between a father and his two sons. Its point of view is that of the youngest son Cal who, like his Biblical counterpart Cain, performs certain acts that are subject to at least two interpretations. Viewed simplistically, they can, in the case of both characters, be seen as the vile deeds of an inherently evil son. Yet, through Dean's eccentric interpretation, the modern boy can also be recognized as a psychologically complex, insecure child who is starved for parental love. In scenes in which Cal appears with his father Adam (Raymond Massey), Kazan tilts the camera to dramatically characterize both figures as being in an essentially aberrant, distorted relationship. Both actor and camera combine to place the character's actions within an abnormal family context and reveal Cal's actions to be those of a boy consumed by an overwhelming need to win his father's approval. It is significant that the angle of vision is most distorted in the scene in which Adam refuses his son's heartfelt but slightly tainted gift of money. Adam cannot look beneth the surface of the act to assess its meaning in terms of their relationship.
Interspersed throughout the film are long, almost theatrical scenes, indicative of the director's stage experience, which provide the film with its thematic unity as ideas are raised which will later result in violent confrontations. Even in these scenes, there is a constant sense of movement expressed through the use of settings such as a Ferris wheel or swing. Additional coherence is provided by the film's glimpse of the plight of California's immigrant population, a subject close to Kazan's heart. Some scholarship makes a case for East of Eden as the first in a series of Kazan films which examine various psychological and sociological aspects of the immigrant experience, a series continued by Wild River, America, America and The Arrangement .
—Stephen L. Hanson